Turning the tables on a familiar figure

Posted Jan. 01, 2009, at 8:17 p.m.

“Hi, gorgeous,” Theresa Spelios called out in singsong to Bob Shapleigh as the man inched his way into the Bear’s Den in Dover-Foxcroft on a recent day.

Before the Dover-Foxcroft resident and frequent customer could sit down, Spelios had a mug of hot coffee waiting for him on the table.

The sprite of a woman, who looks like a teenager but is actually 35 and pregnant to boot, circulates around the restaurant, welcoming everyone like a long-lost relative.

“She’s very bubbly, she’s got a good wit, you can joke with her and she’s quick on the comeback,” Shapleigh, 80, said Tuesday of Spelios.

A member of the Old Crows, a group that gathers at the Dover-Foxcroft restaurant nearly every morning, Shapleigh said Spelios makes his day. “She’s just kinda one of the family.”

Not all waiters and waitresses have Spelios’ disposition.

John Steinbeck, in his book “Travels with Charley,” recalled an experience with a Bangor-area waitress many years ago that left him so “blue and miserable” that he wanted to “crawl into a plastic cover and die.”

“Strange how one person can saturate a room with vitality, with excitement,” Steinbeck wrote. “Then there are others, and this dame was one of them, who can drain off energy and joy, can suck pleasure dry and get no sustenance from it. Such people spread a grayness in the air about them.”

Anyone who dines out knows the experience can be bad or good depending on the disposition of the person serving them. Waitresses like Spelios actually have fun serving others.

Having fun was exactly what one waitress had in mind while serving Michael and Linda Neptune of Augusta and their friends. En route to Bingham to go four-wheeling in recent years, Linda Neptune said their group of 15 stopped at a popular eating place in Skowhegan to have breakfast. They were all eager and happy to spend the day in the woods, she recalled.

Neptune said when the waitresses asked her husband, a known jokester, what he wanted for breakfast, he replied, “Surprise me.” She said her husband received his meal last and it came with what appeared to be a hard-boiled egg on the side. When he picked up the egg and cracked it, its bright yellow yolk covered the table, she recalled. Those around the table erupted in laughter, as did the kitchen staff who had gathered to watch at the kitchen door, she said.

“You did say to surprise you and I guess I did,” the waitress said.

“This memorable breakfast has gone down in history with our group, and the waitress was left a sizable tip for her sense of humor and good nature,” Linda Neptune said.

Like most diners, Judith dePonceau of Dover-Foxcroft has had both good and bad dining experiences, but not all bad experiences were necessarily the servers’ fault.

DePonceau recalled stopping at a restaurant in New Jersey and ordering lobster. “The lobster was just a little worse than indifferent, and for the first time ever, I did not finish eating it. The rolls were good, and warm, with good crusts; the french fries were not first-rate but were tasty. The salad was a sad thing of odds and ends, none too fresh. The green beans were unmistakably canned,” she remembered.

While her friend encouraged her to send the food back or refuse to pay, dePonceau instead asked the waitress if the owner or manager was there. As it turned out, the manager-owner also was the cook.

“I would like you to do something for me,” dePonceau told the waitress. “Tell him that my meal was only half-edible, so I am going to pay only half of the charge listed. If he objects, ask him to please come out and speak with me.” DePonceau recalled the waitress was “taken aback and looked a little frightened,” even after dePonceau assured her the meal was not her fault.

The waitress returned to her table looking a little relieved, dePonceau recalled, and she told dePonceau the manager had said it was OK. DePonceau said she put the money for the meal onto the tray and called the waitress over. “Here, this is for you,” dePonceau recalled telling the waitress. “Your service was fine, and it’s not your fault the food was bad. I’m sorry that I put you into a difficult situation,”

DePonceau added: “I handed her the usual tip, and also, the amount of the half of the bill that I had refused to pay. I had a bad meal, but I had the satisfaction of improving someone else’s day. It improved my day also.”

But there is a flip side to dining out. A waitress or waiter can be as delightful and as attentive as possible and still receive no tip.

Joyce Rose of Searsmont recalled one such experience in the early 1970s when she worked as a waitress in an elegant Camden restaurant. Rose said it was late afternoon at the height of the summer tourist season, when a well-known United States ambassador arrived with a large group of his yachting friends.

Rose said she felt lucky that she would be serving the party. “It was exciting, for as the next five hours passed I was kept running with several rounds of mixed drinks, bowls of our famous lobster stew, extra crackers, biscuits, coffee, extra cream, more coffee, several kinds of homemade pie and finally one last round of drinks,” she recalled.

Rose said that at closing time, as the party rose from the table, some of the gentlemen offered her a slightly slurred thank-you. The ambassador, who was the last to stand, stopped and gave her a “boisterous hug and wink-wink toward the table,” she recalled in an e-mail. “I was pretty excited as I began to clean up. Between dinner for 12 and the bar tab, the total check was well over $300, (a vast sum in those days), and as my only clients for the evening, that usually meant a good tip and possibly a bonus.”

When Rose’s boss came over and told her the ambassador and his party were well pleased by their meals and her excellent service, she became even more excited.

“Even though it’s been nearly 40 years, I still remember making myself wait, letting the anticipation build as I finished washing down the table and chairs, smiling as I vacuumed the dining room and got ready to leave. I was still smiling as I went to the cashier and asked for my tip from the ambassador’s party. You guessed it. No tip, no bonus … nothing.”

Spelios said she could relate to Rose’s experience, but those events are overshadowed by the fun she has socializing with the customers. Joking with the diners, refilling someone’s coffee and greeting old and new friends to the restaurant is all part of the job, a job she loves, she said.

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