Memphis, Tennessee. A cafe. The kind with vinyl booth cushions, all patched up with duct tape. I’m in town to make a speech.
She is my waitress. Her name is on her nametag. She smiles at me after she asks how I want my eggs.
Her teeth are bad. Real bad. There’s probably a story here. I’d wish I knew the rest of it.
She is mid-30s. But she looks older, the way some waitresses do after earning a PhD from Hard Knox. I was raised by one such waitress.
“You want coffee?” she asks.
“Boy coffee or girl coffee?”
“It’s what my daughters call it,” she says. “Girl coffee means cream and sugar.”
“I want man coffee.”
“Sorry. We only serve that to men.”
The woman stops by a table of guys in police uniforms. The officers look ragged. I’m guessing they are just finishing up a midnight shift.
I have a friend who is a cop in a major city, who used to work the midnight shift. He said it was misery. I cannot, however, imagine what a midnight shift in Memphis must look like for law enforcement.
Recently, Memphis was ranked as the most dangerous city in the U.S. And yet, unlike other dangerous cities, Memphis is also a tourist destination.
Which means the Memphis downtown is always full of Midwesterners in Reeboks and Boy Scout troops, buzzing around attractions like the Rock ‘n’ Roll museum, the Peabody Hotel, or Graceland.
These guys work hard.
“How y’all doing today?” the waitress asks the peace officers.
Grunts from the table.
She smiles her broken smile at them. It’s the kind of warm face that brings grown men out of their shells. Although her teeth are missing, her face is cherub-like.
“Don’t grunt at me,” she says. “I asked y’all a question.”
The officers look at each other and laugh.
“We’re doing okay,” one officer says.
“And don’t lie to me either,” she says.
More laughter from the table.
They place their orders. I can see their moods have improved considerably. Still ragged. Still tired. But less so. Because of her.
Next, the server visits a table of young women. I overhear one of the women tell the waitress they are from tourists from Thailand. Students. Teenagers. Here to see Bluff City. This is their first time in the United States. They wanted to see Elvis’s house.
They have a lot of important questions for the smiling waitress. Where should they go? What should they see? Did Elvis really die on the toilet?
The waitress answers every query. She is the consummate tour guide. Speaking in fluent hand gestures. She tells them about Beale Street, Sun Records, B.B. King, and teaches them the correct way to pronounce “grits.” (Gree-yits).
And as I watch this woman bounce around the room, smiling at people, refilling coffee mugs, I can’t help but wonder about her teeth. How did she lose them all?
But I don’t have to wonder for long. I hear her explain her teeth to the table behind me. Something tells me she’s had to explain this to customers before.
“My ex-husband knocked my teeth out,” she says. “I was six months pregnant when he beat me up. He put me in the hospital. He’s out of my life now.”
Nobody at her table knows what to say to that, so they don’t.
“I know I’m ugly,” she adds. “I’ve hated the way I look for years. I’m sorry if I’ve made you lose your appetite.”
“I used to be so embarrassed about my teeth. But I’ve gotten over it. It’s like I tell my girls, it don’t matter if you’re as hideous as I am, smiling still increases your face value.”
Nobody really knows what to say. So her customers remain quiet.
The waitress continues. She explains to her customers that a guy in her apartment is a dental-tech. The guy found a dentist and surgeon who agreed to provide dental work. Free of charge.
She is currently in the process of getting her teeth fixed. And the best part is, the dental professionals are doing everything, surgery and all, for free.
“I’m so excited,” she says. “Finally, for once in my life, maybe I won’t be so ugly.”
The woman is flat wrong, of course.
For there is none prettier in Memphis, Tennessee.
Tiffany Unsworth - April 13, 2023 12:18 pm
Thank you for sharing her example.
Her smile made me smile today.
Pat - April 13, 2023 4:00 pm
Her smile is the best. Thanks for sharing her and her smile
julieannhall - April 13, 2023 4:23 pm
Dang! This one made me cry sitting at my desk. I have the pleasure of working with many individuals who, for one reason or another, suffer from similar dental issues. Some the same as this waitress, pain inflicted by someone else. Some inflicted their own pain through years of self abuse in any number of forms. And the shame is nearly unbearable for them. Even when they escape abuse, get clean or make some major transformation the dental thing is a difficult hurdle. In a world full of “white strips” and “invisiligns” dental issues create more issues. Thank you Sean for increasing awareness.
Sylvia Robinson - April 13, 2023 4:42 pm
I hope her ex is in jail & someone knocks his teeth out! Bless her Lord.
pattymack43 - April 13, 2023 5:21 pm
❤️❤️❤️ her!! May God bless her and her family!!
annesphamily - April 13, 2023 7:46 pm
What a beautiful smile she must have had! I love her story about being able to get her teeth fixed but I love more that she loved people and treated them with a beautiful smile. Thank you for sharing her with us.
Rich - April 14, 2023 2:10 am
Hey, Sean. I know your column comes out in the morning but I like to read it at night before bed. Most nights, like tonight, your stories make me smile. And there’s just nothing better than nodding off to sleep with a smile on your face! Thanks for improving my face value!
Cathy M - April 14, 2023 10:38 pm
I wish I couldd meet her for coffee. Hard life but her attitude is amazing. God bless the dentist who are doing the work pro bono. Gods angels at work again. Just sit back and watch what our God does. He is so good❤️🙏🏻