One time, a man came in at around quarter past five on a Friday evening, and was seated at booth four in my usual section: Section 2, comprising booths four, five, and six, as well as table fourteen. He came in by himself and slid into his seat, back facing the window. He set his cap down across from him, smoothed his hair, and thanked the Busboy for bringing over a basket of bread, a glass of water, and those rock-hard butter packets that I always wished we kept outside of the cooler in the kitchen so they’d be soft enough to actually use.
After a giving him a few moments to settle in, but not so much time as to make him feel neglected, I went up to booth four and asked if he might be interested in something to drink in addition to water. He ordered a Heineken, which I promptly brought over with a chilled class: a gesture which seemed to take him by pleasant surprise. In the short time it had taken me to fetch his beer, he had decided on ordering a chicken parmesan, side of potato croquette and string beans. He didn’t order an appetizer: a wise move given the size of our portions, and that he had come in by himself. I told my name was Jillian, and to not hesitate to ask me for anything he might like. He smiled, shook my hand, and said it was nice to meet me.
After putting his order in, I noticed his beer glass could have been fuller. I asked if he might fancy another cold one. “Sure,” he said, “sounds nice. Why not on a Friday night, right?” We smiled. “Definitely! It’s always important to treat yourself,” I said, and quickly brought him another, along with a fresh glass— just in case.
Since we weren’t that busy, and I hadn’t seen this man before, I thought it might be nice to strike up a conversation with him. I asked the usual questions, answers to which I genuinely enjoyed hearing from our customers: if he grew up in the area, what it was like when he had been a child, if he had ever come to New Corner before, and if so, what he liked about the place. Stuff like that. He confirmed my suspicions that he was a Bay Ridge native (it’s easy to tell), and explained that he used to come to New Corner more regularly, but hadn’t had the chance to stop by in recent months. “Well,” I said cheerfully, “I’m sure glad you stopped in today! I always enjoy hearing about the restaurant and the neighborhood from people who know it well, like you.” And it was the truth. Then, I filled up his water glass, making sure to avoid letting too many ice cubes slide in from the pitcher.
Chicken parms don’t usually take long to make, and since he wasn’t having an appetizer, I decided to pick up his order from the Chefs after about ten minutes. The parm looked particularly good: paper thin, just the right amount of crisp, and with bubbling mozzarella oozing over the red sauce. Topped off with a sprig of fresh parsley, and framed with the croquette and string beans that were also looking good that day (for a change— those string beans were infamous), I stepped lightly to bring his food out while it was still steaming hot. I brought him a steak knife to more neatly cut the parm, although the butter knife already at the table would have worked just fine. He didn’t ask for the sharper knife, but seemed touched that I brought it over, along with red pepper flakes— just in case.
The man ate quite quickly. Noting his pace, I interrupted his meal only briefly when he was a few bites in to make sure everything was tasting great. “It’s wonderful,” he said. “You guys have the best chicken parms in Brooklyn.” True words. Keeping an eye out for him for the duration of his meal, it seemed that he was truly savoring each bite, like catching up with a friend from childhood. And I was happy for him.
He finished eating within twenty minutes, and when I went to check on him, he was still lingering over that second Heineken, taking small and deliberate sips. He had stacked the silverware neatly on the plate so it would be easy for me to carry back into the kitchen. Thanking him for such sensitivity, I asked if he would like any dessert: “If I may be so bold as to make a recommendation, our homemade Italian cheesecake, homemade tiramisu, and homemade chocolate mousse are all excellent choices, especially if you’re still in the mood to treat yourself!”
Laughing, he said he was all set, and that the check would be just fine when I had the chance. The chicken parm and two beers came to $34 after tax. After a few minutes, so as to not make him feel rushed, I slipped the book onto booth 4 with a gentle pat, and told him to take his time. I meant it.
A few moments later, he had put the book at the edge of the table to indicate that everything was settled. “Keep the change,” he said, with a far-away smile and glassy eyes. “You were wonderful.”
Smiling, genuinely glad to have had such a pleasant and seamless experience with a table, I opened the book. The man had left a $100 bill. Surely, there had been a mistake.
“Sir,” I said gently, returning to his table less than a minute later. “I just wanted to make sure that you were aware of the bill. It only came to $34, and you—”
“No, I want you to have it. I…” Suddenly, the man’s eyes were red, swelling with tears. I paused, reflexively putting my hand to my chest, allowing him to finish while letting him know I was listening.
“I’m sorry,” he said, blotting tears with the napkin now stained with marinara. “This is so embarrassing. I… ”
“No, it’s totally okay. You have no reason to be embarrassed.”
The man choked up, fresh tears ready to fall. “My wife died recently.”
“… I’m so sorry.”
The man regained his composure and smiled, looking down at the table. Then he looked up at me.
“Thank you, dear. I wasn’t expecting this to happen. I just thought it’d be good to get out of the house for a change, come by a neighborhood spot and get some comfort food. And you… you have just been so nice.”
We both now were tearing up.
“Keep the change, dear. It’s yours.”
I quickly got some paper napkins, set them down on the table for him — just in case — and thanked him for everything.
“No, sweetheart, thank you. You really made my week.” He handed me the book, we said a simple goodbye, and by the time I next turned around he had already gone.
The bartender, Mr. B, cashed out our tips at the register behind the bar. “WOWZA, $66 on a $34 check! Nice one, Jillian! What’d you do to pull that off?
Staving off tears, I smiled and shrugged— and with far-away eyes of my own, looked off into the parking lot through the front windows of the restaurant. “Oh, nothing in particular,” I said, not really to Mr. B anymore. “Just good rapport, you know?”