By Darius Baier
1986 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley
The restaurant was empty. The lunch rush was over, and a solitary waitress sat in the far left corner scrutinizing receipts. She glanced up from her work and registered my presence with mild shock. I felt like I had missed an important sign and stumbled into the women’s restroom.
She recovered and gestured authoritatively in the vague direction of the tables on the opposite side of the dining area. I obediently crept into a seat in the designated general area that would give my back the wall and sat up straight, ignoring the compulsive need to pull out my phone, feeling like I was waiting to see the principal.
My solitary waitress approached quickly and set the menu before me like an accusation, a damning piece of evidence proving my complicity in some heinous crime. I politely asked for water.
The water arrived in moments, and I had already made my decision. Playing it safe, I ordered the falafel, the only Mediterranean food that I was familiar with. Satisfied with my confession, my solitary waitress disappeared into the kitchen, still unsmiling. I got the impression, a sudden realization, that she never smiled, and this blind judgment made her demeanor seem natural and inoffensive. The woman-who-never-smiled left me alone in the dining area to gaze outside at the sunlight filtering in through the windows and the happy people passing by the restaurant, none of whom entered; and I waited for my food.
I passed the time by taking stock of my waiting area. A geopolitical map of the Middle East covered the ceiling, and there were murals on all sides but the front, which was dominated by windows. The ubiquitous flat-screen TV obscured the center of a colorful sea-side village behind me. Across from me, a mosque rose up from an indistinct city resting behind a green grass foreground. To my right, above the counter and the glass display case of Mediterranean confections, there was a disjointed mural formed of three photographs photoshopped together by someone who had recently discovered this technology and was still working out the kinks in their method. A ground-lit mosque at night bled incoherently into an ancient ruin under a blazing sun. The tan dirt on which these ancient hovels were built then, without pretext or elegance, morphed into the water of a bay surrounding another mosque in the light of day. Time lost all meaning and proportion as I racked my brain to find some reason in these transitioning images, and my food seemed to arrive only seconds after I had ordered it.
The woman-who-never-smiled set the food on my table. I looked down at the plate that cost me eight dollars and was happy. The portions were good, and when the smell filled my nose, I felt like I hadn’t eaten in days. The smell of warm pita bread and hot falafel made me smile at the woman-who-never-smiled and thank her like a starving man.
It may have been the goofy look I had on my face. Her persona morphed from DMV clerk to gracious in a flash. She smiled at me in an almost motherly way and asked if there was anything else I needed. I nearly blushed at the attention. I said I didn’t need anything else, and she gave me another warm smile before walking away and leaving me to my food. The falafel was juicy without being greasy. The bread was fresh. I ate like a caveman, and the rest of the meal was a blur. I left satisfied, waving and smiling at my waitress. She smiled back.