In the late seventies, early eighties, I was in the Weiner King business in New Jersey. It was at the tail end of my restaurant career. At one of the locations, there was a large window along the side of the building, next to the front counter. (Actually, the restaurant was mostly glass around the sides and front.) When customers entered the place, the dining room was to the left and the ordering area was to the right. Very easy to navigate. This particular window and sill was all the way to the right, at the far end of the counter. The sill was just above waist-high and sitting on it was a very handsome ming aralia, about 18-inches tall, that looked like a small, leafy tree. No, it wasn’t a bonsai.
The Weiner King had an extremely loyal following, no matter which of the six stores you visited. At this one, one of the customers was a very nice lady who came in at least twice a week during the lunch and/or dinner rush. Quite the regular, it came as a surprise when she walked through the front door around 4:00, not her usual time. (You get to know your customers’ schedules after a while.) Between 2:00 and 5:00, it’s called ‘slump time’ and it could take forever to get through if you don’t keep yourself busy. I must have been bored that day and let my mind wander — which was nothing new. I was working with a girl named Lauri, who was a college student on summer break. The lunch crew was gone and the evening crew hadn’t yet arrived. Just us. And one customer.
She walked over to the counter to order but, instead, kept going toward the plant with her arms extended. Her hands got within inches of it, as if to fluff up the leaves, when she said, “I’ve really admired your plant. Every time I come in, I stare at it. It’s beautiful! What is it?”
“It’s a wart tree.” I have no idea why the idea popped into my head, but it did. I said it, it was too late, and, in a flash, she retracted those arms faster than a toad can stick its tongue back in its mouth.
“A WART TREE?” she exclaimed with an almost look of puzzled disgust on her face.
I had to think fast. “Yes, a wart tree. You’ve seen Lauri working here before? She’s studying biochemistry at Rutgers University. You know how some warts have seeds?”
“Well, someone she knew had a wart. She removed the seeds in a lab and cultivated them into what you’re looking at here.”
“You’re joking, right?”
“No,” I insisted. “Ask her.”
I hated to put Lauri on the spot but, despite her abundance of intellectual prowess, she was one heck of a good sport with a great sense of humor. After collaborating my story with some kind of details pertaining to the structure, functions, and interactions of macromolecules between animals and plants, the woman seemed to buy the story.
“It was, after all, a plantar wart,” I added, just to ice the cake. “You know, plantar… plant?”
“Oh. Huh. A wart tree. I’ll be darned. I never knew that.” She composed herself but was still perplexed. “Well, I’d better order dinner for my husband and me.”
I went back to man the grills and Lauri stayed up front working on the rest of the order while making small talk. The woman, meanwhile, stood far away from the little tree. After she left, the two of us laughed pretty hard. It was dumb, but it was done.
I’m convinced that when she got home, she told her husband all about it, and I’ll bet you he told her how there is no such thing, while rolling on the floor, laughing hysterically. In the end, though, she was either afraid of the tree, warts and all, very embarrassed, or too angry, because I never saw her again.
Was I silly for doing it? Yes, but working 80 to 100 hours a week will do that to you. And my old boss, Jack, who worked at least 100 hours, used to do it all the time. Just not to customers.