Madeleine Robins

Punching Down

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I saw something the other day that made me really angry, in that “what, were you raised in a woodshed or something?” sort of way. Prolonged, self-involved, privileged rudeness makes me on-beyond-cranky. And as I watched this behavior continue I realized that the perpetrator really had no idea of what he was doing.

I was at a cafe, writing (I have said elsewhere that getting out of the house and away from its distractions is a must for me). There were others there, also working diligently, drinking coffee or nibbling on pastries. I work here frequently enough to know the staff by name; it’s a comfortable little joint.

About half an hour after I get there a man comes in and takes a seat. He’s older than some of the customers, younger than me; wearing a suit, carrying a briefcase (the other occupants are more the beanie-jeans-and-backpack sort). He plugs in his laptop and phone and gets to work. Has a couple of phone calls which he carries on a little too loudly, but that happens.

When he ends a call our waitress goes over to see what he’d like to order. She’s a middle-aged Korean woman, deceptively young looking, petite. Her English is fluent but accented, and her voice is soft. When she asks him what he’d like to order he doesn’t look up, just says “Nothing right now.” A look flashes across the waitress’s face: I think she recognizes that he’s going to be trouble. She asks if perhaps he’s waiting for someone. “No, I just don’t want anything right now,” he snaps. She is barely on his radar, an intrusion. But this is not the library; the price folks pay for taking up space is to buy a beverage or a scone or something. Maybe he missed that bit in the manual? He goes back to his laptop.

The waitress attends to some stuff behind the counter, says hi to a regular who comes in to get a latte to go, busses a table after its occupant leaves. Then she goes back to The Guy and asks if he’s ready to order now. “I told you I don’t want anything,” he snaps. He doesn’t even look up; it’s as if she doesn’t rate eye contact. She asks, quietly, if he will be ordering something soon. The café is filling up, it’s getting close to lunchtime, and he’s taking up a two-top that could have paying customers at it (she doesn’t point this out, but it’s clear to me, at least). “I don’t know,” he says. “Later.” She walks away again.

And ten minutes later she cycles back to The Guy. “May I take your order?” “I’ll let you know when I have an order,” he tells her, in what has now become a really bullying tone. And she says, quietly but firmly, that unless he’s going to order something she’ll have to ask him to leave the table for someone who will be eating.

“What the hell are you talking about? I’m a fucking customer, for Christ’s sake.” He goes off on her, threatens to tell her boss, he’ll order when he’s goddamned fucking ready, back off, etc. I can’t even tell you exactly what he says because it’s nonsense; he’s defending taking a space that he hasn’t paid for, because it’s him, see? Don’t you dare inconvenience me when I’m being selfish.

“We’re a small place, there isn’t much room. It’s not my rule,” she says.

He gets to his feet. He’s a tall guy, not heavy but maybe 8-10 inches taller than she is, and clearly intending to use his height to intimidate. “I’ll order when I’m ready,” he says, looking down at her.

After a minute she shrugs. “Okay. Thank you.” Is it worth her time to argue with him? Probably not.

Meanwhile The Guy sits down and looks around him as if expecting a round of applause. Look how I put that $12.50-an-hour waitress in her place! Look what a big tough guy I am. He gets nothing of the sort from the rest of us. The guy with the reddish stubble and gray beanie was half-way to his feet, ready to intervene, during the last exchange; he’s extra sweet to the waitress when she comes over with his change; I order a second cup of tea, just so I can be a pleasant interaction for her.

Once or twice in the next few minutes I see the waitress look over at the Guy, as if gauging whether to try again. And then The Guy gets a phone call. As I said, he talks too loud. And because he has made himself the center of attention, I, at least, am listening. The person on the other end is Miranda, and from the guy’s point of view, at least, she has the power. His whole tone changes; he becomes–not servile, exactly, but close to.  He keeps trying to get a word in edgewise: “But Miranda… yes, I understand that. But… okay, but…” It goes on for several minutes, Miranda is giving him hell, and he is clearly in a position where he cannot punch up. When the call ends he sits there, jaw clenched. After a few minutes gathers up his laptop and his notes. He looks around the cafe–maybe for the waitress? or to see whether we have witnessed his ignominy–then gets up and leaves.

I did feel a little sorry for him–he’d gone from bully to bullied in the span of ten minutes. It’s easy to feel that this was karmic retribution, but I had no sense that he saw that he’d just received exactly what he’d doled out. In writing fiction, at some point The Guy would realize that he’d been an ass and a bully. In real life, I’m not at all certain that he’ll ever attain that level of self awareness.

I still feel that I should have done something heroic: maybe stood up and told him off (if I must be nearing the senior citizen demographic I should at least be able to use that gravitas as a power for good, right?) or otherwise come to her defense. I told the waitress I was sorry I hadn’t done so. “No, better you didn’t. Bringing someone else in would only make it more complicated.” So it appears I did the right thing, but…

 

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