What small prairie town would be complete without its mom-and-pop café? Known for good home cooking, their menus offer the basics: roast beef dinners with pie and ice cream, burgers with fries, and hot turkey sandwiches on white bread and swimming in gravy. A jukebox in the corner, a long counter with revolving stools covered in red or black vinyl, and a wide array of candies, chips, and cigarettes lined up behind.
The summer after Grade Eight, I was hired to work at the Amaranth Café. A road construction crew had come to the area that summer and stomped in every day for lunch and frequently for supper—not exactly a disinteresting scenario for a teenage girl. Rose ran the bustling little business and taught me how to wait tables, make milk shakes and ice cream cones, and operate an ancient cash register. I learned to distinguish the roast beef from the roast pork and keep the serviette dispensers filled. I remember washing a lot of dishes, sweeping floors, and cleaning ashtrays. The smoking section was the entire place.
I must have done all right, because by mid-summer, Rose was leaving me in charge after the supper rush so she could go to Bingo. At the mature age of 14, I became solely responsible to close at 9:00, sweep, mop, lock up, and put away the cash. Though it boggles my mind now, I never thought about it then. But after my time there ended and I went off to boarding school, I wrote Rose a letter thanking her for the opportunity. I learned a lot, not just about work but about human nature.
One rush hour, I got yelled at and called stupid by a grouchy old customer (in hindsight, he was probably 40) for forgetting to bring bread with his meal. I apologized, served his bread, and blinked back my tears for the next half hour, not having seen enough movies to learn the spiteful things restaurant staff can do to get revenge on nasty patrons. As the construction crew paid their bills and filed out, one of their young and quite handsome members handed me a two-dollar bill and apologized for his mean co-worker’s behavior. Two dollars! Unheard of. Tips at the time were dimes and quarters, not dollars!
Suddenly, my day went from horrible to wonderful.
I never learned that young man’s name, but I learned how much power our words hold—especially over the young. 43 years have passed and I still remember his kindness to me. Never underestimate your own power to make or break someone’s day, and in those moments of frustration and impatience, ask yourself, “what do I want to be remembered for?”
I wrote the date on that two dollar bill and kept it, folded in my wallet, for years as a reminder that we always have a choice to behave rudely or kindly. I would probably still have it if my wallet hadn’t been stolen several years later. But that’s a story for another day.