Last weekend was a mixed bag for a specific demographic of diners and the restaurants that served them.

Marked with celebratory pomp, and extenuating circumstances, college graduations bring on their own craziness, added to the special sauce of multi-generational occasions. A precursor to Memorial Day Weekend, when the floodgates open for folks From Away, graduation lunches and dinners are well represented in the “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up” arena, filed under the Family Dynamics section. Here’s one of my favorites.

Not long ago, I was asked to work a reservation for a group of 11 adults and six children, arriving immediately after graduation from USM. The grandmother made the reservation, the mother drastically changed the head count and then called back to confirm it no less than four times. The graduate herself called and asked to be sure there were gluten-free and vegan selections. Lastly, the mom called back making sure the graduate’s boyfriend who was “riding her coat tails” would be “discretely presented” with his own check.

“He drinks so much, even at lunch,” she said. “None of us can stand him and if he’s so crazy about her, where’s the engagement ring? Say, if I dropped off place cards, maybe we could seat him far away from my husband, who wants to stab him.”

Explaining there would be one check for a party of that size, I told her she was welcome to bring name cards and set them on the table just prior to their arrival. The tables, I said, would be turning and reset twice before they were coming in the early afternoon. After some discussion, our compromise was for her to drop off a seating map, complete with the name cards the night before.

Graduation ran long and the group filtered in about 45 minutes late. Cranky from the large party running behind (thus further ruining their Saturday afternoon plans for the inner-restaurant Frisbee playoffs), the boys in the kitchen were aggravated. As were the manager, the hostess who was pretending to be sick, and the other server.

“I don’t think we should keep the bartender sticking around sucking payroll dry for a few stragglers,” my manager said to no one in particular. “We never get much from these graduations.”

Not so sure, I was thinking other families who failed to make reservations would be seeking a place to eat. Not thrilled to be correct, the place suddenly filled up, my large party along with the hungry masses.

Looking at the crowded foyer, I remembered I had forgotten to bring out the place map. Ignoring lethal glares from the mother, the boyfriend did indeed sit next to the graduate’s father. Talking non-stop and breathing only to order a third beer, things got off to a disastrous start.

Their food took forever because the order was one of the last to hit the kitchen. The hostess had already left and the manager was doing triple duty: seating, busing and mixing drinks. Worried as much about the negative word-of-mouth as I was about my golden-goose table, I tried to make small talk about the grad’s future plans.

An instant hush fell over the table and all eyes turned to the father. Everyone seemed a little smaller and even the balloons they had brought in appeared to lose some air. Following an uncomfortable silence I started to turn away.

“Wait,” the father said. “Maybe you can bring out some Asti Spumante for a toast. My daughter, it seems, is planning to get married instead of going to one of the three grad schools she was accepted to. Apparently, a celebration is order.”

As the mother burst into tears the boyfriend-turned-fiance mistook for joy, the adults slugged their bubbly. Everyone, even the children, lost their appetites and when the food was finally served, it was hardly touched. Offering to wrap it up, I wished the graduate and her family my sincere congratulations.

With nothing left to do but present the check, the fiance’s timing was impeccable. As he saw me walking toward the table with the check holder, he excused himself, blew a kiss to the grad, and headed outside for a cigarette.

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Natalie Ladd lives in Portland. When not pecking away, she can be found serving the masses at a busy eatery, or tirelessly conducting happy-hour field research. Hospitality questions or comments should be sent to [email protected], and may be featured in a future column. Follow Natalie on Twitter: @natalieladd.

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