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
"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
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
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.