Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Smile, dammit!

Smile when you eat that!

"Why aren't you smiling? Don't you ever smile?" the woman seated across the table accused, piercing me with a rather hostile stare.

My first reaction was to look behind me. Nobody. After all, this woman had not spoken to me all night. My second reaction was WTF? My third was that this was probably something I deserved for not reserving earlier and as a consequence getting seated among total strangers.

After a good fifteen seconds of my best "deer in the headlights" impression, ideas began to emerge. Tactics and suitable responses flashed through my mind. Was she serious? Joking? Mad? Was this a case of HAFS (Hate At First Sight) and was I the target?

"Excuse me? I didn't quite get that," I answered. An attempt to both verify that she was attacking and give her a chance to restate the question in an nicer way.

"I said, 'Don't you ever smile?' Are you a happy person? Are you ever happy?" she blasted. So much for the theory that it was an awkward attempt at conversation rather than some kind of attack.

"I'm not smiling because my mouth is full", I ventured. Just to test the waters. Something neutral, non-agressive. Maybe defuse the situation.

I pondered. Did she have a sense of humor herself? Was she a happy person herself, or merely seeking advice to this elusive state?

"You're not smiling!" she continued. "Are you happy or not?".

"Actually, I find it very hard to smile when a total stranger is attacking me. Not what most people would consider a smile worthy situation, is it?". A warning shot across the bow. Another chance for her to develop some kind of manners.

At this point, the gentleman to her right jumped in, "That's not an attack. That's just a way of starting a conversation." He apparently had a tenuous grasp on the definition for hostile conversation starters.

I thought of more typical openers. Hello, my name is... I'm afraid we weren't introduced. Have you been here before? Do you know the chef? How did you like the cassoulet? What do you think of the new astrological sign? What do you think of raising chinchillas in a hot climate? What do all those doors hanging from chains over there do? Do you prefer solid rocket boosters over mixed liquid propellant and oxidant from a reliability, service and pollution standpoint? Why did they have to kill the linear aerospike?

She left no room for an answer, repeating her basic question insistently.

Silence arrived, permeating the table with quiet tension.

"Well, tell me a joke. If it's funny, I'll laugh."

She frowned.  No joke, funny or otherwise fell from her lips. Not the answer she wanted, apparently. Also a fail on the question about her own sense of humor or lack thereof.

"Aren't you happy? Don't you enjoy your job? Are you always that miserable?" she continued.

"I'd smile if I had a good reason." I answered, fixing her with my best Old West stare, "and this isn't one."

Her companion, who I'll name Blue Shirt, asked what I do for a living. My response - that the answer would be complicated so I'd rather not say - didn't help. I had a reason -  it could potentially escalate the conflict to include the couple seated to my right, since they had just won some kind of free televised landscape based on a list of items that they wanted. So, I said that answering the question would probably lead to more frowns than smiles.

He accused me of being a lawyer. I denied the accusation. I said I'd tell the nice guy next to me, if I was going to tell anyone (he already knew anyway). Blue Shirt figured I was lying, frowned, and left the table.

The woman, tenacious as a starving mosquito in springtime, pursued her happiness question. So I answered if she meant always, sometimes, when  properly medicated...?". None of this elicited even the merest flicker of a smile on her face. Instead, her frown deepened. My HAFS theory gained force.

She refused to develop her question further, choosing instead to remain silent and scowl. Maybe she thought I was serious with my answers. Maybe when I did laugh, she thought I was mocking her. I had no idea.

So, I explained to my left-hand dining partner exactly why I'd leave frowns. It's because if we treated food in restaurants like we treat landscape design, there would be a lot of unhappy diners. Plating would be done by listing objects. By this reasoning, a dish could be peanut butter, chocolate truffles and caviar. No relation between ingredients would need to exist. Yet, this is exactly how landscape design is treated, and throwing it together in a televised rush job only reinforces the trend. Unlike a bad plate, a landscape lasts a long time. Bad meal planning could lead to some wincing and a vow never to return to the offending restaurant. Yet haphazard landscape design, where a collection of things are thrown into a back yard and trimmed out with lawn and shrubs is almost universally accepted.

We talk about sustainable food, local food, slow food, healthy food, organic food. Yet when it comes to landscapes we mow the water-thirsty lawn with two stroke engines that spew pollution. We fertilize them with chemicals that run off into local rivers. We treat them for all manner of blemishes, unleashing even more chemicals into the environment. We don't catch runoff so that it can get back into the soil. Plants are typically selected without thought of their compatibility to our soils and climate. Native plants that provide habitat don't fit into the "always lush and bright green norm" so they're little used. Irrigation systems aren't correctly programmed. We don't think of landscapes as a form of art - although presentation is one of the first things taught in cooking school.

Checks arrived. People prepared to leave. The woman eventually shook my hand, saying "Nice to meet you". I smiled. She didn't. I couldn't help the smile. Blatant hypocrisy always makes me laugh. Blue Shirt never returned. Mustache declined his dessert and left. I learned that he allegedly owns a competing restaurant, with which the smile obsessed woman is also involved. Not a place I want to try after this experience!

I walked over to other tables and talked with friends. We laughed. We smiled. We compared recipes. The evening ended well.

So, if you read all this, you may ask what's the point? The first point is that five people seated around a table probably heard that the woman and her companions are associated with a specific restaurant. I doubt that their opinion of her was favorable, and I'm not so sure about their opinions of her companions. These opinions are now associated with their restaurant. I for one don't want to go there and get dissed by some crazies (again). Another point is that randomly seating people together can lead to stranger situations than one might expect. Lastly, if the food and service are good, the host restaurant still gets a good recommendation despite strange social situations.

I suppose I should add that this is but my recollection of the events and conversation. It's not like I taped all this, although I definitely felt I was in some kind of sitcom.

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