Father Knows Best

My father raises his left hand to about chin height and about a foot in front of him, palm toward him, and passes his right hand across it in a jerky motion. Staring across the restaurant at something I can’t see, he nods and then drops his hands, apparently satisfied.

“What are you doing?” I ask.

“Asking for the bill,” he replies, a little amused. He repeats the gesture, a bit slower, holding his hands just above the table: low enough that they won’t be seen from across the room. My confusion must be obvious.

“It’s like writing a bill,” he explains.


Any doubts that the teenaged me might have had about the efficacy of his approach were resolved as the waiter appeared at Dad’s shoulder, as if by magic, with ““ Ta da! ““ the bill.

Before that night, who knew that there was such a hand signal? Not I. But I’ve used it countless times since then.

I’ve used it with male and female servers, of all ages and life stages.

I’ve used it with career servers and with those just filling in time until they win the lottery.

I’ve used it with servers along the entire “Quick on the uptake?” continuum.

I’ve used it in small-town diners with servers who actually wrote a bill by hand, and in chain restaurants with servers who had surely never even seen anything other than printed bills spit out by a programmed till.

I’ve used it in places quiet enough that you’d hate to call out to get your server’s attention, and in places noisy enough that it wouldn’t be any use to do so.

I’ve used it in Canada and in the US of A. I’ve used it where the server’s English plus my Spanish and/or French still gave a total that was insufficient for reliable communication.

And in all those uses, across all those decades, in all those places, not one server has ever come over to me, empty handed, and said, “Lady. What do you want?”

Not just a hand signal, then, but a gender-and-age-neutral, accessible, international hand signal.

It never fails, and there aren’t many things in life that you can say that about.

Of course, it gets an assist from context. What else would I be asking for at that stage of the meal? Well, more water, maybe. A refill on the coffee. A dessert spoon to replace the one I just dropped. But the bill is an obvious option.

Nonetheless, its gentle efficiency, bypassing the need to flag down the server, wave them over to the table, ask for the bill, and then send them away to produce it, is a delight.

Thanks, Dad! Maybe that’s not the life lesson you most hoped to pass along, but hey. As parents, as in most of life, we may as well be happy with what we get.


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12 Responses to Father Knows Best

  1. Remarkable! Now I wonder if I have ever seen someone use this gesture? Your description is so persuasive I feel that, surely, I must have seen people writing on their palms since my own childhood. I intend to add it to my walk-a-block inventory of tricks.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – I don’t think I ever saw anyone other than my father use it, but that may be a failure to pay attention. I don’t even know if he made it up or acquired it – as I did – from someone else. Feel free!

  2. Tom Watson says:

    Can’t be a “man” thing, can it? I’ve used the same many times.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      To – Maybe a “who’s paying the bill” thing? Glad to know it’s not just my family . . .

  3. Jim Taylor says:

    I agree about the universality of the “bring the bill” gesture. But one can’t assume that a gesture widely understood in one culture will mean the same thing in another culture. I’m told — I have not personally tested this theory — that the AOK gesture of approval in North America translates into “you asshole” in Greece. Britons also use a different middle-finger salute. Sometimes it’s best to observe first, then do hand gestures.
    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – I agree – always a good idea to follow the local lead in these things, even if that means refraining entirely.

  4. Alison says:

    I had a friend fluent in ASL during school, so learned some sign language myself. It was MOST efficient in communicating across a classroom! Or as you’ve mentioned, a crowded noisy Bar? I find myself these days communicating by sign with my year old granddaughter ( a reluctant talker) it’s a current parenting fad, but is still an efficient way of making your point. Maybe it will also come in handy as we age??

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Alison – Yes, I don’t know when someone realized that kids knew more than they were saying, but our crop of grandkids (now 12 years, on the leading edge) were all taught at least some sign language. A great boon, to have a better chance of figuring out what they want – less frustration all round! And as you say, we might find it useful for ourselves in a few (quite a few!) years.

  5. Wade says:

    I can’t recall exactly how long it’s been in my repertoire but it is very effective. Many years ago in the brilliant six part British tv production of le Carre’s Tinker Tailor a Soldier Spy, Sir Alec Guinness does it in a private club. The style and subtlety with which he performs the gesture remain with me forever.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Wade – That’s great – I’ll have to watch for Sir Alec. Style and grace are sort of my bywords, too . . .

  6. Do you think it will ever be replaced by a gesture (well, two) in this age of the credit card machine: It goes like this: you raise your left hand in a large grip, then with your right hand pretend you are jamming in your credit card. Not as elegant perhaps…. Do not try this in any foreign country…

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