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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
The New Saint Claire Restaurant
Right after I got out, I worked at a diner. It was called The New Saint Claire Restaurant, though not much about it seemed new. I was a cook. I’d never been a cook before. I’d done other things. I mean, it wasn’t like it was the only job I could do. But it was the best one, all things considered, at the time.
This girl used to come in and sit at the counter. She never ordered anything. And she would sit there and not do anything. No book, no nothing. Eventually she would say something to Maurine, who worked behind the counter, or Maurine would say something to her. But whatever it was that she said, it was never an order because she never got anything. No coffee, even. And eventually she would leave.
She was pretty enough. I mean, I probably wouldn’t have noticed if she wasn’t. Or maybe I would have. Because if it wasn’t busy I just stared outside of the window. The kitchen window, I mean, which looked out on to the counter. Not a window that looked out on the outside. Those were too far away from the kitchen to see out of.
Anyway. Then one day the girl came in while Maurine was out smoking. When I say she was a girl, I mean a girl. I think. At the oldest maybe she was seventeen. Is that when girls stop being girls? She was right on the cusp. So I’m staring at this girl. Not in a rude way. I was staring out the kitchen window anyway, but there was nothing to stare at until the girl got there. And the girl started to fidget, like she needed some assistance, even though I know she never ordered anything.
So I walked out from behind the kitchen and I said, “You want something?”
And she said, “Yeah. Some food.”
“Okay,” I said, “So order some food. Here’s a menu.”
I put a menu in front of her, but she didn’t touch it.
“I can’t order anything,” she said.
“Why not?” I asked her.
“I don’t have any money. Not right now.”
“Well, what do you like?”
“I like anything,” she said. “Just about.”
“If you had to pick one thing,” I said.
“In the whole world?” she asked.
“No, not in the whole world. Just on that menu.”
“If I had to pick one thing on this menu, I would pick a ham sandwich. On white bread.”
“You didn’t look at it,” I said, meaning, the menu.
“Out of all those things, that’s what I would get,” she said, nodding a little bit.
“How do you know we even have that here?” I said.
“Because this is a diner. Diners have everything.”
“Out of everything, that’s what you’d get?” I asked. We had nicer things on the menu. Nothing too fancy, but nicer than a sandwich.
“That’s what my mom used to make me,” she said. “For lunch, sometimes.”
So I made her the sandwich, and she didn’t pay. And she didn’t say thank you, but I didn’t mind exactly. The reason I did it wasn’t so someone would say thank you.
Next day she was back, and before Maurine said whatever it was she said to her, I made that sandwich and put it in the window. The kitchen window.
“I didn’t order that,” Maurine said.
“Just give it to that girl there,” I said.
“You’re gonna pay for her sandwich?”
“Sure Maurine, I’m gonna pay for her sandwich.”
Nobody paid for anything around there. Not the staff I mean. Sirloin steak, on the house. So Maurine gave the girl the sandwich and the girl, she ate it and left. And that happened again and again. For however long. Weeks. Longer.
So me and Billy, who was the other cook, we got off one day and we left out the back exit, which led to the alley where they left the garbage. And the girl was there. Waiting? I don’t know, but she was standing around, fidgety, but pretty out in the natural light.
“Hey,” I said.
“Hey,” she said. Then she started to walk away which was weird because, yeah, maybe part of me figured she was waiting there for me.
“This the girl,” Billy said. You could tell he liked what he saw. We started to walk faster. “This the girl you’ve been talking about?”
“Yeah,” I said. By now we had caught up to her. We were right behind her, but she wasn’t slowing down any. “Yeah.”
“So tell me, what’s she been doing to be worthy of your kindness?” Billy asked, loud, to make sure she heard.
When you’re inside, every day there are three meals for you. They all taste like shit, pretty much. But somebody picks up a plate, puts food on it and hands it to you. It’s yours. You get fed because that person doesn’t stop to think about why you’re inside. They don’t think what kind of things you might have done and what kind of people you might have done them to. They don’t think, maybe this one didn’t do it. Maybe he’s innocent. Maybe he’s only here because of some huge mistake. Maybe this one deserves to eat.
And so you get fed, and you keep on living.
I slowed down. I let her get ahead of us. She turned right on Flatbush, out of sight.
“Maybe something,” I said. “But maybe nothing.”
Julie Sarkissian lives in Brooklyn and waitresses in TriBeCa. She is a graduate of Princeton University and has an MFA from the New School. Her first novel, This Is How To Find Me, will be published by Simon and Schuster next spring.