Stories for a Faithful Heart:
Folded Napkins. A Trucker Story.
By Alice Gray
This story may be true, or not… Either way, it will renew your faith in others and maybe inspire you… At Build Rehabilitation Industries, we are inspired every day. We have trained over 9,000 adults with development and other disabilities, teaching them valuable job and life skills that make them more independent.
I try not to be biased, but I had doubts about hiring Stevie. His placement counselor assured me that he would be a good, reliable busboy.
But I’d never hired a mentally handicapped employee and wasn’t sure I wanted one. And I didn’t know how my customers would react to Stevie.
He’s short and dumpy with the smooth face and thick speech of Down Syndrome. I wasn’t worried about my trucker customers. They don’t care who the busboy is as long as the meatloaf is good and the pies are homemade.
Mouthy college kids were the ones who concerned me. Traveling to school, the yuppie snobs secretly polish their silverware with their napkins for fear of catching a deadly “truck stop virus.”
And the shirt and tie business men on expense accounts think every truck stop waitress is a flirt. I knew they would be uncomfortable around Stevie so I watched him closely for a few weeks.
I shouldn’t have worried. After the first week, Stevie had my staff wrapped around his little finger, and within a month my truckers had adopted him as their mascot.
After that, I didn’t really care what other customers thought of him. He was like a kid in blue jeans and Nikes, eager to laugh and to please, but very attentive to his duties. Every salt and pepper shaker was exactly placed, and not a bread crumb was visible when Stevie got done with a table.
His problem was waiting to clean tables until the customers finished. He’d hover nearby, shifting from one foot to the other, scanning the dining room until a table was empty. Then he’d scurry to that table and carefully bus dishes and glasses onto his cart and quickly wipe the table with a quick flourish of his rag.
If he thought a customer was watching, his brow would furrow with worry, as he took pride in doing his job just right, and we loved how hard he tried to please everyone.
Soon we learned that Stevie lived with his mother, a widow who was disabled after some cancer surgeries. They lived on Social Security checks in public housing near the truck stop, and their social worker often stopped by to check on Stevie, admitting that he and his mom had fallen between the cracks.
Money was tight, and what I paid him kept them living together, instead of Stevie going to a group home. That’s why the restaurant was gloomy one morning in August, the first morning in three years that Stevie missed work.
He was at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, getting a new valve to repair his heart. His social worker said that Down Syndrome folks often have heart problems so it wasn’t a surprise, and there was a good chance he’d come through the surgery well and be back at work in a few months.
A ripple of excitement ran through our staff on the morning when we heard he was out of surgery, in recovery, and doing fine! Frannie, our head waitress, let out a war hoop and did a little dance in the aisle when she heard the good news.
Marvin Ringer, one of our regular 18 wheeler customers, stared at this 50-year-old grandmother of four doing a victory shimmy beside his table. Frannie blushed, smoothed her apron and shot Marvin a withering look. He grinned. “OK, Frannie, what’s that all about?” he asked.
“We just heard that Stevie is out of surgery and will be okay!” I had a new joke to tell him about doctors. Frannie quickly told Marvin and the other drivers sitting in his booth about Stevie’s surgery, then sighed: “Yeah, I’m glad he’ll be OK, but I don’t know how he and his mom can handle all the bills. From what I hear, they barely get by as it is.”
Marvin nodded thoughtfully, and Frannie hurried off to wait on other tables. Since I hadn’t had time to find a busboy to replace Stevie and really didn’t want to replace him. so the girls were busing their own tables until we decided what to do.
After the morning rush, Frannie walked into my office with a paper napkin in her hand and an odd look on her face.
“What’s up?” I asked. “I didn’t get that table where Marvin and his friends were sitting cleared after they left, so Pete and Tony were sitting there when I got back to clean it.” She said, “This was folded and tucked under a coffee cup.” She handed the napkin to me, and three $20 bills fell onto my desk. On the outside, in big letters, was printed “Something For Stevie.”
“Pete asked me what it was all about,” she said, “so I told him about Stevie and his mom, and Pete looked at Tony and Tony looked at Pete, and they gave me this.” She handed me another paper napkin that also had “Something For Stevie” scrawled on it. Two $50 bills were tucked inside it. Frannie smiled with wet, shiny eyes, shook her head and said simply… “truckers.”
That was a month ago. Today is Thanksgiving, the first day Stevie is supposed to be back to work.
His social worker said he’s been counting the days until the doctor said he could work, and it didn’t matter that it’s a holiday. He called often last week, making sure we know he’s coming, fearful that we had forgotten him or that his job was gone. I arranged to have his mother bring him to work. Then I met them in the parking lot and invited them to celebrate his return.
Stevie was thin and pale but he couldn’t stop grinning as we pushed through the doors and headed for the back room where his apron and busing cart were waiting.
“Hold on there, Stevie, not so fast,” I said. I took him and his mother by their arms. “Work can wait for a minute. To celebrate your return, lunch for you and your mom is on me!” And I led them to a large corner booth at the rear of the room.
I knew that our staff was following us as we went through the dining room. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw booth after booth of grinning truckers empty and join our parade. We stopped in front of the big table. Its surface was covered with coffee cups, saucers, and dinner plates, all sitting slightly crooked on dozens of folded paper napkins. “First thing you must do, Stevie, is clean up this mess,” I said, trying to sound serious.
Stevie looked at me, and then at his mother, then pulled out one of the napkins. It had “Something for Stevie” printed on it. As he picked it up, two $20 bills fell onto the table.
Stevie stared at the money, then at all the napkins peeking from beneath the tableware, each with his name on it. I turned to his mom. “There’s more than $10,000 on this table, all from truckers and trucking companies that heard about your problems. “Happy Thanksgiving.”
Well, it got real noisy about then, with everybody laughing and shouting, and there were many tears, as well.
You know what’s funny? While everyone was shaking hands and hugging each other, Stevie, with a big smile on his face, was busy clearing all the cups and dishes from the table.
Best worker I ever hired.