As is so often the case, I had very different plans for this week’s piece, when something came to me that completely changed things. And when I say came to me, I mean it quite literally. It was an envelope that was hand delivered to me that inspired this story. As I arrived at work the other day to start my evening shift after my two days off, I noticed an envelope propped up against my register. When I picked it up to inspect it, I noticed that it had been mailed to my place of employment care of me. Obviously once I saw my name on the envelope I had to open it immediately and find out what was in it. I quickly perused the post mark to see if I recognized the name or address. It had been sent from Chicago, Illinois, and while I do in fact have some family on my wife’s side in Chicago, I did not recognize the female name with the return address. The two trips I’ve made to the Windy City in my life, were once as a child with my parents, and again a few years ago with my pregnant wife for her brother’s wedding. So with that in mind, I was pretty confident that I was not about to open an envelope full of photos of a child with a note reading; “you’re the father.” And the packaging was far too small to have been a deep dish pizza. So now that I had eliminated both extreme ends of the spectrum as viable options, curiosity got the best of me and I opened the envelope. I slowly removed a lovely Hallmark card. I didn’t know yet what this was, or who it was from but they did in fact “care enough to send the very best.” The front of this tastefully elegant card read simply; “thank you”. For what I could not yet imagine. Being a father of five now, my generosities are pretty much relegated to my own home and my annual donation for cancer research. I’m going to come back later to the content of the card if only to torture you for a few moments.

As I read the message which I’ll be telling you about shortly, my eyes actually filled with tears. Upon completion of it, as always my mind went in multiple directions. Thinking of both positive and negative aspects of life as reflective of the card I had just read. It got me thinking about one of the many unfortunate side effects of the information era/systematic dumbing down of society. One of the most torturous is the advent of review sites such as Yelp. Suddenly everyone is a qualified restaurant critic from Trailer Park Troy to Truck Stop Tiffany. People who can’t even spell the word ‘restaurant’ are posting their “expert” reviews for all the world to see. The worst part is that other people are actually taking their cues from this abomination. Let me tell you something, if you are planning your vacations and/or meals around these reviews, than you are a moron who is nothing more than part of an ever growing problem. Make no mistake, if I am using Yelp as a legitimate form of assistance, it’s the middle of the night, I am very far from home in a desolate area, my car has broken down, and I am seeking a nearby reputable, 24-hour towing company. NOT where to take my wife for dinner on our anniversary.

It’s not just the fact that I’m a lifelong restaurant guy that has me so bitter about these sites, and not all of the reviews are derogatory. It’s primarily my capacity for rational thought, and a respect for grammar and the English language. This is seemingly nothing more than yet another platform for the most ignorant among us to appear front and center and spew their incoherent mindless rants while hiding behind the shield of a website because they are far too cowardly to engage with another human being at the time of the experience. Shame on you society.

Now, everywhere at this very moment is some onion head in his boxers sitting in his second hand pleather Lazy Boy with multiple cross-pattern duct tape patchwork to keep the chair from biting Jethro on his love handles. He’s sitting on his laptop which he was given as payment for helping to relocate the feed factory. With a background soundtrack of commercials featuring such gems as; the great low rate you can get online from the General, the future you could have as an ITT Tech grad, or the law offices of 1-800-BAD-DRUG, he begins to pen his carefully thought out review of a local eatery. Not because of his sophisticated palate and knowledge of food, wine, and all things epicurean. Nope! Just because some asshole gave a forum to folks incapable of thinking for themselves to get a preview written by someone who bathes weekly.

Needless to say, I’m reminded of a sterling review written about me just a few years ago from some skull jelly named Robert M. of Reston, VA. Now this nice fellow said almost nothing at all about the food or atmosphere of the restaurant because he so desperately needed to be able to post something negative. So instead, he launched personal attacks such as pointing out how incapable his waiter was. And though I was the bartender on the other side of a dimly lit dining room, and never had any contact with him at all, he felt both compelled, and qualified to give his dissertation on me. His credibility would rapidly diminish though as I read about myself and realized that this gentleman could not tell the difference between a white, two-pocket bar apron and a men’s suit and tie. He also could not tell the difference between a bartender and a dining room manager. But my absolute favorite of his gross and careless misrepresentations was when he witnessed me, from 60-feet away in a dark dining room mind you, “drink vodka right out of the bottle when I thought no one else was looking.” It couldn’t perhaps have been one of my water bottles that I keep in every ice bin behind the bar and sip from frequently throughout my shift, could it? The worst part is that someone of his intellect, or even lesser if you could imagine read this and formed an opinion based on it. Behold, the new America. The wreath on your door, and the flag in your yard offend me so you have to take them down. But in the meantime, I’m going to run home and viciously slander you on a website for all the world to see from the cowardly safety and privacy of my own tiny little wood paneled basement room because you wouldn’t honor my 2-year expired coupon.

So anyway, I open up the Thank You card and begin to read. I was immediately taken aback as the first handwritten line read; “you may remember me, but I know I will remember you forever.” Needless to say, at this point this nice young lady had garnered my full attention for the remainder of her lengthy handwritten note. That’s a pretty strong opener. As I read on, it didn’t take me long at all to remember vividly who this young lady was. Nonetheless, she went on to describe in graphic detail how I would remember her. She wrote that she had been in for dinner earlier in the month with her boyfriend and some friends. To make a long story short, at some point in the meal she began to choke. Apparently, several people had attempted to properly execute the Heimlich maneuver on her but to no avail. I noticed the commotion and came out from behind the bar. Upon my arrival at her table, the rest of her party and small group of others had gathered around her and had a look of a small herd of deer in headlights. One of my coworkers was behind her lending aid. When he saw me, he willingly relinquished his post as thrust man. I first looked at her face and spoke to her. She had already begun to change colors. I guess in my mind, I just pretended that she was one of my own daughters. I knew what had to be done, and I remained eerily calm throughout. After what seemed like an eternity, but I’m certain was only seconds, a piece of steak dislodged and left her face at a ridiculously high velocity and with the sound you hear when you take the cardboard tube from a spent roll of wrapping paper at Christmas time and hit your younger sibling in the head with it (by the way, I was the youngest of three).

I helped her to her chair, and looked her directly in the eye as I asked her several questions to make sure she was okay. There was a brief quiet, awkward moment around her table as I calmly walked away and returned to my post behind the bar.

Her note went on to thank me profusely and repeatedly mentioned that I was her “life saver”. I’m not undermining the significance of the situation, but to be honest, I really didn’t think all that much about it once it was over. Before she left that night, she timidly approached the bar to thank me and asked if there were anything she could do to show her gratitude. I asked her to walk to the end of the bar and meet me. I said; “come here and give me a hug and we’ll call it even. This time from the front.” We both giggled and she hugged me. She thanked me again and began to cry on my shoulder. I instructed her to make sure she stopped in to see me next time she was in town. At the time I had no idea that she lived in Chicago.

I wasn’t dismissive of the event, but I certainly didn’t harp on it. In fact it would be days before I would even mention it to my wife and children. And even then, it was only in casual dinner conversation. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like this is an everyday occurrence. In fact, in my 30-plus years of restaurant work, I’ve only had to do it three times. Thankfully they were each successful.

I’ve thought very little about the events of that night since. I guess I just like to think I live in a world where she, or anyone else for that matter would have done the same for me. It wasn’t until I opened her card earlier this week and started reading her kind, heartfelt gracious words that I realized how impactful our crossing of paths was to her. I’ve read the card several times since, and teared up each time. I’ve placed the card in the box I keep of things I want to have forever.

It’s touching how one single piece of positive feedback can outweigh all the negative. Not all shifts are bad and not all reviews are bad. It just reflects the caliber of people. Most of the scathing ones are posted while hiding beneath the veil of a website. While the best and most important one ever came in the form of a card. A card that a complete stranger went out and purchased. A card that she filled with her most heartfelt thoughts. She found out the address of the establishment, the name of the bartender, and took time out of her life to mail it a third of the way across country just to say thanks.

You are welcome Lauren. It was my distinct pleasure. I hope to see you again. Your thoughtfulness and kind words were more than thanks enough. (Though I would not say no to a deep dish pizza on your next trip.)

Thanks for playing along. Until next week, Syd Nichols
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