Sometimes we are saving lives

“We’re not saving lives,” said the waitress matter of factly after finishing her after shift cocktail.

We had been discussing the difficulties and the joys of yet another holiday season evening. The joys being piled in front of us in neatly counted bundles of green and the difficulties wearing heavily on our consciences.

Far too often in the restaurant business, people act as if things are a life and death situation. Cold coffee is not the end of the world, but occasionally people act like it.

But what happens when it really is a matter of life or death?

It started with a bang. The bang of hand slamming down on the hostess stand.

“When is my table going to be ready?” yelled the banger of that hand.

“It’s going to be a moment, ma’am,” said the hostess with much more calm than I could have mustered. Especially considering that she was on the phone.

“Our reservations were at seven,” said the slammer, looking at her watch with a great flourish. “It’s now 7:03.”

“It’s Christmas Eve, for chissakes,” she added seemingly unaware of the oddity of such a statement. “And you’re on the phone.”

Often people confuse reservations with guarantees. Reservations are a guess, an educated guess, but one based on the behavior of people who are actually out of control of the guesser. In a busy restaurant, especially during the holidays, if you sit at exactly your reservation time, it might actually qualify as a miracle.

And on this particular night, a miracle would be much needed.

The elderly patriarch of a rather large family had collapsed at the dinner table. His family was now panic stricken as they laid him out on the floor of the restaurant. Gathering around him, they loosened his shirt and removed his jacket.

In the restaurant business this is not as unusual as one might suspect. If you have worked in restaurants long enough it will happen, and the odds that it will happen during the holidays is even greater. Combine stress, too much food and drink, and family, and sooner or later someone is going to take a tumble.

By the time the paramedics arrived, the woman who had slammed her hand on the hostess stand was in a virtual tizzy.

“What is taking so long?” she ranted, pacing the lobby like a caged lioness.

The hostess had explained to her several times what the situation was, but instead of eliciting calm it merely stoked her indignant fire.

“I can’t believe this,” she said.

“How can this be happening to me?”

She stopped the paramedics who were on their way into the restaurant with a wheeled gurney and an oxygen tank.

“Can you speed this up? I have 7 o’clock reservations,” she said pointing at her watch.

The paramedic just walked right past her.

“I had better get something for free,” she said before resuming her pacing.

The paramedics worked on the man as people at the tables surrounding them continued their meals. It reminded me of the scene from Ghostbusters where the demon dog mauls Rick Moranis’ character outside the restaurant window while the people inside continue to eat.

Except for one thing. This was real life.

About ten minutes later the paramedics finally wheeled the ashen patriarch out. His face was covered in an oxygen mask and his anxious family gathered around holding his shaking hands.

After the family passed, one of the paramedics turned to the hostess.

“It’s a good thing you called 911 when you did, a few more minutes and we might have been too late,” he said.

It really was a Christmas miracle.

The pacing lady stood nearby with her arms crossed.

After the paramedics and the family had cleared the lobby she turned to the hostess.

“I don’t see what all the fuss was about. He looked okay to me.”

All of which has left me with a few thoughts.

-Not often, but occasionally, we really are saving lives in the restaurant business.


-Henry David Thoreau once said, “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”  Can you imagine what one hostess- stand-slapper might think when she got a glimpse of herself?


-Sometimes you can be angel to one person at the exact same time you are the devil to another.


-Remember, the holidays are for everyone, not just for you. If you just relax, that alone will make everything better for everyone.


This story originally appeared in the Marin Independent Journal and online in the San Jose Mercury News