"Mr. Cohen, Do You Mind If I Ask You a Weird Question?"
Last night we celebrated his job at a new restaurant we'd been curious about, a nouveau Asian vegetarian place, and it was beautifully decorated but so high-tech that it couldn't meet customer requests. Painful negotiations with the waitress were required before we could get anything that wasn't strictly on the menu: there was a veggie quesadilla on the menu but we couldn't order a plain cheese quesadilla; there was a fancy pizza on the menu but we couldn't order a plain cheese pizza; some entrees came with salads but we couldn't order a salad a la carte. "The thing is, we'd have to make up a price for it, and we can only price things that are in our computer." The owner or manager entered and exited the restaurant now and then, smugly looking over his domain without ever greeting a customer. Thank you, but we won't be back.
For dessert we went to a middle-of-the-road American restaurant known for its desserts. A Christmas-bulbed, trellised arbor led to a vestibule where postcards and little boxes of restaurant goodies were for sale. A chalkboard sign pointed with an arrow and the words, "Republican Women." (As we left later, we noticed that someone had crossed out the word "Republican," leaving only the arrow and "Women.") The desserts were yummy and big, and our waiter was a typically gregarious, voluble, good-looking American kid with the currently fashionable unshaven look. At meal's end, when he handed me my credit card slip for signing, he said, "Thank you, Mr. Cohen. Mr. Cohen, do you mind if I ask you a weird question? Are you Jewish?'
Smiling, I allowed as how I was.
"The reason I'm asking," he said, "is because back in Arkansas we had friends named Cohen and they were the only Jewish people we knew."
"It's a common Jewish name," I said smiling more broadly.
"Oh? I didn't know that. Well, thank you, sir, now I know that."
Thank you, waiter. I consulted with Chris about what would be a nice big tip -- Chris, being our resident waiter, is the expert on big tips -- and we left. And I thought about how often in history, in how many places, our waiter's question would have been asked with a very different tone and intent, and once again, as I have done countless times, I thanked God for this country.