- What I Learned At . . .
- . . . The Motel Room
- . . . The Health-Food Fast Food Place
- . . . Wrigley
- . . . The Fancy Restaurant
- . . . The Bagel Shop
- . . . The Zombie Fest
- . . . The Concession Stand
- . . . The Golf Course
- . . . The School Grounds
Carl greeted me at the host stand with a menu and a server’s apron. It was 4 p.m. on a Monday, my first shift at a ritzy restaurant on the waterfront in Washington, D.C. “Follow me and do what I do,” he had said, and for a second I was naïve enough to think I could.
Carl was 6 feet, 5 inches tall and built like a linebacker, but his frame was dwarfed by his personality: Banter in deep baritone. Smooth handshakes and elbow grabs. Full, hearty laugh. He appeased management, charmed clientele and somehow broke through the wall to befriend the kitchen staff. The cooks talked only to Carl and to each other, staccato East Asian syllables over kitchen sizzle.
Carl acclimated to every culture I saw him step into. He glided between tables, fluent in conversations with both wealthy politicians and busboys. He found common ground with ambassadors from everywhere, who would come seeking slices of home in a dish and return asking for Carl. He built waitstaff confidence without being patronizing, opening wine bottles for our customers and reminding us to check tables. He’d sell at least three expensive surf ’n’ turfs every shift and effortlessly placate customers whose orders weren’t right. He was magic in a white button-down shirt and black slacks.
I wondered where his life might take him if he weren’t working at the restaurant. I pictured him wearing a suit and giving presentations on stock options to CEOs. Or coaching an NBA team through a tight playoff game. Or giving a TED talk on making instant connections. Successful in any of those scenarios.
Once I drove Carl home to a neighborhood south of the Anacostia River along Metro’s Green Line. He hung his arm out the window, waving and yelling to old men on porches, kids in the alleys, women standing in groups on their lawns. Whole blocks of people knew Carl by name. When he got out, he dropped his voice to a whisper and instructed me to roll my windows up, run the next two stop signs and, no matter what, never turn left. I worried about Carl, but I never felt close enough to tell him so.
Details were missing. Was he married? Never came up. Did he go to college? Didn’t think to ask. Was his family in D.C.? He sidestepped that question every time. I could never even tell how old he was. Late 30s? Early 50s? There wasn’t time to think about any of it — he’d pepper you with questions or bring up something you’d said offhandedly days earlier, surprising you into losing focus. I considered us good friends even after acknowledging the space he manufactured between himself and others, pulling us in before pushing us out.
Carl was a collection of dichotomies. He straddled the worlds of servers and the served, wealth and poverty, connection and admiration, success and underachievement. Personality is the sum of lived experience, and for Carl it was also a balancing act, a skillset he developed both to live in and to escape the world he knew.
Rachel Bené lives in St. Louis and works as an independent grants consultant for local nonprofit organizations. Carl’s name has been changed to protect his identity.