Correcting Your Behavior Since 2017

Who Had the Thumb?

Well, another week has come and gone. And to my constant utter dismay, people still aren’t behaving as they ought to. And since the stated mission below my blog’s title is “Correcting Your Behavior Since 2017,” it once again falls to me, your Curmudgeon, to shine a light on the rampant and appalling violations of what used to be norms. No matter how many numbskulls sign on for the Faustian deal that falsely offers them an unhindered entitlement to do things however they bloody well please, the idea remains both false and Faustian. There are right and wrong ways of doing things and a price to pay for scorning those rules. Commonly held protocols are the threads in the fabric of our society. Pull them out, and the whole thing unravels like this metaphor just did . . . but leave us press on.

As we watch the foundational basics of etiquette evaporate, dying a slow, creeping death by a thousand cuts, it’s often the smallest of slippages—the ones that sneak in unnoticed (like elected officials publicly using profanity)—that are the most nefarious, because they happen without any sort of marker or comment. It’s as if the correct way of doing things never existed. Today we'll zoom in on just such an erosion.

Like many jobs, that of being a waiter once called for certain basic training. Waiters had to learn how to present themselves to patrons, serve drinks, and carry plates. They were to keep their uniforms clean and themselves well-groomed. And they had to learn a kind of comportment that reflected favorably upon the establishment that employed them, so as to inspire future patronage. It may be hard for this generation to imagine but as a former waiter, I can tell you there was once a great pride in getting all of this right.

These days, it’s not all that rare to encounter a server who seems determined above all to communicate a complete lack of interest in the patron’s desires—even outright hostility. On more than one occasion, I’ve found myself deeply confused, wondering whether the person approaching my table was an employee or a vagrant. Scowling expressions, mumbling speech, and visible self-mutilations such as pierced faces, bizarrely dyed hair, and demonic tattoos are features that once would have once precluded consideration for any type of job at all beyond the world of circus sideshows. Now, we often find such qualities in those employed in the hospitality business, heaven help us.

And since today’s servers are neither trained in nor interested in customer service or any of the other desirable table-waiting skills, no one has told them how to deliver food, and they couldn’t care less.* I could spend time on the attitude of inconvenience and drudgery with which they sometimes put down plates (compared with the former sense of pride and a smile), or the fact that diners are often required to identify their meals as waiters circle the plates around them like luggage on an airport carousel (as juxtaposed with the old days, when the waiter honored patrons by remembering such things), or any number of other sad losses to the art of waiting tables. But we only have so much time together, so let’s talk about thumbs.

Basic food service etiquette demands that one not make physical contact with people’s meals. That seems simple enough. People don’t want someone’s hands in their food. That would seem to be a given. In my day, we learned how to carry plates in such a way as to preserve the untouched-by-human-hands quality that our cuisine and our patrons deserved. But more and more, I’m seeing meals delivered with an extra ingredient: my server’s thumb, stuck right into my salad, sauce, or succotash, so as to better grip the plate which he or she hasn’t been taught to carry properly.

Now, friends, I want you to ponder the level of trust a restaurant visitor is thus asked to place in the personal hygiene habits of his server. We’re asked to assume that this person with his or her thumb in our food washes his or her hands after visits to the rest room, and after touching dirty surfaces, and just before touching our food. We’re also being asked to trust that the current contact—the contact we can see as the plate comes toward us—is the first. Who is to say the waitstaff hasn’t been back there sticking their hands all over our food before bringing it out of the kitchen? Maybe they stuck their noses in there to take a whiff. Why not? There don’t seem to be any rules. If they shamelessly allow us to see an inserted thumb, are we to presume they’ve shown more respect for sanitation when out of our sight?

Some may say I’m being petty. I don’t believe I am. It appears that I don’t suffer from the same amnesia that allows people to erase from their memories the fact that a thumb in a patron’s food was, at a time not so long ago, an absolute, 100% unforgivable sin, a sure indication that one was being served by a barbarian who’d recently been rescued from the wild after being raised by a pack of wild boars and yet somehow managed to get a job as a waiter.

Now, while I’m disinclined to return to an establishment where I’ve been given the thumb, I resist the inclination to complain at the time of the incident. Who knows what they’d do to my food then? I’m beginning to think I’m better off cooking at home. In fact, now that I think of it, there’s a growing case to be made for never leaving my apartment again.

*See “Could You, or Could You Not, Care Less?