AS VETERAN restaurant-goers know, you can dine out for years and years without problems until one day, out of the blue, it happens: You get the Waitress From Hell.
This happened to me and my family recently at a restaurant in northern Baltimore County that will go unnamed, because it's a terrific place that we've been going to for years, and the service is normally excellent.
Understand, you really have to foul things up for me to notice bad service. Because basically, if you get the drink order right and throw a basket of bread on the table, I'm already thinking of you as Waitress of the Year material.
And if we get through the rest of the meal without you dropping a tray of food on my head, I'm touting you for the Waitress Hall of Fame.
The point is, I'm not one of these people who has to have everything go perfectly when he dines out.
But this waitress the other night ... oh, she was a beauty.
It would take the despoiling of acres and acres of trees to list everything she did wrong, but here are a few lowlights.
After taking our drink order, she disappeared - for a long, long time. When she finally returned with the drinks and took our dinner order, she'd been gone so long her hair was out of style. (Ba-da-bum! Thanks, I'm here all week. Try the veal.)
By the time the appetizers finally arrived, we'd been there so long that my wife and I ordered two more drinks.
This time our waitress brought the drinks right away. But for some reason, she elected not to clear the old drink glasses.
So now we were sitting there with two beer bottles and two glasses of wine in front of us, looking like our next stop should be an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
After this, time again seemed to stand still.
When the entrees finally arrived, she left the appetizer dishes on the table. (Apparently, she wasn't big on clearing.) And she didn't bring ketchup and mustard for the kids' meals.
"No problem," said my wife, who'd find something positive to say at a hanging. "We'll just ask for the ketchup and mustard when she comes back."
Except ... she never came back.
Minutes went by - many, many minutes, or was it hours? - and there was no sight of the waitress.
Finally, my wife got up and went rummaging around the server's station until another waitress gave her some ketchup and mustard.
After dinner, there was a sighting of our waitress and we waved at her, the way you'd wave at a passing freighter if you'd been marooned on a desert island for many years.
She came over and took our dessert order. But once again - you probably see this coming - she left most of the dirty dishes on the table.
In fact, the mounds of dishes were so high when we had our coffee and ice cream, I couldn't see who was sitting across from me. For all I know, I was eating with another family.
Again, this is the Cliffs Notes version of this meal - I could go into this in much more detail, which I'd be happy to do if the price of newsprint ever goes down.
When the check came, of course, we were faced with another challenge: what to do about a tip? As a general rule, I tip 20 percent, unless you're the worst server in the world or I find out you're, I don't know, running a methamphetamine ring from the kitchen.
First of all, I know how hard these servers have to work and how much abuse they put up with from their customers.
Then there's the fact that my wife waited on tables when she was in college, and both my older kids have done it.
But there was no way I was leaving 20 percent for this waitress.
At this point, my wife, who should be on Martha Stewart's defense team, started arguing on the waitress' behalf.
Maybe she's just having a bad day, my wife said. Or maybe she's preoccupied about something at home.
Sure, I said, that's possible. But let me run another theory by you.
This other theory goes like this: She's having a normal day. And everything's fine at home. She's just a really bad waitress.
In any event, we ended up leaving her 10 percent, which is about the smallest amount I've left since I was a poor, struggling college student.
Anyway, now that I've shared all this with you, how about you doing something for me?
Send me your horror stories about bad servers you've had - no need to name names or restaurants. E-mail them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or send them by regular mail to me, care of the Features Department, Baltimore Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, MD 21278. I'll run the best ones in this space in a week or two.
Look, this is a win-win situation for everyone concerned.
You get to unburden yourself about an experience that I'm sure has left you emotionally scarred for life.
Me, I get a column without too much heavy lifting.
I don't know about you. But I'm feeling better already.