Lunch at Tropicalia
I open the door and let my kids in. My wife, follows, then my mother and then I go in. The place is empty. There aren't even flies inside.
We’re there because Elsa, that’s my wife’s name, feels an obligation to protect locally based businesses. You know, buy produce from local farmers, cut hair at non-chain salons, buy organic this and organic that.
After a few moments, a waitress walks in through a door on the far side of the restaurant. She’s wearing jeans and a t-shirt, and a look that makes me believe she just saw ghosts. “What are you doing here,” is what she wants to say, I can see it in her face, but she just stares at us instead.
Pretty uncomfortable, the silence that sets in. I for one am not about to make it any easier. I agreed to try out the restaurant, but that is as far as I am willing to go. Finally Elsa speaks: “we want to eat, are you open?”
“Yes, the waitress says. You can seat anywhere.”
Now that sort of friendliness does not impress me. I mean, every single table is empty in the place, I would have been offended is she had done anything other than offered us a choice of where to seat.
We seat and pick up the menu. The waitress hovers but does not say anything. Finally, she blurts out: “want anything to drink?”
We conference and come up with a list: “Two cokes a beer and a couple of glasses of water.”
“Excuse me,” Elsa speaks. By now she knows I am doing her a big favor not walking out. “What are today’s specials?”
Nothing that any of us cares to eat, it turns out.
But my mother makes her repeat the list of specials.
The waitress walks away exhausted after the recitation and returns a few moments later with drinks.
The drinks arrive.
I can’t resist.
“See what I mean. It does not cost anything to be friendly, but she can’t do it. She does not know how to do it. She won’t do it. And why did she assume I was going to drink beer from the bottle? Why did she not bring a glass?”
I do not mention her lackadaisical demeanor, nor her general unsuitability for hosting. It's too early to pick a fight. I want to hedge my hand.
Elsa agrees with me, but I can tell she does not mean it. It’s the way she holds back her enthusiasm, the twist of the mouth, the non-committal stance. In her heart, she wants to defend the waitress, the local business owner. She knows she has to come up with an attack soon because I’ll use this situation later if she doesn’t.
We talk about inconsequential things, trying to size each other up. We both know I've got the upper hand, but neither of us is ready to force our hands yet.
After fifteen minutes or so, she preempts my move.
“I forgot we should have ordered the specials.”
(i.e. it’s my fault it’s taking too long for the food to come.)
It’s a perfect move, because if I say something to the effect that it is taking too long for the food to come, she will already have told me it is my fault. I should have known better than to order something from the menu, instead of the day’s special. It’s a small business and they are trying hard with the staff they have, not like the big behemoths that destroy local businesses and serve bland food from an assembly line. I’m just being inflexible and ignorant of the effect that big corporations are having on the fabric of the community.
In other words, I cannot complain lest I be proven to be wrong once again.
The food comes, though, just in time to save me from doing something against my own good, and for that I am grateful, because I am hungry and ready to dig in.
The kids taste the tuna steak and eye the French fries that came with my mother’s shrimp. She gives them some from her plate and they pick at the tuna to keep Elsa at bay.
I know I cannot complain but I know just the thing to do.
“The steak is good, but the one at Sodade is better.” I know she does not have a come back for that, since Sodade is another local business, and she has not tasted the tuna steaks there.
“Yeah, definitely better. Definitely.” I push it to the limit.
“It’s not bad though.”
She shifts in her chair and glances at the kids who are cutting up the steak into small pieces and yet smaller pieces, and mixing it with some rice, and spreading the pieces around the plate, all the while eating the French fries that my mother has put on their plate.
The waitress disappears for the entire time we eat and then comes to remove our plates while the kids are still eating. I emptied my beer bottle long ago, but she does not notice this. I think she still cannot believe that we went in to eat.
“Do you have dessert?”
Frowning she advances: “Cheese pudding, papaya preserve.”
We expect more so she finishes quickly. “Yoghurt.”
“What?” my little one exclaimed, just as incredulous as I. “What is yoghurt doing in the mix?”
“Youghurt” I repeat to her, knowing full well what she is getting at. “That,” I say, “you have at home.”
The waitress removes the rest of the plates and is ready to leave us orderless, but I don't let her.
“A papaya preserve and a cheese pudding.”
“They have an excellent milk pudding,” says Elsa, a veteran of the restaurant.
“Oh, you have milk pudding?” asks my mother.
“No, not today.”
No great surprise I think to myself, sure that Elsa has read my thoughts.
Dessert consumed, I pay and we leave.
I am happy because I have not used any of my capital, you know, the kind that will come in handy at our next argument about the way our people are.