We Reserve the Right Not to Serve the Elderly

I see them coming before they see me. They wander aimlessly through my dining hall, unaccustomed to its layout, clueless as to the whereabouts of the deli, noodle, pizza and grill stations. They shuffle slowly until they reach my post, then stop in front of my station. I busy myself with some cheese in hopes that one of my coworkers will confront them. I am too cowardly for the task.

The old folks have arrived.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s not that I hate old people. They have far more life experience and knowledge of the past than I do. Plus, they are usually paternal and nurturing. I just don’t know how to relate to them.

It’s probably because of Southern California’s obsession with youth. We host the airbrushed entertainment industry, throw Botox birthday parties and send our grandparents to rot away in sterile facilities without the least bit of guilt.

My relationship with elderly customers may also be because I only have one living grandparent — and she lives almost 3,000 miles away. My fading memories of her visits consist of endless cribbage games, gelatinous meat loaf and frightening age spots. The elderly have played almost no part in my life, so when I interact with them, I have no idea what to do.

The difference between my old and young customers is of speed and orientation. It’s not Gram and Gramps’ fault: Within a week of moving on campus, all our regular customers have memorized the dining hall’s format. They know which station serves which foods; they know the prices and how to pay and how to find the utensils and napkins. So, when dealing with a nonstudent, my job suddenly requires a lot more effort.

Old folks often ask me to recite the nine kinds of cheese they can put on their sandwich. They inquire about the extra 50 cents it costs to add cheese in the first place. And they try to use American Express. We don’t take American Express.

The truth is, I’m so used to thinking of my place of employment as a surreal institution where everyone knows what a bobcat is, along with the fact that we only carry Pepsi products. It’s easy to forget there’s a whole world of people out there who don’t pay for all their meals with dining dollars, or order hamburgers from bleary-eyed students working to make a buck or two.

However, every Saturday when the weekly bridge game rolls into the dining hall, I am reminded that this is not the case.

They are early birds to the core. We open at 10 a.m. on the weekends. They know we open at 10 a.m. Yet every Saturday, there they are at 9:45 behind the glass doors, staring me down like I am personally responsible for their lack of caffeine.

As far as I know, this group of professional card players has no affiliation whatsoever with UCSD, but my manager still reserves a portion of the dining-hall seating for them, where we then have to turn off the music that apparently distracts them from their games. And what do we — employees of a measly college trough — get in return for such overwhelming hospitality?

Out of all of them, two cups of coffee. Small ones (on a good day).

You would think they’d be happy — what with us clearing out an entire slice of our dining space from of the kindness of our own hearts. But they still have plenty to complain about.

They order their small coffees and I say: “That’ll be $1.40.” The reply — whether it’s from a little old woman in a delicate falsetto or the only World War I witness left on Earth — is always: “Oh my, prices are going up. That much?”

When I can’t avoid being the messenger of the modern world, I switch to intense customer-service mode. For some reason, I believe that if I assemble all the ingredients of Gramps’ quesadilla in perfect order, he will adopt me as a surrogate grandchild. If this turns out to be the best meal of his life, we can travel back in time and he’ll be at all my tee ball games. He’ll take me to get a Slurpee when I make the honor roll. All my unrealized fantasies of having a grandfather will suddenly come true.

So I smile as I sprinkle the cheese. I carefully spread the sour cream so there’s an even amount of dairy goodness in each bite. Even as I move on to younger customers, my mind will remain on his slow-cooking quesadilla, knowing that I cannot let it burn — lest my one chance at our beautiful relationship go up in smoke with it.

Finally, when the cheese has melted and the tortilla is a golden- brown, I will serve up my beautiful creation to the hunched older man, and he’ll walk out of my life. Without a backward glance of his balding head, he’ll pay for his food (but only after five more minutes of haggling with whoever was unlucky enough to get cashier duty) and leave me feeling used and alone.

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