The Cloth-Napkin-Folding Custom

My father works at a cabinet-building factory, and while I was growing up, there was a period of time in my life where he frequently–or so it seemed–traveled for business. He was sent all over the world to “color match,” which, from my understanding, entailed him looking at two wood stain swatches, stroking his beard, looking again between the two samples, making a “Hmmm” noise, nodding his head, and then declaring, “Yes. Those two are the same color.”

Of course, I haven’t spent the last couple decades in the cabinet conceiving industry, so I have merely a layperson’s comprehension of these apparently complicated cabinet matters, but he did travel and it was for color matching and so that scenario is what my imagination came up with.

During his travels, he would have a little–but not much–time to experience certain luxuries. Sometimes he would travel alone, but there were times when he would travel with a coworker or boss, and they would, as anyone would do if a corporate company were paying for their travel expenses, opt to dine at nicer establishments. After all, why would anyone, if granted some degree of freedom regarding the expenses of their meals, dine at McDonald’s (a phrase perhaps never uttered before: “dine at McDonald’s”– one doesn’t dine at McDonald’s; they indulge at McDonald’s, or engorge themselves at McDonald’s, but very rarely if ever would someone dine at McDonald’s) rather than at Red Lobster, or at some even fancier and more obscure restaurant? So my dad somewhat often on these trips would eat at finer restaurants.

I remember him telling me a story of a particular dining experience on one of these trips, in which he and a number of coworkers went out to eat at a rather prestigious restaurant. In fact, this restaurant was so fancy–so fancy shmancy–that not only did they have cloth napkins for each guest, but when a member of a table would momentarily leave for the bathroom, thus leaving their cloth napkin behind (after all, it’s not a security blanket), there was a designated individual who approached your abandoned spot at the table and refolded your cloth napkin (I can’t stop referring to it as a cloth napkin, because of all the prestige and rank it carries with it) into some origami contraption and left it there for them for their return.

Well, I guess my dad paid close attention to the intricacies of this folding trick as other members of his party took their turns at the bathroom–I’m sorry, where are my manners? restroom–, so when it came time for him to relieve his own self, he preemptively folded his cloth napkin and left it in the shape of this triangular structure that the cloth-napkin-folder had done for everyone else.

He thought he had outsmarted the cloth-napkin-folder (seriously, what is the name of that profession?), leaving a clever trick behind, a fun and playful nod of the head at this clearly esteemed individual, but when my dad–sorry, how crude of me; my father–returned from the restroom, his cloth napkin was not in the shape he had left it in but rather was re-folded into some even more intricate creation. The cloth-napkin-player had been out-played by the cloth-napkin-folder-extraordinaire. Tragic. Yet inevitable.

So, this fun little game was relayed to me by my father upon his homecoming.

Naturally though, he wanted to show off his acquired cloth-napkin-folding skill– the original triangular design, not the one-up the cloth-napkin-folder performed (or perhaps it is more accurately described as a five-up or a ten-up). He demonstrated how to fold the cloth napkin (at home, we used our own “cloth napkin”: a freaking dish towel) and something about its process stuck with me.

The next time my family went to Olive Garden (although Olive Garden was as fancy as we ever got with our dining experiences, we somewhat frequented Olive Gardens), I was eager to try the triangle technique with a legitimate cloth napkin. I didn’t go to the bathroom at any point (this is an Olive Garden we’re talking about, so the restrooms are transformed back into “just bathrooms”), but when we left, I–of course–had to leave my napkin folded in its triangular evolution for the server to find and be delighted by.

I began to do this at every restaurant with cloth napkins. In other words, I began to do this every time we went to Olive Garden. At the end of the meal, I would remove the cloth napkin (cloth napkin! cloth napkin! cloth napkin!) from my lap and fold it as such, leaving it for the server. I imagined how cool and fun it would be to them; look, a little unique gesture, just for them.

It became my calling card. If there was a triangular cloth napkin contraption on the table, I had been there. My family joked that it would be my signature as a serial killer; kill the body, leave the triangularly-folded cloth napkin. My response was, why do I have to  be a serial killer? Why can’t it just be the calling card of me as a guest at a restaurant? My family is a dark bunch sometimes, with little faith in my morality.

As I grew up though, and am now an employee at a restaurant (not a restaurant with cloth napkins–it’s not that fancy; after all, our uniform is unapologetically a bowling shirt) I realize a few things regarding my previous delight and perception of my cloth-napkin-folding game: 1.) The servers who find the napkin probably do not think it is cute or fun. They see it as a dirty cloth napkin and the table needs to be cleaned regardless of what shape the cloth napkin is, and 2.) The server probably isn’t even the person cleaning the table; where I work, we have a host who buses tables, and if we have a separate person to bus tables where I work, then Olive Gardens definitely have designated table-cleaners, and after cleaning tables for an entire shift (as I do at least once weekly), I can tell you with unwavering certainty that you grow to be quite exhausted with dirty tables and quite unamused by their varying degrees of disgusting content, and a used napkin (cloth or not) is a used napkin and you begin to look at tables with a little more cynicism; thus, the person busing tables is definitely not delighted by my special napkin souvenir.

Despite this new knowledge, despite how lame it is, despite how stale even perhaps it is, despite how it may be received, I still cannot–as if it is a compulsion deeply rooted, an obsessive and hardwired facet of my brain from childhood–cannot leave a restaurant that provides cloth napkins without folding it into this weird triangular shape. I just can’t.

 

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