Last week, a good man, and someone whom I particularly admired, lost his fight to cancer. Dr. Tom Amlung, a retired veterinarian and former college professor, passed away on Monday, October 22. As I kept thinking of him over the weekend, I remembered that years ago I had written an essay about Tom and his wife, Carol-- it was dated 2003. Perhaps if you read it, you'll recognize the character of Tom Amlung. Simply put, he was honest and kind, and he'd call it like he saw it.
Rest in Peace
Obituary of Dr. Tom Amlung
It is Thursday night, one of the only times I look forward to going to work. It is not because I have only four more shifts until a day off, though that does occur to me. Rather, it is because of the Amlungs.
When people ask me if I like my job, the answer varies by the day, dependent on how tired I am, how many problems I have recently encountered, and how organized the restaurant is running. But if people ask me why I like my job, the answer is always the same: the customers. Of course, this is also why so many people hate it.
But there are those ones, those regulars whom you think of even years after you have quit. they are the ones who have not only let you into their lives, but made you a part of their lives. And with each, the reason varies.
The first job I ever worked was at a Steak n’ Shake in Bloomington, Illinois. There, it was a man named Ralph. He came in each night at five, sat at table 1-1 by the door and ordered the same thing, what we called a “Ralph Special”: a steakburger with no bun, a plate of tomatoes sliced, and cottage cheese. Ralph was older, his family grown and gone, his wife dead for five years when I met him. He had little money, could not drive, and few hobbies. He was a little grumpy and complained each day of whatever he might be reading about in the newspaper. He tipped somewhat appallingly, but when he liked you, he really liked you. And Ralph learned to like me, something that happened at the exact same time I had to stop asking him what he wanted to eat. He would walk in, and I would order his food, and in the few minutes I saved, I would sit with him and we would talk. It was never much-- how I was doing in school, an atrocity that had befallen him that week, how the university football team was doing. It was never much, but it became important to me.
Being a waitress means being anonymous. It is like when someone commits a crime and everyone present identifies them differently, each description bearing no commonalities. Being a waitress is like that: no one see you, and no one hears you. You mostly move unnoticed, and usually speak with little consequence. If asked, few people would even remember you being there at all.
But sometimes in restaurants, like in life, there are those people who see you. And not only do they see you, but they are hooked; they’re fascinated; they’re in. And you come alive. You become a person when before you were just a job. You are no longer performing or simply reacting, but you are participating. And it’s wonderful.
They need you for different reasons. Some, like Ralph, need you because they have no one else, because they need to speak to someone in order to remember that they are still present, that they still have something to say. Some need you to be their confidante, the people who give them advice, perspective, or hold their secrets. And some need you to be their friend, or their family, and treat you accordingly: baking you cookies occasionally, bringing you their extra tickets for the baseball game, giving you a card at Christmas, asking you how your vacation was, or offering help with your resume.
And you need them to remember that you are more than a fast-moving robot, more than a job description, a complaint or a good tip. You need them to remember that you have thoughts and feelings, and things to say. You need them to remember that you are interesting and passionate and motivated. You need them to remember that you have something to offer, something other than another glass of beer.
And that’s why Thursday nights, I wait for five o’clock. I wait for Mr. and Mrs. Amlung to open the door and walk in. Mr. Amlung, a retired veterinarian who now teaches, ambles in, all of his weight supported by his cane. Mrs. Amlung follows behind, smiling, her new haircut making her look younger, young enough that I can imagine what she might have looked like when they met. They see me and smile, and then wave as they walk to their table. They, like a waitress, are also creatures of habit, and their Thursday night ritual is somewhat routine. They come regardless of weather-- six inches of snow, an ice storm, wind or heat. She has a Harp while he drinks a Bass (two to her one), and then they order. They are not interested in specials and usually pick within the same two or three items, though he always asks for extra raw onion, chopped and put on top of anything he has. When she has her second beer, he has a Beamish, and then they sit and talk. Often, between my visits, they make lists and speak earnestly, planning for different things.
We speak of my parents, and over time, they have come to be like a second set, though in a less intimate manner. And we speak of their children, Mrs. Amlung often smiling and saying she hopes her kids speak of her as I speak of my mother (which I imagine they must). They ask me about my endeavors, and I ask about their conferences, vacations, their politics, their hopes.
And then we say good night at 6:45, and I am left waiting for another week to feel so alive. But when people ask me why I do it, why I keep waiting tables, even though I could do other things, I think of them, and all the others I have gathered throughout the years. I think, in other jobs, I would not know the Amlungs, and even if it’s just for a brief period of one shift, in other jobs, I would not feel this alive.