“How about… mustard? Mayo? And… lettuce?” As if I’m not sure the woman behind the counter has even heard of them. But of course she has. I’ve been ordering exactly the same sandwich here for just shy of four years. Some people study the menu each time they visit a familiar restaurant, but I order only one selection from any given restaurant. The first time I visit an eatery I figure out which item best suits me, and then lock it in. Because of this, ordering no longer requires thought, which would seem to be of great advantage to the introvert grown wary of human interaction. However, once again there are subtle yet vexing expectations relating to social conduct that foil simplicity. The wait staff isn’t aware that my dialogue is pre-scripted, so for them I must pretend to study the menu every time.
In truth I know what I want for lunch before I tear myself from the restraints each morning. If it weren’t for my deep-seated fear of being brusque, I could deliver my order as I rolled through the front door, and pay the bill accurately before my ass hit the naugehyde booth seat. Instead, out of politeness, I feign thoughtful consideration, punctuated by bouts of almost troubled soul-searching. “Is there sourdough bread here?” Who can know, really?
My self-imposed hesitation stems from my guilt over taking advantage of the service class. That, along with the knowledge that someone’s fingers will soon be touching items that I intend to slide across the back of my tongue. For this I make the extra effort to look the deli lady in the eyes, and to bow after each garnish is acknowledged. See how humble? But it’s all I can do to keep from weeping under the pressure.
Is politeness really politeness when it’s an act? But then again, maybe politeness is always an act–a conscious detour of contrition to offset the inevitable cold interaction. Fair enough: you do a little dance before you make a little love.
But deep down there is a secret battle happening between my self-righteous misanthropic side and my regular stranded-alien-on-this-planet side. “Order them around like slaves,” says the misanthrope. “You are better than they are, and they know it, and you like it.”
I cringe reflexively, and the lady behind the counter thinks I’ve changed my mind about the lettuce. “Oh, no, sorry, I still do want the lettuce.” Bow.
But the misanthrope is on a roll. “That’s right. Now demand the goods, then show her your fist and nod real slow.” Molars clenched, I muzzle the voices.
I aim, always, for a tone somewhere between urbane and supplicant, but it’s a delicate balance. If I think I’ve ordered without enough caution or sensitivity, I will sometimes feign ignorance over how to pay. “Oh, over there? I didn’t even see the register!” Once I even forced myself to trip just to gain sympathy, as if to say, “See? Things really aren’t any better on this side. We are starving, hapless fools, slaves to our own fears of secret superiority.”
I may be over-reacting, but I have yet to find a single razor blade in a sandwich.