The Waiter's Portion


WALT WHITMAN has told greatly how wisdom may become manifest within a man: “Something there is in the float of the sight of things that provokes it out of the soul.” The most provocative of all the things that float before our sight are human beings; and therefore, if a man would acquire the greatest wisdom, he should place himself in some position in life from which he may look calmly and disinterestedly upon a floating continuity of people. He should sell his books and sit down by the wayside, watching people pass. He should leave the plough in the furrow, to follow the human call. The wise men of the world have been men who have made leisure to look on. Whitman, walking week after week from one boundary to another of these states; Dante, toiling up and down a stranger’s stairs; Shakespeare, leaving his bride almost at the altar, to plunge into the surge of the metropolis, — these were seeking a sight of the float of men and women. “The proper study of mankind is man” is much more greatly true than the clever man who said it ever realized.

For these reasons I am serious, not whimsical, when I state that if a man desired earnestly to develop wisdom, he could hardly seek a more provocative position in life than that of a waiter in a metropolitan restaurant. I have often envied waiters. Hour after hour, day after day, they may look and listen calmly while men and women, never twice the same, reveal the secrets of their natures. From what other standpoint in the world could a man survey to more advantage a shifting continuity of people of many ages, many races, many moods ? Consider how much life must float, in a single year, before the sight of a waiter in Martin’s! Consider the variety of people that drift in from Broadway, eddy for a moment, and float on, — the broker, the artist, the society girl, the demi-mondaine, the sport, the gentleman, the chorus blonde, the maiden aunt upon a visit from the country. Consider the faces to be seen, the voices to be heard. Consider the humor, the pathos, the wit, the sentiment, the action, the revery, the tragedy, the farce, that stand suddenly revealed in sentences that are passed across a table-top. And all the while, upon this huge and human panorama, the waiter may look down with the contemplative composure of a god.

There is ample reason, therefore, why waiters should develop wisdom. Some of them do; and if some of them do not, it is not because of lack of opportunity, but merely because of that common source of human failure, an inability to realize the opportunity that presents itself. The waiter’s opportunity for contemplating life is seldom thought about, and needs therefore to be looked at nearly. A multifarious multitude of people float successively before his sight; every hour some new life swims into his ken; but this happy fortune happens also to men of other callings, — car-conductors, floor-walkers, policemen, and reporters, for example.

The waiter’s preëminence of opportunity lies in this, — that he looks on men and women in their mood of most sincere self-revelation. For it is during dinner and that after-hour of easy conversation that a man is most himself. We admit this in our social custom; and to ask a man to dinner is to confess a desire to know him as he really is. At table he will sit revealed; the best and the worst of him will emerge manifest in his manners and his talk; and it is by watching him at dinner that we may take the measure of the man, Boswell knew this somehow ; and the vividness of his biography is due largely to the fact that he often shows us Johnson over food.

“Tell me what you eat and drink and I will tell you what you are,” will do fairly well for a maxim. “Tell me whom you take to dinner with you and I will tell you what you are,” will do even better. And both of these confessions are made simultaneously to the w’aiter. He is thereby given opportunity to learn what many people are. He is given the whole alphabet of man, and may spell out at his leisure the wisdom of the basic human laws. A man’s taste in food, in drink, and in tobacco sits nearer allied to his philosophy and his religion than many people know; and I have often wondered why novelists who try to make us see their hero truly should tell us so little of his dinners and his drinks and his favorite brand among cigars. A Christian Scientist eats otherwise than a Presbyterian: this any waiter could tell you; but the point is not dreamed of in the philosophy of many lookers-on at life. I am quite sure that Carlyle’s waiter could have given us the clue to his dyspeptic outlook upon the roaring world; and that little point of eating pie at breakfast goes far to explain why Emerson was a greater man than his peevish and fulminating friend.

Few of us pause to realize how well our waiters know us. Merely because our half of the world does not know how the other half lives, we do not stop to think that that other half of the world (by which I mean the servants) knows exactly how our half lives. So far as our knowledge of each other is concerned, my waiter has the better of me. He knows the hours when I come and go, and the reasons that dictate them; he knows my taste in food and in companions; he knows my ideas of art and of cigars; he knows that I am fond of rhythm, whiskey, baseball, and the theatre. But of him — his tastes and his beliefs, the things that he is fond of, and the things that he dislikes — I lack the slightest hint of an idea. That silent man, who revolves around me (a satellite to whom I am the planet), subservient yet not obsequious, anticipating my wish half-realized, filling my glass again before I know it empty, understanding better than myself that I really want another cup of coffee, — what does he think of me, I wonder ? I am sure that I am not a hero to him. My friends may think me a marvel of good-nature; but he knows that I grow nettled when my soup is cold. He knows me too well to consider me a hero. There is something sad in this. But is it not more sad to think that he can never be a hero to me, for the tragic reason that I shall never know him at all ? What of his thoughts, his dreams, his loves, and his ambitions ? Very likely he is a greater man than I. He may be capable of patience with the sick, — a heroism I have tried but always failed at. Perhaps in his home he has found the living truth that I have groped for vainly through the darkling years. If I knew as much as he, I should blurt it forth ill-manneredly; but he brings me my salad, speechless, and I may not know what lies within his mind.

It is merely because of the chasm of convention that yawns between the two halves of the world that most of us never learn how many waiters accept their opportunity for wisdom, and grow cunning in the basic truths of life. That is why we are told so little about waiters in our novels and our plays, Mr. Bernard Shaw has flung a bridge across the chasm; and I take it as a prime instance of his perspicacity that he has made the waiter in You Never Can Tell the wisest person in the play. But there are many such waiters in the hotels and restaurants and cafés of New York; and perhaps we should learn something to our advantage (to use the phrase of probate lawyers) if we should ask them their opinions about other things than chops and salad dressing.