She said, she said: Dining while female?


Saturday was supposed to be a fun, chick-day with a girlfriend — a 2:00 p.m. performance of “The Vagina Monologues” at the Agassiz Theatre preceded by a yummy brunch. We didn’t know that the brunch would prove more gender challenging than the show.

I picked up my friend, Nilu, at 12:30 p.m. to go to Sound Bites, a hole-in-the-wall diner that had been recommended to me by most Boston dining guides. We arrived around 12:40, ordered and were pleasantly surprised by the quick service. About three bites into the meal, the tall, bulky, early-40s waiter or manager came to our table: “Keep eating! You are talking, and there is a line at the door!” At that moment, there was a line of about four or five people at the door of the busy restaurant. We laughed, thinking that this was some sort of standard line for all the customers on a Saturday afternoon. However, I noticed that he didn’t tell any of the other tables of customers to hurry up. Each time he passed our table, he looked to see if we were eating instead of talking. Whatever, we were in a hurry, too. As I chatted, Nilu suggested, “Keep moving your fork. He’s looking.” Feeling a little weird, I made sure to have food on my fork each time he passed. But it didn’t end there.

The line at the door alternated from being a few people deep to being no line at all. I had basically finished eating when he came back again.

“Are you finished yet?” he asked, moving to take my plate.

Nilu wasn’t finished eating, so I said, “No, a couple more minutes.”

He left the plate and returned momentarily to leave the check. We were definitely being rushed along, but it seemed like no big deal. A couple of minutes later, a busboy came and, since we were both finished, took our plates.

As we were finishing our coffee, the increasingly brusque waiter returned and yelled, “Hurry up! Hurry up! There’s a line at the door. You can’t just sit there and talk!”

By now, the entire restaurant had quieted and was looking at us.

He went on: “What are you going to do, sue me?!” He gesticulated wildly. “I’ve already been told that I’ll be sued once today! Sue me! I’m in a crazy mood!”

I thought, how coincidental; we’re law students. But I replied: “No, we just won’t come here again.”

Enraged, he yelled, “You just can’t come here and sit for two hours!”

This struck me as entirely wrong. “No, it’s been more like twenty minutes.”

He came closer to us and yelled, “Two hours! Two hours! Don’t tell me twenty minutes!”

Then he came over and threw down his order pad on our table. He jabbed at the number on the top and shouted that, based on the number, 60 people had already been served since we came. This was an outrageous claim, as possibly 30 customers at any one time could fit in the tiny restaurant.

I wasn’t sure what he was trying to do by coming closer, be menacing? He was a big guy, but how far were those wild arm movements going to go?

Seeing that everyone was continuing to look and feeling judged by the court of public opinion, I replied, “I picked up my friend at 12:30 to come here.”

He ignored my reply and went to take another table’s order. “I’m in a crazy mood! A crazy mood!” he yelled again and asked for their order. They were a table of five young guys, and they chuckled at the older man’s inexplicable behavior.

I thought that he continued his insulting behavior because he regarded the reactions of the rest of the customers as amused and entertained. For my part, it seemed that our fellow diners exhibited more of a gawking curiosity.

Nilu and I looked at each other. I looked around. I made eye contact with a woman at a nearby table. She had an expression of sympathy. I sheepishly smiled my incomprehension at the waiter’s behavior. The customers went back to their conversations. I noticed a couple who were talking over their coffee and had been there since before we had sat down. What was going on? Why such strange behavior from the waiter? We left only the amount on the bill. A tip didn’t seem quite appropriate, as we hadn’t come to the restaurant to be insulted.

Before we left the restaurant, we filled up our to-go cups at the help-yourself coffee bar. A young woman was there, and Nilu asked her if that particular waiter was known for such outrageous behavior. She replied that she didn’t know anything about him.

He passed us once again. This time he yelled, “Get out! Get out! Take your friend, too! I don’t need your money! Don’t EVER come back! YOU HEAR ME?”

By this time, I wasn’t so surprised. I said, too softly to be heard, “Then we’ll take the check money back.” But it was too much to press the point. Everyone in the restaurant was looking again.

We finished mixing cream at the coffee bar a minute later and walked out. He was standing outside smoking a cigarette. He wouldn’t look at us as we passed. I looked at my watch. It was 1:30 p.m.

In the discussion later, we made an observation that seemed to be the only explanation: We were the only table in the restaurant of two women unaccompanied by a man. Would the waiter have made such a scene if there had been a man at our table? Were we such easy prey for his harassment? While the scene was almost comical and only vaguely threatening, his behavior was humiliating.

The reaction of the table of young guys was disturbing, too. Was it amusing to see a man yelling at women customers? Were they just embarrassed or somewhat fearful of the unstable waiter who was about to take their order? Maybe he was just a psycho waiter who actually had been sued that day or had a fight with his wife that morning and was taking it out on us. Who knows?

The bizarre brunch didn’t keep us from thoroughly enjoying the performance of “The Vagina Mono-logues,” but it did remind us how acutely our experiences are shaped by gender right here in Boston in 2002.

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