It was long past Miller time as I was wrapping up a nine hour shift that started at 6:30 in the morning. Ready to put on my battered Chuck Taylors, I wanted nothing more than to plop down on the light side of the bar and watch the end of the Pats game. Brady was on point, Belichick was showing no mercy and a second beer was in my near future. It would have been the perfect relaxing after-work scenario had my last customer respected the fact that I was no longer on duty.
Not exactly a frequent flyer, the guy comes in just often enough to presume an intimacy that doesn’t exist. He’s a pleasant sort, but over the years boundaries have evolved that are changing the way I embrace (or not) my customers. Call it learning from my mistakes, or reaching an inevitable level of maturity, but I no longer want to make close personal friends out of my customers.
Granted, some of the best people I know used to sit at my bar 20 years ago. Still believing it to be a simpler time, I didn’t understand the professional and self-protective necessity of not having after-work shift drinks with customers. I laughed at the unenforceable “policy” of no fraternization between guests and staff, thinking the same policy between staff and staff was (and still is) even funnier.
Those days were indeed less complicated. I met my BFF’s husband at Bintliff’s American Cafe months before I met her. Also a Bintliff’s alum, my hair is still being coifed (and now colored) by a woman whose wedding I attended. This same friend is responsible for Number One’s never-ending purple hair phase and encourages all of us to embrace our inner curly girl.
I met doctors to hit up for free medical advice. A happy hour regular from that era still acts as a career consultant for my column expansion pipe dreams. One former customer and I are forever bonded, as I was the first person he met upon moving to Portland. I love and respect him dearly, and he has followed me around from place to place, chastising me for not tending bar at the upscale, polished restaurants he prefers to haunt.
“So. What are your sons’ names again?” this present day customer asked, trying to make conversation beyond the day’s weather report. Intentionally sidestepping the question, I told him I have two daughters and a dog, all of whom are living away from home. Turning the tables, I inquired about his family and his recent foot surgery. The later was not because I remembered he was undergoing such an operation, but because he had a bright orange, velcro-strapped boot on his left foot. For me, it was safe ground to tread, if not difficult for him to hobble.
“Yeah, it still really hurts,” he replied, slurping his double Dewer’s neat. “The sissy pain pills don’t do a thing. In fact, I have an appointment tomorrow and may ask the doc for a different kind.” Thinking he shouldn’t be taking sissy pain pills while drinking scotch, and then driving (especially from where I work), I nodded politely and turned away.
Talking with a young server friend, I discovered I’m not becoming uncharacteristically standoffish without good reason. According to her, making friends with customers isn’t something she, or her cohorts would ever consider.
“Sure, cute guys come in, and I have a lot of regulars who I’m on first name basis with,” she said. “I’d never hang out with them after work because the world is kind of crazy these days. You know, it isn’t that much different from meeting people online. You just don’t know if they’re creepers, stalkers or who they really are.”
Our conversation brought me back to that “simpler time” and to a chitchat I once had with a co-worker about her plans to hitchhike across the country. ”It just isn’t done anymore,” I said way back when. “You never know who’s driving. It could be dangerous.”
While caution is key, that doesn’t mean genuine, professional politeness will ever go out of vogue in hospitality. What it does mean is thinking hard about trust. That, and learning to sit at least one bar stool apart from the boundary breakers.
A while ago, you wrote that Portland was imploding from too many new places, saying there were too many pieces of the restaurant pie. You’re probably right, but I think we are missing a nice, but affordable, Chinese place. What do you think? Hank. T., Portland
Yes, I’d like a new, fresh and inspired “One-from-column-A, One-from-B” Chinese restaurant. More pressing however, is the need for a Jewish-style deli with decadently overstuffed sandwiches. It was exciting when we all thought Full Belly Deli was coming back to town, instead of landing in Westbrook. While we do have some good sandwich opportunities on the peninsula, none quite fill that yummy, schmaltz-laden order.
Natalie Ladd lives in Portland. When not pecking away, she can be found serving the masses at a busy eatery, or tirelessly conducting happy-hour field research. Hospitality questions or comments should be sent to email@example.com, and may be featured in a future column. Follow Natalie on Twitter: @natalieladd.