I do my best not to be judgmental, but honestly I was a bit nervous about hiring Stevie.
I was constantly reassured by his placement councilor that he would have no issues completing his tasks as a busboy, but the thought of having a mentally handicapped employee made me a bit nervous: would the customers be as open to him as I was? People don’t have much patience these days.
Stevie wasn’t all that tall, he had a bit of an awkward walk to him, his face was unusually smooth, and when he spoke he had a particularly thick accent: all the unmistakable symptoms of Down syndrome.
I knew I wouldn’t have anything to worry about when it came to my trucker customers: typically truckers pay no mind to who is busing the tables that day; if the pies are fresh and homemade, and the food tastes good then they’ll be plenty happy before getting back to the road.
It was the college kids that were giving me second thoughts: the mouthy yuppie types on their way to and from their college campuses. You know the type… using their napkins to clean off their silverware so they don’t contract some kind of poor people’s disease, or having a laugh at the expense of the business. The other ones who made me nervous were the business men that came through on their executive trips: eating on their company’s dime and making the staff uncomfortable by flirting with the waitress.
I knew they wouldn’t be comfortable around Stevie; that they would look at him differently. And so for the first few weeks of his job I watched over everything he did.
But I was wrong to be worried.
Within his first week he had the entire staff wrapped around his stubby little finger. Before a month had passed the drivers had adopted him as the official mascot of our little truck stop: truckers were stopping in just so they could meet the best darn busser in the whole county. After that I didn’t give a damn what the other customers thought.
Stevie was like family to us. He was just a young twenty one year old kid sporting Nikes and blue jeans, and as much as he liked to laugh and please the customers he was zeroed in on all of his work duties. In fact the only problem that we ever faced with Stevie is that he was a little too eager to work, and he had trouble waiting for the customers to finish before he started to clean the tables.
Sometimes Stevie would wait excitedly in the background for a table to be finished… shifting his weight from side to side like he was anxious; he’d scan the entire dining room for a customer to finish, and then he’d shoot off towards the table to make it perfect again. He took a real pride in making sure his job was done exactly right: carefully bussing the dishes without ever fumbling them, and wiping down the tables with a practiced and precise flourish.
Every day that Stevie came into work he did his absolute best to please each and every person he met, and quite frankly it was impossible not to fall victim to the boy’s charm. Over the course of his time here we came to learn that he was living with his mother, a recently widowed woman who was left disabled after undergoing several surgeries for cancer: the only thing standing between them and a life on the streets was Stevie and his job here at the truck stop. Our hearts sank.
About two miles down the road from our place was a public housing establishment that they called home; they had Social Security benefits but their social worker, who checking in every once in a while to make sure we were happy with Stevie, had admitted to me they had fallen on hard times.
Money was tight for his family, and without his employment here he’d likely be shipped off to live in some kind of group home, a thought that I couldn’t bear. And that is why things were so gloomy last September when one day Stevie didn’t show up for work. We knew something was wrong. For three years had never been late a single day: not even by a minute.
We feared the worst and the news wasn’t much better; Stevie was being held at the Mayo Clinic over in Rochester and was undergoing some kind of heart operation with a new valve: I didn’t really understand what was wrong. Just a day earlier he was bouncing around with a grin from ear to ear.
Stevie’s social worker told me that this kind of condition was common at his age for those who shared his condition, and that it wasn’t unexpected that his complications would continue. Fortunately there was a good chance that Stevie would get through the surgery all right, and would be back to work in only a few months although that felt like an eternity.
Later in the morning we got word that he made it through the procedures and was doing fine in recovery. A wave of celebration washed over the staff, and our head waitress, Frannie, danced down the aisle in excitement, and thanking God for the good news.
Frannie’s joy was contagious, and one of our regular’s, Belle Ringer, grinned and asked what all the excitement was about. “We just got the news that Stevie is out of surgery and he is going to be okay.” And Belle lit up a little bit and said “I was wondering where he was.”
Frannie told the story of Stevie’s surgery to the truckers before letting out a sigh. “I’m so glad he’s going to be ok, but I’m worried about him and his mom. I just don’t know how the two are going to handle to medical expenses… they’re barely scraping by as is.” The truckers nodded, and she returned to the other tables.
When the morning rush died down Frannie walked into my office with a couple napkins in her hand and a funny look on her face. “What’s the matter?” I asked, and she told me something marvelous. She told me that at the table where Belle Ringer and the other truckers were sitting that these napkins were sitting underneath a paper cup. I couldn’t believe what they said.
On the first napkin was scrawled “Something for Stevie,” and with it were three twenty dollar bills. “When Pony Pete and Tony heard what happened to Stevie they looked at each other and didn’t even hesitate.” She handed me two fifty dollar bills, and two napkins with the exact same message: something for Stevie.”
Frannie looked at me with wet eyes, she shook her head in disbelief, and she said the simple word that we all were thinking… “truckers.”
That was just a few months ago. I’m writing this on Christmas Eve, the day of Stevie’s return to work; his social worker has been telling me how excited he is to return to work: counting the days until he could be back. Stevie didn’t care a lick that it was a holiday.
Over the past week he has called me a dozen times to make sure we knew he was coming, worried that we might have forgotten about him, or that his job might not be available. I spoke with his social worker to make a special arrange: to have his mother bring him to work on his first day back.
Stevie looked different. He was paler than before and a lot thinner, but you could feel his energy throughout the entire building. It was miraculous. He went straight to his apron and his bussing card without missing a beat.
“Woah woah there Stevie, not so fast” I told him. I took him and his mother by the arms and I gently led them towards the tables.“ I know you’re excited to be back but work can wait for a minute. To celebrate your return I wanted you two to have breakfast, on me.”
I brought them to a booth in the corner at the rear of the room, and could feel the rest of the staff following behind us. Glancing over my shoulder I could see an entire restaurant of smiling truckers stand up and join our march.
We arrived at the big table we had set up; its entire surface littered with saucers, coffee cups, and dinner plates, with all of them resting on dozens of carefully folded napkins. “Before you can have your breakfast you’re going to have to clean this mess up, Stevie.” I tried my best to sound stern as I said it.
Stevie glanced at me in understanding, and then at his mother, and then grabbed his first napkin before reading the outside: “Something for Stevie.”
As he picked it up two ten dollar notes fell out. Stevie simply stared at it, and then at the rest of the napkins sitting on the table… all of which bearing his name. I turned to his mother and told her what we had been planning this whole time: “there’s $10,000 in both cash and checks on that table, donated by truckers and trucking companies that heard about your family’s problems. Merry Christmas!”
And it was about that time that our little trucker stop got awfully noisy. There was hollering, and cheering, and yes, there was some crying too.
But you know what the funny thing is?
While everyone else was busy with hugging and celebrating, Stevie was busy cleaning the table of cups and dishes. He had the biggest smile on his face that I have ever seen.
He’s the best worker I’ve ever hired.