Being between a rock and a hard place

She arrived at happy hour the way she does almost every week. She is one of a set of business professionals that come in various mixed combinations. The small group supported us through the pandemic, and before. They are the backbone on which businesses like ours are built.

“Kyra is meeting me here,” she said, noting there were no seats available.

And even if there were, she knows that we don’t allow the saving of seats for people who have not arrived yet. It’s a decree that was decided upon after someone saved four seats during a Friday night rush only to then move immediately to a table when his guests arrived, thereby costing the bar as much revenue as three seats can offer in the middle of the rush. And that is a considerable amount.

She wasn’t asking for special consideration; she was merely alerting me to the impending arrival of her friend.

“We’ll see what we can do,” I said, not committing, because if there is one thing I have learned behind the bar, it is to never speak in absolutes.

Some 10 minutes later, a man and a woman appeared.

“Are you looking for seats?” I asked, after they stalked up and down the bar.

“We are,” replied the man.

As I walked over to them, I was passed by the friend of the seated woman arriving.

“I will see about getting you in next,” I said to the man, just as two people next to that original woman got up to leave. The newly arrived woman sat down in the now-empty seat next to her friend.

It was the definition of a dilemma — two choices, but neither one perfect. Was I to argue about a technicality or just let it go? Life is a series of choices, some perfect, and some not. And often the correctness of our choices remains ambiguous.

For instance, would things have been better if I had taken that other job? Or that other lover? We often never really know. Unlike Neo in “The Matrix,” things are not blue and red, nor are they black and white. They are in fact shades of gray, or purple, if you will.

In my current dilemma, who was next? It wasn’t entirely clear. But I made a choice — I had to — and that choice was based on my belief that technicalities are unimportant and that two women sitting and one man standing is better than a man sitting at the expense of a woman. Let’s call it gentlemanly.

It didn’t seem to be a problem. It shouldn’t be that long before another seat opened up, I thought. The man had probably made the same calculation that I did. There were no tables available in the restaurant and he had no reservation, so his options were limited to what they were.

Meanwhile, the two regulars ordered wine and dinner, just like they always do. The new couple split a hamburger and shared a beer.

Thirty minutes later, the new man asked for his check. Everything had seemed fine. He did eat his half burger standing, but that was his choice to do so.

“I just want to let you know,” he began, waving me over. “That I am not from around here. I have never been here before, and probably was never going to return anyway.”

OK, I thought.

“But I am never going to recommend this restaurant to anyone ever.”

“I am sorry to hear that,” I said, truly sorry to hear that.

“You told me to my face that I was next, and then you let that woman sit in my chair.”

“I am sorry you feel that way,” I said, knowing that when people are upset, rarely does explaining anything help.

But then a curious thing happened. He explained it for me.

“Those women probably come here all the time,” he said.

“They do,” I said.

“And the one was clearly here before me, and the other just after me.”

“That is correct,” I replied.

“And they are both women, whereas I am a man,” he added.

“Also correct.”

Never before had someone so eloquently spelled out exactly my decision-making process.

“But none of that matters,” he said. “It was your job to go tell her to get out of my seat. And you failed at your job. Your tip will reflect how poorly you treated us.”

Leaving me with these thoughts:

• That certainly is not my job, and his definition of “success” and “failure” seems particularly self-serving.

• “It is good to be hated by the right people,” once said Johnny Cash.

• Telling man to be a gentleman only proves that he isn’t.

• It is never “your” seat. It is “our” seat, and we are letting you sit in it.

• The results of a choice are often ambiguous. But sometimes it is perfectly clear that you made exactly the right decision.