Stafford: Waitress shows why there can be hope to bridging differences

She wore orange nail polish bright as traffic cones. Her long-sleeve sheer white blouse revealed modest undergarments and a series of tattoos that ran down her arms.

What set her apart, though, was a smile genuine enough to make me feel welcome in her world.

I don’t recall her name.

But judging from overheard conversations, she was relatively new on the wait staff at Modern Times, an eatery at corner of Chicago Avenue and 32nd Street in the Powderhorn District of Minneapolis.

The restaurant is a funky place, where she and her outfit complemented the décor.

Blocks of clear, wavy glass are built into the walls. The backs of booths worn out by long gone customers have been replaced with unfinished sheets of plywood. And, at the counter - with a late-60s, early-70s color scheme — I found myself sitting on a stool almost as old as I am.

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It was a Sunday in early October, and we were visiting our son in Minneapolis. Tired from a full Saturday, my wife was back in his apartment with is cat, Petunia, sleeping in.

I, meanwhile, was halfway through my first cup of fair trade coffee and just coming to consciousness when I was hurtled into a state of confusion usually triggered by explanations of my medical insurance claims.

What threw me off actually wasn’t a menu.

It was a piece of plain white paper on which someone had hand written the Modern Times brunch special.

Not only was it in ALL CAPS, which are hard for me to read, it was coded.

Abbreviations included veg, v, c and gf - vegetarians, vegans, carnivores and gluten-free.

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The special offered a choice of:

a. A buttermilk or gluten-free (gf) biscuit,

b. pork sausage gravy (c), roasted butternut squash (veg) or cashew cream (v),

c. two organic eggs, anyway; curry scrambled tofu; and hash browns or garlic kale.

After allowing the redneck in me to say “Kale, no!” I ordered the traditional buttermilk biscuit, went moderate with roasted butternut squash gravy (which was excellent) and had my eggs over easy.

It was delicious.

More than that, it made me want to find a dietary version of the co-exist messages I see on bumper stickers of Subaru Foresters and yard signs.

I didn’t think such a thing was possible - a place that accommodated so many dietary styles.

But, as I said, it was the waitress who made the difference.

When I told her I was too old to be in Modern Times - too far behind the culture — she treated me like a favorite, if cranky, uncle who would always be welcomed wherever she was.

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My son shook his head in disapproval and refused when I asked him to take a picture of me with the waitress. My impression was that it seemed too tourista and, thus, disrespectful of the indigenous peoples of Modern Times.

But, to me, her attitude represents something else, particularly as New Year’s Day approaches: hope.

To a man who knows he lives under a rock, a stranger’s willingness to welcome him into an enjoyable part of a much changed world is like a ray of sunlight making its way through a crack in his rock ceiling.

Not only did I grow up in a time of “meat-and-potatoes” men, I recall when vegetarians and vegans were treated like political enemies of farmers. I also am aware that political divides are now more common dinner table knowledge than which side of the plate the fork, spoon or knife should be placed on.

Those kinds of divides so often keep us in our separate caves and out of touch with a changing world because they make us fear that the spirit of my waitress was not there - a spirit that welcomes us to enjoy the enjoyable aspects of a changing world and invites us all to the table.

That does not happen everywhere, of course.

But knowing there are places like Modern Times and welcoming people like my waitress will help me to explore that larger world in 2020.

I’m pretty sure that will make it a happier new year.

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