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.