Friday, January 18, 2008

How Hot is Hot?

On Wednesday, I was in San Diego for work and a series of meetings with my team about the coming year’s plans. I stayed at the Mission Valley Resort, a rather dated, spread out compound of buildings, pools and various lobbies and golf courses. All right up against the never-quiet I8, a quaint little eight-lane speedway with an off-ramp right in front of the hotel. My boss unknowingly slept with a roach…at least until it tried to climb into his ear. I sat by the pool for a couple of hours, too cold to swim, and read part of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, 72.
Later in the afternoon, we had an impromptu meeting about some of the preparations for the following day’s presentations, and then we decided to head to Old Town for dinner. With us were a couple of people from out of town, Colorado, Pennsylvania and New York, so we wanted to take them to some authentic Mexican food. We chose El Fandango merely by chance, as it was the first Mexican restaurant that wasn’t packed to the gills with tourists all looking for the same thing, something to eat.

I ordered the usual fare I always get when I eat Mexican food at a restaurant I’ve never been to, enchiladas, safety entrees that I think restaurants can’t possibly screw up. And I’m usually right. There are certain types of foods at certain places that are staples to the industry. Enchiladas at Mexican restaurants.

We were sitting up against the wall, in the front corner of the room. I was the third person in at our table on my side, and when the food finally came, the waitress set down the first two plates in front of the people to my left and then she started to reach out with my plate. Since we were backed up against the wall, she lifted the plate up over the guy’s head next to me, intent on sideling the plate to the table between our shoulders. It didn’t look like an easy maneuver to me, so I reached up to help her by taking the plate from her.

The waitress said, “It’s okay, the plate is hot.” This should have translated to me to mean, “don’t touch it, gringo, you’ll burn your stupid pasty white hand.” But instead, I grabbed a hold of the plate with my right hand to guide it to the table. She said again slightly more insistent, “It’s hot.” But it was too late, the weight of the plate was in my hand.

Everywhere I go, the server tells me, as she slides the plate on the table in front of me, “The plate is hot,” “Careful, the plate is hot.” How many of us still touch the plate? Remember the “Seinfeld” episode about this very topic? We want to know what, exactly, is the server’s idea of a hot plate. Is it to judge our sensitivity to hot things or are we judging that of the server? Invariably the plate is never that hot, so the warnings become trite platitudes we expect from overly cautious waitresses looking to protect the business from lawsuits brought down on them by paper-skinned suit-happy diners. So, for our entire lives, waitresses have been crying wolf about hot plates when, in fact, they’re mildly warm, at best.

So, when this woman suggested that I be careful, that the plate is hot, I hardly paid any attention to her, instead grabbing the plate without a second thought. That was my mistake, as I have never held onto anything hotter in my life. It scalded my hand for the entire second and a half it took us to deliver the plate to the table. She kept her hand on it, which slowed me down from dropping it in front of me, and I kept holding onto it because I didn’t want to let go in the chance that she was also letting go of it and that plate would have ended up in my lap.

The second I was able to let go of the plate, I quickly wrapped my hand around a glass of ice water, exclaiming to the waitress, “How could you possibly hold onto that?” You see, part of the “cry wolf” rouse in this case was the fact that she wasn’t using a potholder to hold onto that plate. So, why wouldn’t I think I could do it too! After all, she was as merely mortal as I am, and I can't imagine her hands being any tougher than mine. She told me that she’s “done it a few times before,” but she flashed me her palms and they didn't look like the tred of a tire, but instead regular fleshy hands, callous free even.

That's what I get for chosing a career as a writer/editor. My hands barely touch anything through the course of a day but soft keys on a non-abrasive, temperature controled keyboard.

When I finally pulled my hand away from the glass of water, a rounded welt had formed, circling from the middle of my middle finger down into the palm of my hand.

Great, a second degree burn, and in an hour or two later, a series of shiny white blisters had formed… and it still hurts, two days later. I honestly have no idea how it was physically possible for that woman to be able to touch that plate, much less carry it from the kitchen to my table, along with three other plates I can only assume were just as hot.

So, word to the wise. Even though 99 servers have told you that the plate is hot and you later find out that it really wasn't, it only takes one to scar you for life, making you listen to the next 99—even though they’re never as hot as the server pretends. Or are they? The only thing you can do is find out by touching them, right?

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