The owner told me; “I tried not to be biased, but I had my doubts about hiring Fred to work in my restaurant. His placement counselor assured me that he would be reliable but as I have never had a mentally handicapped employee work here before, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted one. And, I wasn’t sure how my customers would react to Fred.”
“Why? I asked.” “Well, Fred has the thick-tongued speech of someone with Down’s syndrome, is short, and looks rather young for the job. I’m not worried about my trucker customers because they didn’t care who worked their tables as long as the meatloaf was good and the hamburgers homemade. It was the loud mouthed college kids, high school kids and yuppie snobs who secretly polish their silverware with napkins for fear of catching some dreaded truckstop germ; the white-shirted businessmen who think every waitress wants to sleep with them, I was concered about.”
“What did you decide?” I asked. “I knew that they might be uncomfortable around Fred so I watched him closely for the first few weeks but I needn’t have worried. After the first week, he had my staff wrapped around his little finger and within a month, my truck regulars had adopted him as their official mascot. After that I stopped caring what the others thought. He was like a 21-year-old in blue jeans and sport shoes, eager to laugh and to please but never got distracted from his duties. Every salt and pepper shaker was in place, and no coffee spills or breadcrumbs were visible when he was done with a table. The problem was how to convince him to wait until after the customers were finished before clearing their table. He hovered in the background, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, scanning the dining room until a table had been vacated. Fred took pride in doing things the right way; exactly right. He also tried to please every person he met.
“Over a period of time, Fred told us that he lived with his mother, a widow, who suffered from cancer and that they existed on their social security benefits. Money was tight and what I paid him was probably the difference between them being able to live together or have Fred move to a group home.”
“Last October, for the first time in three years, Fred missed work; he was in the hospital getting a new valve put in his heart. His social worker explained that people with Down’s Syndrome often have heart problems at an early age and there was a good chance that he would come through the surgery in good shape and be back at work after a couple of months. A ripple of relief ran through the workers on the morning that word came to say he was in recovery and doing fine but I heard one of my waitresses tell a customer that she did not know how Fred would pay the hospital bills. After the morning rush, that waitress walked into my office holding a couple of paper napkins in her hand, a strange expression on her face.”
‘What’s up?” I asked.
“I only got to the table near the door after they had left and when I picked up a coffee cup, I found this underneath, neatly folded inside the napkin … three $20 bills fell onto my desk and when I opened it up, ‘something for Fred,’ was printed on the outside. On other tables I found two $50 bills also wrapped in napkins with the same kind of note.”
“What happened next?”
“Three months later, Fred returned to work. His mother brought him. I met them in the parking lot and invited them both to celebrate his return. He was thinner and paler but could not wipe the grin off his face. As he entered the restaurant he started to work but I told him that work could wait for a few minutes. Fred, I said, to celebrate your return, breakfast for you and your mother is on me. I led them to a corner booth at the rear of the room, the rest of the staff following us. The truckers followed too. We stopped in front of a long table, its surface covered with coffee cups, saucers and large plates all lying a bit crooked on dozens of folded paper napkins.”
“First thing you have to do, Fred, is to clean up this mess,” I said, trying to sound stern. Fred looked at me and then at his mother as he pulled out one of the napkins. It had something for Fred, printed on the outside. As he picked it up, two $10 bills fell onto the table. Fred stared at the money then at all the napkins peeking from beneath the tableware, with with his name printed or scrawled on each. I turned to his mother. “There’s more than $10,000 in cash and checks on that table, all from truckers and trucking companies that heard about your problems. There was a lot of noise, laughter and some tears too and while everyone was shaking hands and hugging one another, Fred, with a smile from ear to ear, was busy clearing all the cups and dishes from that table. Fred was no doubt the best worker I have ever hired.”