Of all of the gas station chains, Jackson’s is my favorite. As far as gas station coffee goes, theirs is the best. And, their counters are always clean. So I will go out of my way to fill my car up and grab a coffee at Jackson’s. Even if it’s the middle of the day and what I want is a tank of gas and some smokes. Maybe some beer, too. Their selection is way better than 7-11.
“May I have $20 on 4 and a pack of American Spirit Yellow?”
He looks at me.
“Woah. Yeah,” he says and I want to ask him how high he is as he just looks at me for a moment, the top bit of his hair pulled back into a kind of an Asian-y Man Bun, his eyes half open with the exposed part all ruby-colored and glossy.
He hands me my change. “Thank you,” I say with a smile.
“You’re totally welcome!” he says. “And thank you for … uh … those nice things that you said … I can’t remember what they’re called … the ‘May I’ and the ‘please’.”
“For having manners?”
“Yes!” he shouts. “Thank you for having manners! I can’t even remember what they’re called. Manners!” he says with a smile and a semi-bow.
I smile a little more. “You are very welcome,” I say.
And, yeah, it was just a guy at the gas station and, yeah, he was stoned out of his gourd, sure, but he understood, somehow: having manners is kind of a lost art. You don’t see good manners much ’round here.
My paternal Grandmother wasn’t the nicest lady. But, when she took me to Mass with her, which only happened a couple of times that I can remember, she respected the fact that my parents had asked her to not take me to take the wafer on my tongue and gave me, instead, a bag of Wheat Thins, saying to me, “You may have these, instead. Wait here for me, please.” “Okay,” I said. “Thank you,” I said. And I munched on my baggie of Wheat Thins as my grandmother went to take the Body of Christ while I tugged at the lace on my socks and flipped, gently, through the gold-edged Book of Hymns on my lap.
Growing up, at my house in the late 70s, through the 80s, into the very first years of the 90s, dinner went something like this:
Napkin on my lap. Knife not on the table but placed properly on the rim of my plate, half handle and half blade. Chewing with my mouth closed. Never biting my fork, but using my lips–rather than my teeth–to pull my food off of the fork. Never slurping anything, ever. Instead, biting long pasta off when the bits became too much for my mouth to comfortably chew and taking much smaller spoonfuls of soup so as to not cause loud smacking-“this is too hot!”-sounds. “Would you please pass the pepper?” “May I please have some gravy?” “Mom, can I help you polish the silver?” “Which side do the linen napkins go on?” And, “Dad, where would you like me to put this platter?” “Thank you.” “Thank you.” “Thank you.” And, “You’re welcome.”
Which sounds kind of rigid, right?
It wasn’t though. We didn’t have silver and linen at every dinner. Only at the really important ones. China, too. And crystal glasses. With gold-rimmed tops. Some of the most beautiful stuff you’ve ever seen. Once or twice a year it would come out. Most nights, though, we had paper-towel napkins and drank out of glasses heavy with mineral deposits, laughing about whatever had happened that day or that week, sopping up sloppy gravy with cheap biscuits.
But even on the un-fancy nights and especially on the nights when we got to go out to our favorite Mexican restaurant down the hill we always had manners. ‘Please’ gave way to ‘por favor’ and ‘thank you’ gave way to ‘gracias’ during those we’re-not-at-home-but-keep-your-napkin-in-your-lap occasions. I imagine that even on that night when my four-year-old-self puked Maraschino cherries and milk all over that nice young couple’s table, I exited the restaurant saying “Lo ciento! Lo ciento mucho!” and “Pardon!” and “I kept my napkin on my lap the whole time and I never once bit my fork!” while held in my dad’s arms, as he dashed madly for the exit, my mom following just behind. After leaving a 25% tip, of course.
“Can I have that?” I asked my grandmother, pointing at her bag of Cheetos.
“I’m sure that you can. But that’s the wrong way to ask for it,” she said.
I looked at her, very small then, and furrowed my brow, thinking. My dad, her son, had taught me the right way to do this. If I could just remember …
“May I please have some Cheetos, Grandma?” and my little fingers got all sticky-orange from grabbing into that bag, my grandmother tilting the bag in my direction. “Thank you for sharing with me,” I said, in-between loud crunches, with an orange smile.
“You are very welcome,” she said. Almost smiling.
Later in the evening, “May I please have some ice cream, Grandma?” And she would give it to me. Black cherry ice cream, in a small dish. “Thank you for sharing with me,” I said.
“You are very welcome,” she said. Almost smiling.
I can’t remember the last time that I had a Cheeto, or even a bite of black cherry ice cream, other than the times that I’ve written here.
Those are things that never sound good to me.
I do still enjoy the occasional Wheat Thin, however.
“Gimmie 1/4 pound of chicken and 1/4 pound of beef and 3/8 of a pound of truffled-goose pate,” he says.
I slice it all up, cleanly and carefully, package it beautifully, hand it to him over the counter, and say “Happy Holidays, Sir.”
He starts to walk away.
“You are so welcome,” I say.
“What?” he snaps back at me.
“You are so welcome,” I say.
He glares at me and says, “I didn’t say ‘thank you'”.
“I know,” I say, smiling.
My dad and I are driving down Wilshire Boulevard in the heart of the Miracle Mile in his Corvette, top down and he says to me, laughing and smoking, “Hey, Kiddo! You want to know how to piss off a whore?” We’re many years away from poverty, now, as we speed away from all of that down deep into the best part of LA, just next door to Beverly Hills.
“Sure, Dad. How do I piss off a whore?” I ask, reaching over to turn up the radio. ‘Paradise City’ is playing and I’m worried that my hair is getting a little too wind-blown but I totally want to rock out to Guns N’ Roses in my dad’s wicked V8 for a minute.
“Call the whore a whore. Pisses ’em off every time!”
We laugh. And, we lunch at the most recent Premiere restaurant in LA that day. I’m 17 years old and I’m lunching at the best restaurant in LA. And I keep my napkin on my lap and I don’t bite my fork and I say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘may I?’ and I eat steak tartare because I know how to do all of that.
It’s Christmas 1991 and the table is set with my parents’ heavy, gold-etched china. The silver has been polished. The linen has been ironed and we’re about to sit down to dinner. Just the four of us: Mom, Dad, Sister, and me.
I pull my mom’s gold-rimmed Mikasa out of the box and clink it with a flick of my fingers, listen for that beautiful crystal chime and look over to the fireplace where the wood snaps and pops.
My cat, Murray, is drawn to a very chewable plant up on the mantle, up above our hung stockings, and next to a whole group of very Christmas-y candles, all a-light. He does that arch-y cat thing where he motions over and works toward that thing that he wants most. I drop the crystal and scream at him. He stops, right above one of the festive candles, and catches on fire. I run toward him with a linen napkin in my hand. I throw it at him. He freezes and looks at me like I’m crazy. I blow the candle out, grab my cat off of the mantle, and beat the flames out of him, holding him close to me.
“Put some Neosporin on him!” my dad shouts at me.
“You want me to put some Neosporin on the cat?!” I shout back at him, indignantly, Murray purring and rubbing his chin up on my face like this is the best cuddle he ever got, smoke coming up off of the thick, previously a-light fur.
“Have some damn manners and take care of your damn cat!” he says, my mom and sister just behind my dad, doubled-over and laughing, legs crossed, and trying not to pee.