#440 Compassion

Hello there, I thought I’d dust the ol’ blog off a bit and try writing something again. The pandemic has killed off a lot of my initiative for creativity, mostly by sucking all the brain energy out of me, but once in a blue moon something floats up from the depths that contains the kernel of an idea and I thought it was about time I try making use of one of these idea crumbs.

This particular kernel emerged from my midafternoon treat of a crepe at Gino’s. I know, very inspiring, right? Ok perhaps I should clarify that it wasn’t the crepe itself but the interaction that got me ruminating and cogitating. First of all, all human interaction these days is like a prized luxury, thanks to lockdowns and the pandemic. I mean, I actually look forward to my daily team zoom calls every morning at work, otherwise I’m not sure I’d find the motivation to make it out of my pyjamas! Life is strange and a year later instead of normality returning what we have is new normality that is not even remotely close to normal. So when I find myself out and about, my interactions with people, no matter how brief, take on new meaning. First there’s the ever present initial impression, risk assessment, and judgment – does that person have face mask? If they do, is it actually on their face or just warming their chin? Are they giving me space? Mental pandemic checklist done, there’s the more normal are-they-skeezy-looking valuation followed finally by the overrdiding thought of “oh my god I can talk to a strange human now?!” I found myself engaging in ridiculous small talk today in Eason’s with a father who has clearly been sent out with instructions to “buy Pokemon cards” and had absolutely no idea what that meant. I commiserated with him about the price of those card decks and we both sighed and rolled our eyes in what has become a universal parental lockdown expression of “anything that keeps them entertained.” Since I was in Eason’s myself with the express purpose of a book for my own small human I could definitely relate.

My experience in Gino’s was of a completely different nature. We had just come out of Specsavers, collecting Hawkeye’s new glasses, and he was hungry. The kid is always hungry. It’s like he’s growing or something. Of course, sometimes when he says “I’m hungry, mommy” what he really means is “I just spied an ice cream place and can we have some?” I had promised him something after we got his eyeglasses and I did, in fact, actually plan on treating myself to a crepe so it was no hardship. We wandered over and Hawkeye picked out his ice cream. Gino’s has this policy, which drives me bonkers, of not allowing you to have a cup that’s larger than the portion you’re purchasing. I’m sure there’s some cost-efficiency reasoning behind it but it drives me crazy because ice cream is messy and children are messy and ice cream + children inevitably = messy2 and having a little compassion for parents by allowing a small serving of ice cream in a larger sized cup would go a long way to help with the sticky fingers situation. For some reason, knowing that the answer will be “no” never stops me from asking for this and today was no different. I had my hopes raised briefly when the lady serving me picked up a regular sized cup when I asked her about it, but they were quickly dashed when I realised that she was holding it up to ask a colleague if she could put a small serving into a regular sized cup to which the answer turned out to be an emphatic, unsurprising, no.

I waved away her apologetic smile in frustration and went ahead with my order of a small serving of Oreo ice cream for my small human, and then added that I also wanted to order a crepe, which has a separate order counter. As it happens, the crepe and waffle order counter is also less crowded so I indicated my intention to wait for her there and let other people behind me step up into my place. She brought over the “small” ice cream, which was a predictably large scoop overflowing the edges of the small cup with not-yet-melted ice cream, and Hawkeye tucked into it enthusiastically while I ordered my crepe. It was while watching the lady twirl the T-shaped wooden batter spreader that I suddenly had an inkling that my frustration with Gino’s may not yet be over. I might not have the first clue how to make a crepe myself, but I’ve ordered them aplenty in the past and something about the lady’s movements as she hovered over the crepe griddle struck me as hesitant. It’s always easy to judge from the outside and I proceeded to do just that as I watched her circle the spreader a bit too slowly, and then one too many times, causing the quickly thickening batter to stick slightly in the middle, creating a weakness.

My suspicions about this lady’s experience were confirmed right after she put the spreader down and leaned over the rear counter to run her fingers down a surface strategically hidden from the customer’s line of sight. I might not have been able to see what she was looking at, but it was easy to guess that she was consulting an ingredients list – a disconcerting move given that I ordered their most basic crepe which requires only butter, sugar, and lemon, and just asked her to add strawberries to that.

Next there was the ordeal of spreading the butter. I had momentarily looked away from watching my crepe being cooked to marvel at the fact that there was already ice cream on my son’s fingers, not to mention his face, and oh my god did he manage to get it on his nose when I looked back to see the lady struggling to spread single rectangular block of butter over the pancake surface with the help of the metal crepe spatula. It….. wasn’t going well. Thankfully a more experienced colleague noticed the frown of frustration and bustled over. Rectifying the situation by returning the butter rectangle to its foil wrapping wasn’t working and within moments the first butter portion was discarded and forgotten on the counter as she pulled out a fresh one and quickly demonstrated the technique of shaving off bits of the butter rectangle with the thin edge of the spatula and spreading the shavings around the crepe, rather than attempting to melt a single block. All the while my estimate of the lady’s length of employment with Gino’s was like a rapidly changing countdown timer in my mind, having gone from the vague notion of “a while ” to “recent” before moving into more concrete numbers territory of “less than 7, 6, 5 days” until it hovered in the vicinity of “first day on the job”.

Having conquered the butter, I keenly watched her sprinkle around some sugar, however I must have missed her drizzling the lemon juice as she assured me she had already done it when I inquired about it. Then she proceeded to liberally cover the surface of the now-golden crepe with chopped strawberries. I had to suppress a grin because if the butter wasn’t an obvious giveaway that this lady was new at her job, the overly-generous portion of strawberries would have been. I contemplated the trade-off of having extra strawberries versus the additional difficulty it would create in trying to eat the crepe on the go as I watched her sweep the spatula under the crepe to unstick it from the griddle surface and then I watched her run headfirst into the consequence of her generosity.

The crepe wouldn’t fold.

Gino’s takeaway crepes are traditionally folded in half, and then in half again, before being swept into a cone-shaped cardboard holder and handed over to the customer. This means that the very centre of the crepe becomes a point in the bottom of the cone and therefore any sort of significant bulk becomes an obstacle to smooth folding and plating. Not only had the lady heaped too many strawberries onto the pancake, she had piled most of them into the middle. I could see the rising panic in her face as she tried to unfold the crepe and then fold it again, only causing it to tear in the middle at the weak point I had spotted early on in the process.

“I’m sorry,” she stammered to me. “I tried to put extra strawberries in there for you, but I think I put in too many and it’s not folding.” she explained to me unnecessarily. I stayed calm and told her not to worry. A third attempt just made a bigger mess and she offered to make me a fresh crepe.

The thing is, I had a sticky 6-year old with me, a husband waiting in the car, and a distinct lack of patience for any sort of extended retail situations where other customers sometimes disregarded the notions of social distancing. “Don’t worry about it,” I waved her offer off.

“Are you sure?” she queried as the stress had her waving the spatula around, making an ever-increasing mess on the griddle. “I can try unfolding it and taking off some of the strawberries and then putting hem back on after?”

Her suggestion, unfortunately, was akin to trying to stuff raingear back into its own internal pocket after you unpack it the first time from its factory folded neat square. It’s a Pandora’s box. The pancake was rapidly turning golden brown and becoming crispier and crispier (ie less and less amenable to folding) and was too badly torn. Eyeing the little cardboard cone she still clutched in one hand, I put on my most reassuring smile and asked her if they had plates instead. She ditched the cone and pulled out the little cardboard tray they use to serve waffles.

“Are you sure?” she asked while trying to figure out how to slide the epic mess off the griddle. Even that wasn’t proving to be easy.

“Yes,” I confirmed to her as the pancake, and most of the strawberries, eventually made it into the tray, resembling absolutely nothing even remotely crepe-looking.

“Do you want some extra strawberries?” she asked, indicating the handful of pieces which were left on the griddle, having fallen through the holes in the crepe. Bless her, I thought. Still trying to give me extra strawberries. I couldn’t be mad at her for trying to be nice to a customer. I shook my head and simply held up my card to pay. She apologies profusely but I tried to reassure her that it will still taste the same, no matter the presentation.

And really isn’t that the main thing, I wondered, as I walked away from the shop, using a fork to shovel torn bits of pancake into my mouth while steering my sticky child down the street. The crepe was significantly crispier than normal, and well…. it was definitely a fairly big fail on the presentation front, but at the end of the day it’s fairly difficult to screw up a crepe unless you burn it outright and the poor lady was clearly undertrained and inexperienced and thrown in the deep end. My initial reason for not accepting her offer of a freshly re-made crepe was frustration and a desire to get away. But on further reflection, I also realised that if she were anything like me, the stress of having to start all over on something that went so spectacularly wrong the first time, under the watchful eye of a customer, could end up with the same sort of mess simply due to nerves. Sure, as a paying customer perhaps I had the right to insist on a perfectly made and presented crepe, but as long as the damn thing tasted good, did I really need to make another person sweat and stress unnecessarily? She would either learn from the experience for her next order, preparing it in front of another customer who hasn’t just watched her mess up, or she would not and eventually look for a different job. I thought back to my long-ago-days of struggling to prepare even the most basic coffee order in Starbucks at the Barnes & Noble where I had taken up temporary employment between my college degrees. I turned out to be decently competent at shelving stock, I barely lasted a day in the café, but apparently my organisational and computer skills were sufficient to get me promoted to head cashier by my third day on the job. We all have different skill sets and talents and not all of us are made to succeed in the same jobs. I try to go out of my way to help new people in my office who are starting out having to learn a million new names, procedures, computer systems, and ways of doing things. This is my way of paying forward a kindness done to me on my first job in Ireland where I was definitely thrown in the deep end. I watched more than one person sink around me while I learned to swim with the help of an incredibly patient colleague who sat next to me and answered my endless questions for the first three months.

Eventually, as I carefully tossed the empty carboard tray into a rubbish bin and wiped ice cream from my son’s fingers, I decided that, although it took me a while to arrive there consciously, the reason I didn’t make a bigger fuss over the crepe was from a sense of compassion for the girl, clearly learning the job on the go, struggling a bit, but trying to go out of her way to make a customer happy and still managing to keep a smile on her face. In a world that’s exhausted from the effects of the pandemic, a country that’s sick to the teeth of restrictions and lockdowns, patience with other people is at an all-time low. I have seen this in other contexts. We are all tired and stressed and take it out in small ways on other people. Even before the pandemic, I always felt the world could do with a bit more compassion. But now more than ever, we all need to give each other a break, especially when you can see a person that’s clearly trying their best and simply … not quite succeeding.

The crepe was still sweet and tasty. The strawberries were juicy. My craving for a way to treat myself was fulfilled. It wasn’t perfect, but it was enough.

3 Comments

  1. LA

    Good to see you

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Don’t know if I’ll be back regularly but do want to work out the wiring muscle at least a little if possible!

      Liked by 1 person

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