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I had my first waitressing job at 16 years old, working at a small mom-and-pop seafood restaurant along the beach in southern New Hampshire. It might have been small, but this place raked in the dough from tourists who wanted a true New England summertime meal. It was a gold mine for anyone looking to work over the summer.
I had applied to several restaurants and just got lucky that I walked in on the day the staff manager was there and desperately needed summer help. I say "lucky" because I truly was — I had no experience whatsoever waiting tables. I was nervous and clumsy and honestly doubted that I was even capable of learning how to do the job, but I applied and they hired me nonetheless.
About a month into working, I was still fumbling over my words when I greeted my tables, awkwardly interrupting their conversations and making incorrect change. At 16, I wasn't exactly a star student in people skills; I barely even knew how to interact with my peers well quite yet, let alone strangers.
I was so damn nervous and unsure of myself, I once responded to a guest's very kind compliment about my eyes with "Oh, gee, happy birthday!"
I wish I was kidding.
So a very nervous, clumsy me was working on the patio one typical Tuesday afternoon. It was a picture-perfect summer day, with a light breeze and 75-degree weather. I had a table of about six middle-aged locals who were staying in one of their summer homes in the area for a week. One of their summer homes — not their full-time home, their summer home, and one of many. Every one of them looked like they just popped out of a Lilly Pulitzer catalog. They were perfectly nice people, but just seemed to have an air of entitlement around them and sealed within the creases of their J. Crew polos and Vineyard Vines ties. Each time they asked me for something, I felt a pompous sense of pride sneak out from under their breath, like they felt they deserved to be waited on every day all day.
One woman in particular rubbed me the wrong way, with her meticulously manicured hair and straight-off-the-shelf leather Kate Spade purse reluctantly placed on the ground beside her. She sat quietly on her high horse while I waited on her.
Now, I'm not saying her attitude renders her deserving of what was about to happen to her, but it certainly wasn't bringing her any good karma.
As most tourists do, they ordered a few pounds of locally sources steamers for the table. These steamers are served in a styrofoam take-out container because they're boiled and served in water. We're always coached to warn the table how hot the clam water inside is so they don't happen to burn themselves on the steam or the pool of water as they open it.
I approached the table carrying the steamer container in one hand and two martini glasses on a tray in the other.
My shy self was so apprehensive about speaking to them or bothering them at all that I completely forgot about the clam-infused water in the styrofoam. I struggled to keep the martini glasses balanced as I placed them on the table, and as I did, I heard a slight dripping.
I turned my eyes to find the source of the noise. In silent horror I watched as the steamer juice was pouring a steady stream of murky colored clam water directly down — and straight into this woman's beautiful purse on the ground.
I'm not talking a few dribbles that plopped down on the leather outer; I'm talking at least two cups of clam juice just streamlining down inside of her purse.
I was horrified and felt extremely guilty about this accident. I knew how expensive that bag must have been and how I had just ruined the entire thing. I scoured the table intently, looking to meet eyes with any of them, checking for their awareness of what I had just done. However, the woman, lost in conversation, and everyone else at the table for the matter, remained completely oblivious.
I knew I could do one of two things. One: call direct attention to myself by informing her of what I had just accidentally done, followed by profuse apologizes and additional word fumbling (bonus stuttering occurs when I'm really ashamed). I could run back with cloths and soak it up as the entire table mulled over how expensive the bag was and how "gosh darn smelly those steamers are" and how the stench would be impossible to remove. I could endure merciless criticism and sink into their sea of entitlement as they looked down upon me from the S.S. Privileged yatch they sailed so proudly upon.
Or two: I could not say a thing and quietly leave napkins on the table, should she happen to notice a slight dampness in her purse.
I'm not proud of this: My mortified self nonchalantly placed napkins on her end of the table… and didn’t do another damn thing.
As a first-time server, I was completely embarrassed by my clumsiness. I was so nervous about my lack of people and waitressing skills already that this accident shot to hell any confidence I'd mustered up about my capabilities.
Do I regret literally single-handedly destroying this woman’s flawless Kate Spade bag? Absolutely. If I could take it back, I would. Do I regret keeping my lips zipped shut about the entire incident? Not one bit. What more could I do?
If the woman who was forced to wash the clam smell out of her beautiful bag happens to be reading this, please know that I am sorry. But, in my defense, there is no way a 16-year-old waitress could afford to buy you a new designer purse. If I ever do see you riding your high horse in another part of town, I’ll be sure to apologize kindly to you person. (Did you end up finding the napkins? At least I tried.)
And of course, the next round of steamers is on me.