To the front and back of me, the blue and gold geometric pattern in the industrial grade carpet repeated every few feet as far as I could see. I had not really noticed it before, as I am typically enveloped in a sloshing sea of people moving with a great sense of purpose in both directions. But today, concourse D at the John Foster Dulles International Airport is uncommonly uninhabited. The rectilinear aging corridors and the 1980s–era sagging black pleather and scuffed aluminum sling-style connected chairs are eerily empty. It is Saturday May 23rd and slap in the middle of the highly popular Memorial Day weekend, which I assume is the reason for the lack of air travelers. I suppose most folks prefer to jam roads instead of airports for this particular holiday. Nevertheless it does not seem as though this vacationer lull was fully anticipated by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Association, or at least by some of the businesses in the terminal.
Part way through an endless several billion dollar upgrade program, the antiquated people movers or “mobile lounges” as imaginatively titled by the busy airport have been mostly replaced by a train system. The train, which seems to be modern and efficient, appears to work well, except that there are some really time-consuming ambles at either end. Presumably when the airport modernization program is complete there will be more of a seamless integration, but today at each end we have an amateur maze of meandering corridors, ubiquitous stairs, and near-vertical escalators like you might find in parts of the London Underground. And the train does not even go to Terminal D, for that you have to endure the mobile lounge black comedy or you can take the train part way to Terminal C and hoof it to Terminal D. Should you manage to look the part, you can flag down and appeal to golf carts for assistance on your expedition. After the protracted march to the train, and the even longer trek from the train stop in Terminal C, you enter the extensive, snaking corridor of Terminal D.
Even after this expedition, due to the absence of throngs at security and elsewhere we had some pre-flight time to kill and the long white marble bar at the Bistro Atelier, close to gate D15, beckoned. We had indeed arrived at the restaurant at the end of the concourse. The bistro looked authentically European, a welcoming watering hole for an espresso and a read of Le Figaro, such as you might find on busy Boulevard Haussmann in pre-Nazi occupied Paris. It seemed to have been mysteriously supplanted into this 1970s era, dingy airport terminal, 20 miles to the west of Washington DC. In front of the extensive line of empty, comfortable 1930s-style barstools there were no less than five smiling, welcoming servers, each wearing matching white waistcoats and dark, once-stripy pants.
It became abundantly clear that the wait staff was experiencing a very slow day at this distantly placed locale, which as we all understand in the American bistro business goes straight to the wallet. A subtle but noticeable competitive spirit materialized as servers jostled and independently motioned towards empty tables all around us, to our left, right, and to the front and back. Five eager pairs of eyes rapidly scanned and roved like searchlights attempting to make contact as we strode with an appearance of urgency, eyes forward, heads down, directly to the inviting elongated bar, where F.C. Barcelona was hammering some other La Liga team on the TV.
Outside of our direct line of sight and earshot some paper-scissors-rock competitive process had to have taken place and the winning attendant appeared suddenly on the other side of the bar just as we were seating ourselves. The other four servers remained faithfully standing in place with large, fake wooing smiles, as they continued to hold the greet line at the bistro’s entrance on what could be the slowest day in the restaurant’s history. Rajendra, the winning waiter, appeared to be highly proficient and somewhat hurried, as he welcomed us loudly and quickly whilst simultaneously handing us menus and expectantly placing drink napkins on the clean empty marble surface. He hovered with intent as we scanned the underwhelming menu choices, which was one long, plastic covered page with drinks on one side and food on the other.
“Got any fish?” I asked bluntly as that is always my lunch-out preference these days. “Oh yeeesss, we have fiiish,” as he hastily motioned his hand around the menu in an inwardly spiraling fashion before arriving at the solitary fish offering of Tilapia. In real time I read the French-y sounding description and ordered the Tilapia with the salad dressing on the side. Raj then turned his complete attention to my wife, successfully pressuring her for an equally quick order. Under insurmountable stress she complied reluctantly with his enthusiastic suggestion of the French dip sandwich. Resplendent in the speed of the order, Raj brusquely entered the data into the lonely machine over by the till.
But then havoc wreaked. Make it snappy Raj had entered the wrong selection for me, and my wife, now having had the chance to actually read the menu, saw an opportunity to change her order to the curried chicken crepe. Raj was visibly startled and sweating and called urgently for help from the other non-working servers to input complex change instructions into the computerized ordering system. It was taking valuable time as Raj fidgeted and kept looking at his watch. To make matters worse the idle kitchen staff had instantaneously started preparing both wrong orders. Knowing that the bored chef had jumped on the first opportunity to prepare food in an age, Raj started loudly calling out order changes in the general direction of the kitchen as he and two others fiddled with the order machine. “The Tilapia platter, not the sandwich,” he cried out losing part of his waiter-ly demeanor. “With the dressing on the side.” “You ordered the sandwich,” said some loud faceless voice from the kitchen order hole-in-the-wall. “The customer changed his mind,” Raj yelled back. “No I didn’t,” I said to my wife, “You changed yours.” “And it’s a curried chicken crepe not a French dip sandwich,” yelled Raj adding insult to the chef’s injury.
After another few minutes of nouveau vaudeville, Raj, with great aplomb, proudly placed both correct orders directly in front of us. “It’s the end of my shift,” he said matter of fact-ly, “and my boss wants me to clear out my checks,” as he near-simultaneously presented the bill for the food that we hadn’t yet started eating. “We might want dessert,” I replied. “Ooooh we don’t really do desserts,” he retorted. “What about apple pie?” I pressed with a genuine sense of interest. “No apple pie, no cheesecake, nothing like that at all—just a couple things that you probably wouldn’t like,” was his monotonic response, accompanied by a hand swoosh towards the kitchen.
No longer in sales mode, Raj was trying fervently to realize his exit with at least one paying customer on this slowest of days. Sensing that my body language conveyed a continued sense of interest in dessert he relented and reproduced menus and an offer for another lonely server to take over should we desire one of their unappealing puddings. He rapidly picked up the signed check from us while wearing a mix of server and street clothes, thanking us as he bolted from the bistro presumably to get to his next job or his beach house for the remainder of the holiday weekend. At least the food was pretty good.
Note: The waiter’s name was changed for this true story so as not to unnecessarily expose someone who was perhaps just having a bad day.