As I sat in the white metal chairs next to the canisters of hot coffee and donuts that I would later learn was called the ‘Bistro’ looking out the window into the parking lot of Acantilado Vista, I tried to control my trembling hands and convince myself not to let my anxiety get the best of me. I was about to go into my first interview with my future boss at the age of fifteen. Three days later I was waiting tables at a high class retirement home, when I say “high class” I mean richy rich.
I later learned at my orientation that these people paid between three to six thousand dollars a month to live here and it was now my duty in life to make sure their breakfast, lunch, and dinner was hot, prompt, and desirable. The residents had also earned the right to bicker, argue, and whine. They were old and tired this was their time to relax and be pampered. Orientation was informational. Sue the director who was instructing us, was the loudest lady I have ever met in my entire life. She had a rump the size of Montana but then a waist that was to die for, her bust then bellowed back out over. She was so oddly shaped that you had to look twice at her no matter how many times you past her in the hallway. She was nice to everyone, and was into everyone’s business. Three years later she would be fired for embezzlement. She told us all about the residents that we would have the “privilege” of serving,
“We have actresses, actors, doctors, veterans, scientist, OHH! We have one man living here that helped split the atom! We have two ladies that lived under Hitler’s reign. And we have one man that served under Hitler… awkward if you ask me” Sue rambled off.
She went on and on for 6 hours, finally ending with “Do you know what ‘Acantilado Vista means?’” No one said a word. With the excitement of a three year old who had just been given a cookie she said, “Where the sun never sets!” At the time I thought it would have made a lot more since if she had said, “Where the Sun sets!”, since the residents were in their final stages of life.
My first night serving, dressed in my freshly pressed maroon men’s button down shirt, black slacks and shoes, and a used and stained gold tie I felt proud of myself for getting the job. Two hours later, abandoned by my trainer I was trying hard to balance my tray on one hand and the next thing I knew I was wiping rice and lamp chops off a residents lap and apologizing profusely for my clumsy hands. Broken glass littered the table and I felt like a failure. The next day I tried to come up with an excuse on why I needed to quit, and my mom all but had to push me out the door. That night wasn’t better at all, I messed up the table numbers and thirty people received the wrong food, I had over ten personal complaints and I literally went home crying.
* * * * * * *
“Chicken noodle soup. Would you like a cup?” Ernie just stares up at me wide eyed. I wait for a response, not trying to rush him. I’ve learned over the years that you have to be patient, let the questions register, and give them a chance to respond before you repeat yourself.
“What kind?” he asks back confused.
“Chicken noodle,” I say while bending down, lowering my voice and getting eye level so that he can see my lips making out the words.;
“Bread?” This is the point I usually get frustrated. I don’t know how else to repeat myself. I look over to Ernie’s wife Meriel who is just shaking her head sympathetically, but I don’t know if she is doing this for me.
I learned fast that Meriel had Parkinson’s diseases which meant she was constantly shaking her head. I used to ask her if she would like soup or soda and she would shake her head, I would bring back a Dr. Pepper, her usual favorite. She would respond “What the hell is this? I want juice.” I learned quickly never to take a nod literally from Meriel.
Ernie was becoming impatient and so was I. Kim a fellow waitress walked by and Ernie began to wave his hand for her, and call her name. Kim paused and asked in her broken English what he needed. Ernie explained to her that I did not speak correctly and that I never talk right. Kim, in her heavy Korean accent then explains to him once that we have chicken noodle soup. Ernie sighs obliviously relived that he can finally understand and then orders the soup from Kim. I am astounded. How can this ninety-eight year old man who has hearing aids in both ears understand a woman that has only lived in the United States eight years, who has one of the strongest accents, and that I can’t even understand all the time?
* * * * * * * *
We call them the “Divas”, in high school they would be the popular girls, most likely the cheerleaders, the ones that everyone is envious of. Ones that girls would give anything to be their friends, chop off all their hair or eat a maggot filled pie. They eat at the popular table, with only six seats. If not “in” with them you’re a social outcast. The ladies at Acanta that are not Divas either spend all their time trying to fit in or hating them, pretending they are glad they are not part of their clique. The Divas get pressed and primped for every dinner only wearing their finest clothes and wigs, and always having their hair and nails done. The amount of makeup they wear astonishes everyone, you can literally see the layers of foundation flaking off as the night wears on and the dried on lip stick crumble off. Asking for their purses and walkers to be put up front and to be brought back to them shows that they are of the elite. It makes them feel as if them are better or worth more to see their prized Louie Vaton hand bags and Harold walkers taken away from them like celebrities and put away, only to be retuned to them when they deem ready.
Gloria, the leader of the pack, was a famous opera singer in Europe in her prime. It is always quite entertaining when in the middle of dinner she picks up her glass and fork, tapping them together, scoots her chair back, struggles to stand, clearing her throat she then begins to sing at the top of her lungs. The singing is so loud that we waiters begin to yell, and then the residents, in no time the whole dining room is in chaos. The divas don’t understand the concept of order, waiting, patience, or that anyone else exists besides the six of them. A lot like teenagers most parents would say. When the whole world, Acanta, is not revolving around them they believe that it must be crashing down.
“But Shawn I want tea,” Helen complained in a voice that could only belong to her or a four year old that was whining for candy.
“Did you ask your waiter?” Shawn asked. He had gone through this routine hundreds of times, day and night.
“I don’t remember…” But I know full well she does. Helen is healthy, doesn’t suffer from Dementia, Alzheimer’s, or amnesia, just chronic impatientness. I hear her answer as I walk up with the tea that she asked me for less than two minutes ago and cannot help but roll my eyes.
“Here you go Helen. You can wait for me before you ask someone else…” but she’s not listening already sucked back into her important conversation about how the mail man was late and how “dreadful Joan’s cat smells like urine”. Her world is there among the Divas and I realize that no matter what I say Helen will never stop being the popular cheerleader amongst the crowd.
* * * * * * *
She had to have some sort of disease, no one has ever asked, but for some reason her eyes are always bright red. Some say it’s because she has the devil inside of her, rotting away. She is spiteful, rude, and careless. “Red eyed Mary” as we all fondly grew to call her became one of the residents that everyone hated to serve. We would bet, trade, do anything just get away from her. One night I scrubbed 50 chairs to get out of serving her dinner. The night previously she had told me everything wrong with Acantilado Vista’s food industry was my fault and my fault alone, and then made me get her three new lemonades. The next night another server got in her way and she felt it necessary to call her the equivalent to a female dog. When our manager explained to her that it was inappropriate and that she should apologize red eyed Mary said “Over my dead body!”
One day she seemed to be one of the most popular divas and then the next day she was out. I’m sure it was longer than just one day, but it did seem quite suddenly to us. The Divas had apparently seen the black angel within and wanted to get away. Friendless, I almost felt sorry for red eyed Mary, until she refused to eat two different top sirloins and I found chewed up pieces of beef hidden in our silk cloth napkins and under the linen table cloths.
It didn’t take long for the Divas to find a replacement. A new one suddenly and mysteriously appeared. I like to think that they have some secret pack meeting to choose their new member, but who knows.
Ernie’s, the Divas, and red eyed Mary’s selective hearing and bad habits are the reasons that Acantilado is named “Where the sun never sets”. People learn a habit, they learn to love it, and then they refuse to break it. They refuse to change the way they live their lives, for that reason people around learn to adapt to them.