By Barry Maher
A while back, I was discussing a job opening at lunch with a woman who had initially appeared to be a promising candidate. She’d only eaten about half of her spaghetti while going on at great length about the shortcomings of her current employer. Once the food was cold, she asked the waiter for a doggy bag, and he brought a Styrofoam takeout container and a good size paper bag. While we waited for the check and continued talking, she emptied the spaghetti into the container. Then she took a half-eaten piece of bread off her bread plate and put it in on top.
She pointed to the three good sized pieces of bread remaining in the bread basket and asked, “Are you going to eat any of that?” When I said “No,” one more piece of bread went into the container. She closed the container, slide it into the paper bag, then tossed in the other two pieces of bread.
As the check came and I gave the waiter my credit card, she was fingering one of the sealed bags of tea in the selection of little packets that had come with the tea she’d ordered. She shrugged, then picked it up and put it into the bag.
“Oh, what the heck,” she said and dumped the whole basket of teas into the bag. She grabbed a few packets of sweetener and put them in. As the conversation continued, a few more went in, then a few more, until all the sweeteners were gone.
The waiter returned with the credit card slip. I signed it and as I usually do, left the tip in cash, and the woman and I got up to leave.
After a few steps, she said, “Oh, just a minute,” and went back to the table. Her back was to me so I couldn’t see what she was doing. But when she moved back toward me I have to say, I examined the table pretty closely. I really thought she might have picked up the tip. She hadn’t but, unbelievably, both the salt and pepper shakers were gone. The only condiment left on the table was a half-filled bottle of olive oil which probably only survived because it had an open spout rather than a cap.
Needless to say, I didn’t offer her the job. I had a phone number for her husband on her resume and I considered calling him and telling him about her strange behavior but I didn’t do that either. Maybe, I thought, he’d find it normal. Maybe they had a house full of stale bread and salt and pepper shakers. Maybe they were starving, though she had a good paying, if obviously unsatisfying job and she certainly didn’t appear underfed. So I simply considered this an amusing story and let it go.
It wasn’t nearly as amusing six days later when I read in the local paper that she’d been picked up by the police completely disoriented, disheveled and dirty, wandering down the median strip of the freeway. It was a miracle she hadn’t been killed. What was less than miraculous was how many people like me must have ignored her problems in order for her to end up on that freeway. She could have been my sister. She could have been my mother. She could have been dead.