Stevie Wonder

 

If this doesn't light your fire .... your wood is wet!

 

I try not to be biased, but I had my doubts about hiring

Stevie. His placement counselor assured me that he would be

a good, reliable busboy.

 

But I had never had a mentally handicapped employee and

wasn't sure I wanted one. I wasn't sure how my

customers would react to Stevie.

 

He was short, a little dumpy with the smooth facial features

and thick-tongued speech of Downs Syndrome. I wasn't

worried about most of my trucker customers because truckers

don't generally care who buses tables as long as the

meatloaf platter is good and the pies are homemade.

 

The four-wheeler drivers were the ones who concerned me; the

mouthy college kids traveling to school; the yuppie snobs

who secretly polish their silverware with their napkins for

fear of catching some dreaded "truck stop germ,"

the pairs of white-shirted business men on expense accounts

who think every truck stop waitress wants to be flirted

with. I knew those people would be uncomfortable around

Stevie so I closely watched him for the first few weeks.

 

I shouldn't have worried. After the first week, Stevie

had my staff wrapped around his stubby little finger, and

within a month my truck regulars had adopted him as their

official truck stop mascot.

 

After that, I really didn't care what the rest of the

customers thought of him. He was like a 21-year-old kid in

blue jeans and Nikes, eager to laugh and eager to please,

but fierce in his attention to his duties. Every salt and

pepper shaker was exactly in its place, not a bread crumb or

coffee spill was visible when Stevie got done with the

table. Our only problem was persuading him to wait to clean

a table until after the customers were finished. He would

hover in the background, shifting his weight from one foot

to the other, scanning the dining room until a table was

empty. Then he would scurry to the empty table and carefully

bus dishes and glasses onto his cart and meticulously wipe

the table up with a practiced flourish of his rag. If he

thought a customer was watching, his brow would pucker with

added concentration. He took pride in doing his job exactly

right, and you had to love how hard he tried to please each

and every person he met.

 

Over time, we learned that he lived with his mother, a widow

who was disabled after repeated surgeries for cancer. They

lived on their Social Security benefits in public housing

two miles from the truck stop. Their social worker, who

stopped to check on him every so often, admitted they had

fallen between the cracks. Money was tight, and what I paid

him was probably the difference between them being able to

live together and Stevie being sent to a group home.

That's why the restaurant was a gloomy place that

morning last August, the first morning in three years that

Stevie missed work.

 

He was at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester getting a new

valve or something put in his heart. His social worker said

that people with Downs Syndrome often have heart problems at

an early age so this wasn't unexpected, and there was a

good chance he would come through the surgery in good shape

and be back at work in a few months.

 

A ripple of excitement ran through the staff later that

morning when word came that he was out of surgery, in

recovery, and doing fine. Frannie, the head waitress, let

out a war hoop and did a little dance in the aisle when she

heard the good news.

 

Marvin Ringers, one of our regular trucker customers, stared

at the sight of this 50-year-old grandmother of four doing a

victory shimmy beside his table. Frannie blushed, smoothed

her apron and shot Marvin a withering look. He grinned.

"OK, Frannie, what was that all about?" he asked.

 

"We just got word that Stevie is out of surgery and

going to be okay." "I was wondering where he was.

I had a new joke to tell him. What was the surgery

about?" Frannie quickly told Marvin and the other two

drivers sitting at his booth about Stevie's surgery,

then sighed: " Yeah, I'm glad he is going to be

OK," she said. "But I don't know how he and

his Mom are going to handle all the bills. From what I hear,

they're barely getting by as it is." Marvin nodded

thoughtfully, and Frannie hurried off to wait on the rest of

her tables. Since I hadn't had time to round up a busboy

to replace Stevie and really didn't want to replace him,

the girls were busing their own tables that day until we

decided what to do.

 

After the morning rush, Frannie walked into my office. She

had a couple of paper napkins in her hand and a funny look

on her face.

 

"What's up?" I asked.

 

"I didn't get that table where Marvin and his

friends were sitting cleared off after they left, and Pete

and Tony were sitting there when I got back to clean it

off," she said. "This was folded and tucked under

a coffee cup." She handed the napkin to me, and three

$20 bills fell onto my desk when I opened it. On the

outside, in big, bold letters, was printed "Something

For Stevie."

"Pete asked me what that was all about," she said,

"so I told him about Stevie and his Mom and everything,

and Pete looked at Tony and Tony looked at Pete, and they

ended up giving me this." She handed me another paper

napkin that had "Something For Stevie"scrawled on

its outside. Two $50 bills were tucked with in its folds.

Frannie looked at me with wet, shiny eyes, shook her head

and said simply: "truckers."

 

That was three months ago. Today is Thanksgiving, the first

day Stevie is supposed to be back to work.

 

His placement worker said he's been counting the days

until the doctor said he could work, and it didn't

matter at all that it was a holiday. He called 10 times in

the past week, making sure we knew he was coming, fearful

that we had forgotten him or that his job was in jeopardy. I

arranged to have his mother bring him to work. I then met

them in the parking lot and invited them both to celebrate

his day back.

 

Stevie was thinner and paler, but couldn't stop grinning

as he pushed through the doors and headed for the back room

where his apron and busing cart were waiting.

 

"Hold up there, Stevie, not so fast," I said. I

took him and his mother by their arms. "Work can wait

for a minute. To celebrate your coming back, breakfast for

you and your mother is on me!" I led them toward a

large corner booth at the rear of the room.

 

I could feel and hear the rest of the staff following behind

as we marched through the dining room. Glancing over my

shoulder, I saw booth after booth of grinning truckers empty

and join the procession. We stopped in front of the big

table. Its surface was covered with coffee cups, saucers and

dinner plates, all sitting slightly crooked on dozens of

folded paper napkins. "First thing you have to do,

Stevie, is clean up this mess," I said. I tried to

sound stern.

 

Stevie looked at me, and then at his mother, then pulled out

one of the napkins. It had "Something for Stevie"

printed on the outside. As he picked it up, two $10 bills

fell onto the table.

 

Stevie stared at the money, then at all the napkins peeking

from beneath the tableware, each with his name printed or

scrawled on it. I turned to his mother. "There's

more than $10,000 in cash and checks on that table, all from

truckers and trucking companies that heard about your

problems. "Happy Thanksgiving."

 

Well, it got real noisy about that time, with everybody

hollering and shouting, and there were a few tears, as

well.

 

But you know what's funny? While everybody else was busy

shaking hands and hugging each other, Stevie, with a big

smile on his face, was busy clearing all the cups and dishes

from the table..

 

Best worker I ever hired.

 

Plant a seed and watch it grow.