I will never forget that morning. I was the first customer in the restaurant when it opened at 5:00 A.M. As I sat down at a booth I noticed my reflection in the window. I looked like something that had just crawled out from under a rock. It was my last semester in college, and I had stayed up all night working on a midterm project. I was tired and in a terrible mood. All I wanted was my breakfast and some peace and quiet. I decided to pamper myself, so I ordered a huge breakfast of eggs, pancakes, juice, and toast. I knew it was extravagant on my student budget, but I was too exhausted to care. As soon as I had ordered, I noticed a recreational van pull into the parking lot. It was one of those 30-foot monsters, the type you always get stuck behind when going up a long hill. Out jumped an older couple, probably in their sixties. As they walked into the restaurant I could just feel their energy. At a time when I wasn’t even sure my heart was pumping blood, the last thing I needed was to be exposed to the type of optimism they seemed to exert. I shuddered to think that my morning privacy was about to be violated.
There were six booths along the east wall and I had taken the most remote one. I could not understand why the couple chose the booth right next to mine. Irritated, I began a cold, critical analysis of these people in my mind.
The man’s hair was cut short in a crew cut. I was sure he was president of an Elks or Eagles Club somewhere in America’s heartland. He wore nondescript black oxfords with white dress socks, green polyester slacks, and a J. C. Penney’s sport shirt buttoned to the top button. As one would expect, he wore a leather string tie with a gaudy turquoise center piece. I guessed that he had been up since 4:00 A.M., run six miles, sung in the shower, and just couldn’t wait to hit the road. I secretly vowed that I would never, even if my life depended on it, be like that man.
I looked at the Mrs. in amazement as she sat with a road map fastidiously calculating the mileage for the day’s trip. She was a bundle of energy with makeup that didn’t cover the wrinkles, a yellow ‘smiley patch’ on her windbreaker, and an endless stream of conversation.
When they had finished their breakfast and were getting ready to leave, I made my final assessment. Who were they? I imagined he was a retired independent businessman, probably had his own tool-and-die shop in an Indianapolis industrial park. He was no doubt a good Republican, a retired colonel in the National Guard, and had the best-trimmed lawn on the cul-de-sac. She must have served on a thousand PTAs and would consistently have the Christmas shopping done by mid-July. Together, they were a tribute to the virtue of hard work, reaping their rewards as they discovered America in their Winnebago II, I thought sarcastically. They epitomized the kind of smug, self-satisfied materialism that takes good care of itself but ignores the poverty, pain, and sorrow of the rest of the world. Oh, they might give to the United Way or help organize a cancer drive, but I was willing to bet the price of my meal (considerable by my standards) that they wouldn’t recognize a real human need if it walked up and punched them in their middle-class noses.
As they paid their bill, I noticed the lady speak to her husband and then to the waitress. Then, looking a little flustered, the waitress left the register, hurried over to my booth, picked up my check, and returned to the couple. I had no idea what was going on. I felt myself getting angry. What right did these people have to ruin my breakfast? Why didn’t they just quietly leave and let me be?
Finally, they left and I calmed down. A minute later, the waitress returned to my booth and set my check on the table. I didn’t bother to ask what the commotion had been about. I finished my breakfast, picked up the check, and headed for the cash register. Just as I reached the waitress I noticed that my check had “Paid” written across the top. As I began to question the waitress, the Mrs. walked through the door and headed for her booth to get something she had left behind. The waitress then explained to me that the couple had paid my bill. Completely chagrined, I turned and tried to mutter some sort of thank-you to the lady as she passed by me on her way out the door.
“Oh, you’re more than welcome,” she said. “We have a grandson in college, and we know how hard it is. We love ya, study hard!” A second later she was out the door and into the waiting van.
As I watched that long van signal and turn onto the dark highway, I again made a secret vow. I pledged that I would never, even if my life depended on it, forget those two people and the lesson I had just learned about judging others.