The Old Man in the Restaurant

Don’t be a borderline chameleon. I had the following dream and was lucky to remember it.

It was about 10 o’clock Saturday night. Tomorrow I was supposed to work downtown at a new Italian place. The owner was both older and old school. Instead of calling to double check my arrival time, I thought I’d go in person to show some initiative. So I turned off the TV, put on some shoes and headed out the door.

I was between careers and needed to pay the bills. Restaurant work is great for that: most people do it once, but few do it forever. All the same, you’re working on your employer’s dream. Each employee must play their part to perfection. It’s like a symphony. If anyone is off they’ll face the wrath of a perfectionist owner, hell bent on making his business work.

The bistro had a quaint appearance. As I approached, faint tealights burned behind transparent curtains. They tried to make it feel romantic, dimly lit with soft burning light bulbs. No one was inside, surprising for 10 on a Saturday. But the place had just opened.

I popped my head in, not seeing anyone. The old man came out, preoccupied by staff I couldn’t immediately see or hear. At first he thought I wanted a table. “Welcome”, he said, forcing a smile through a wrinkled face. “I have a table for two by the window.”

“No thank you”, I replied. “My name is David, I’m supposed to work tomorrow. What time do you need me in?”

“Oh yes, David”, the “i” pronounced with a slight Italian accent.

The old man was born outside Florence, Italy. Then he moved to Rome and eventually to Brooklyn. He became a citizen 40 years ago, married and had a family. He worked in his uncle’s restaurant in New York City. Now that his children had grown, he had moved out of the city and onto Long Island. The tiny village I called home had just 5,000 people, but it was a hub for city slickers looking for small boutique art galleries and eateries.

He rightly spotted a good restaurant opportunity, safely away from the cut-throat metro scene. When he interviewed me over the phone, he said my town was like the one he grew up in: quiet, no traffic and good people. I sensed he was trying to recreate a lost youth in his retirement, having lived the American dream and yearning for a connection to his distant past.

The inside was a shrine to Italy. Walls were decorated with art, artifacts and small collectibles. A cross hung next to the kitchen door. Fine wines were carefully shelved in view of the nicer tables.

This was his dream. It was his passion, the culmination of his life’s work. It was a chance to do his own thing now that the intractable responsibilities of raising a young immigrant family had passed.

“David…”, he seemed lost in thought, “I scheduled you for tomorrow – Sunday?”, he asked, temporarily unsure of what he wanted to say. “I scheduled…you?”

“Why yes,” I answered, “We spoke last week on the phone. I was hoping to wait tables here.”

He furrowed his brow, straightened up, and started to rub his belly. His eyes traced downward, glasses slipping down his nose. He seemed disappointed. Was I not tall enough? Was he expecting someone more attractive, to woo the female customers? Was I not short enough? Someone who could be chummy and non-threatening with the men? Guys especially, don’t ever want their waiter to distract their dates from an expensive meal.

Or was I not what he expected? Or did he really expect me at all?

“Ah, David…okay, I need you tomorrow at 4. Can you come?”

He sat down on a backless swivel chair. And here is where my dreaming mind suddenly suspended the laws of physics. He slowly spun around the chair without touching the ground. Just slowly but consistently, chin resting on a calloused thumb and forefinger, supported by an elbow nestled over a tired upper body.

What was going on here? I wanted to say, “Yes!” and hustle back home. But he seemed very unsure, almost questioning his decision to hire me. I thought visiting in person would satisfy any doubts. Here I am, 10:15 on a Saturday, taking time out to confirm my schedule. This is a good employee, right?

What more did he want?

Now finishing his second rotation on the chair, I became nervous. “Is that Okay? Should I come early to fold napkins, buff silverware and glasses?” I was trying to impress him. In high school I bussed tables and remember the routine the waiters performed each day before customers arrived.

“Umm…”, he uttered, no longer spinning. He looked at me. Then past me. One of the tea lights was out. He seemed bothered by it, making a mental note to light a new one immediately after he was done with me.

“I’ll have you come at 3, that is fine. We don’t have many reservations. Maybe 5-10 people will walk in. You did all the paperwork?”

“Yes I did, I received it in the mail. I’ll bring it tomorrow.”

A lithe older lady suddenly appeared. Without a word, she gave the old man a glance, which he immediately understood, offering a slight nod in reply. She shuffled some menus, then grabbed the reservation book off the desk, retiring to the small office next to the kitchen. As yet, no kitchen staff appeared, though I heard some noises back there: the clinking of plates, cracking of olive oil, and a muffled radio with a soccer game on.

I think he was expecting more. After all, this was his dream. But I didn’t want to believe he was that naive. How many staff worked at his Uncle’s place over the years, and what number shared his Uncle’s dream? I’d be surprised if anyone outside his tight knit family cared. They made their money, got their tips and went home. That’s all I wanted.

“David, you will be second in, she…” motioning to the woman who just left the room, “…will work front tables. You work back.” Maybe this was his test. Maybe he didn’t trust me. Maybe this woman just needed the money.

“Thanks, that should be fine,” though I was hoping for better tables, which would likely be sat with the few patrons arriving tomorrow.

What more did I want? For him to be overjoyed I decided to work for him instead of the hardware store down the street? To welcome me aboard, arms outreached in a loving embrace, if only for a brief while? Would that have been honest or realistic?

The dream briefly paused. I wondered what would have been better to say to him, just to impress him, to assure him I was a good choice, without being too insincere.

Maybe I should have said, “I’ll be here at 1. I’ll help you clean the dining area, prep the bar and set the tables. I’ll stay afterwards to help you clean up.” Would that have been better?

Perhaps I just wanted this man’s acceptance, something he seemed reluctant to give me since the moment I walked in. Yet I knew, in several months, maybe a year, I’d be quitting and hopefully starting my own career. One which didn’t involve restaurant work. I was only doing this for the money.

* * *

At this point I must have woken up. I didn’t remember the dream until later. I made three interpretations before sitting down to write this post.

1. The dream was about my father

I think my father loves me. And I think he wants the best for me: to succeed, to be happy, to have meaning and purpose in life. But I also suspect I’m not quite what he expected.

I realized that long before I got my BPD diagnosis. During my toughest years, I felt really rejected and unloved by my father. It was more than disagreeing with my job, opinions or ideas. He just didn’t like who I was fundamentally and couldn’t find a way to workaround it.

Was the reserved old man my father?

2. Borderlines act like whomever they’re with.

It often goes beyond an appropriate modulation to social environments.

For example, everyone naturally is louder, jollier and goofier at parties. But the Borderline will take this a step further. She will not only act this way, but adapt similar beliefs, feelings and sentiments as those around her. She’ll find herself agreeing with opinions she would’ve found unappealing a week before.

She does this to fit in. To be accepted and loved. In reality it is far more than necessary. You can be yourself and still have a good time. It is overcompensation for fear of being rejected.

In my dream, I desperately wanted the old man’s approval, even though I wasn’t what he expected. I began to doubt myself in a self critical way, hoping my height and appearance were different in order to please him. I even hoped I could sell him on my desire to work in his restaurant as bad as he did!

Some would think the man critical or judgmental. How could he reject me? But isn’t he entitled to his own preferences, especially in his own business?

And that’s what many Borderlines misinterpret: everyone has different needs, boundaries, desires and goals. It would have been fraudulent for him to accept me as his ideal waiter. He was obviously hoping for something different.

And likewise it was fraudulent of me to pretend I cared more than I really did. Borderline dynamics often force these inauthentic interactions. In the end people end up disappointed and angry.

3. Borderlines frequently struggle with their identities.

Deep down, they don’t know who they are. This causes immense grief during stressful times. It is anxiety provoking during transition points in life.

I knew full well I wasn’t going to be waiting tables indefinitely. I had much bigger dreams. Isn’t it OK to accept that about myself? Why should I feel bad about not meeting someone else’s expectations?

Obviously this is BPD meets Social Anxiety meets Identity Crisis balled into one.

I think accepting what one’s journey is, teamed with good doses of humility and determination, can provide substantial inner peace and direction. An identity disturbance can derail this mission.

So instead of looking within, the Borderline concludes everyone else doesn’t get them. This belief manufactures a victim in constant conflict with the world around them.

Rejection happens as a matter of circumstance, timing and another person’s preferences. You can’t change circumstances and timing. And people are allowed to have their own needs, boundaries and dreams. It doesn’t mean the rejected person is bad. The rejected only thinks she is bad because that’s how she’s felt for the longest time.

This reaction must be defused in order for the borderline to tolerate reality.

A unique irony appears. Everything which seems like it is about everyone else, is really about you.

Learn yourself from the inside out.