Defensiveness can be one tough customer

TWO MINUTES INTO my shift and it was a wonderful day. I had taken two steps to my right and shook hands with a smiling regular customer; two steps to my left and I high-fived the barback; straightening my tie, I stepped up to the couple finishing the last of a half-dozen fresh oysters.

Knowing that asking questions while someone else is chewing is the height of rudeness, I held up my hand in the three-finger salute with a rounded forefinger and thumb — universal for “Everything OK?”

“We need another six,” croaked out the gentleman, who was clearly unaware that while being asked a question when one is chewing may be rude on the asker’s part, starting conversations when you are chewing yourself is rude in the opposite direction.

The second half-dozen oysters arrived quickly; a high-functioning kitchen is a joy to all who come into contact with it. I have worked in too many restaurants where the raw oysters take the longest amount of time to prepare. Not so tonight, one more thing going just right.

Mr. Mouthful and his companion had just enjoyed the first of their new batch of bivalves.

“This second round is better than the first,” he said before swallowing.

I noticed they were drinking two martinis.

“Some things are better with a martini,” I said in passing.

Back down the bar I went, Mr. Bluebird on my shoulder.

“Perfect weather for a rose,” I said to a couple after noting her oenological choice.

“I love the burger here,” I said to a man in mid-bite, making it clear that no answer was necessary.

All in all, I was engaging in exactly the type of banter that bartenders do every single day, everywhere, with everyone. I returned to Mr. Mouthful after my goodwill sojourn.

“I can’t believe you said that,” he said.

I looked around to see who he was talking to.


“Yes, you,” he said, causing his companion to shift uncomfortably.

“What did I say?”

“You said that the food here is only good if you’re drunk.”


“You said that you need to be drunk to enjoy the food here.”

“I said no such thing.”

“Well, that is what you inferred.”

Although grammatically incorrect, he was right about one thing: A speaker implies, and a listener infers. In this case, he was inferring a meaning that was simply not there and then extrapolating on that meaning to the point of ridiculousness.

“I am sorry that you took it that way. That is not at all what I meant.”

“What did you mean?”

“I just meant that sometimes a martini can take the edge off.”

“Are you saying I drink too much?”

His companion was looking at him in the same disbelieving way that I’m sure was mirrored on my own face.

“That’s not what I meant.”

“Well, exactly what did you mean?”

“I didn’t mean anything. I just meant those two things go together; that’s all.”

He eyed me suspiciously.

By then the bluebird on my shoulder was long gone, and along with most of the wonderfulness of my day.

His companion shifted again, indicating that her day, too, had suffered. Soon, thereafter, they left.

Of everyone who came and went that evening they were the only two to whom I didn’t bid a good night, for obvious reasons. This left me with these thoughts:

• “The best defense is a good offense,” is a war adage often applied to sports. I might suggest it be added to psychology as well.

• Oysters only in months with an “R” is a saying that lost merit when refrigeration came about.

• “The dull mind, once arriving at an inference that flatters the desire, is rarely able to retain the impression that the notion from which the inference started was purely problematic,” wrote author George Eliot, who was actually a woman named Mary Anne Evans.

• As uncomfortable as it is to witness such an odd encounter, having it directed at you is more uncomfortable still — it’s something I’m sure Mr. Mouthful’s companion is now considering.