It had been one of those Monday mornings. My high school football knee was aching -- a sure sign of impending rain. While standing on the bus, my cuff had sprung a button. The car was undergoing major surgery for an unspecified ailment --open the bidding at $200, probably.

A beggar had asked me for a quarter. When I said no, he followed me for half a block, asking for a dime instead. Every time I started to write a brilliant, deathless sentence, the phone had rung. And I was still getting over a dinner party the night before, where I'd run into someone I hadn't seen in 10 years. "Well, havn't you gotten gray?" she had said.

So by Monday noon, all I wanted was a nice, quiet, solitary lunch--an hour of peace to finish reading the paper and to imagine what I should have said to my once--but not future--friend ("Well, you're no prize yourself, honey.").

The wish was shattered like glass.

I ordered a hamburger. The waitress said: "How did you want that cooked?"

"Did?" Past tense? Oh, the damage our language suffers. I got a little snarly.

"I not only wanted it medium rare," I said, "but I still do."

"What do you mean?" the waitress said.

"Look," I said, "it's a question of tenses. It doesn't make sense to ask me what I wanted, because that refers to my wish sometime in the past. I'm going to be eating the hamburger today, not last week. What you want to know is what I want now, today."

The waitress looked around the room quickly, as if to wonder how she had gotten stuck with such a live one. She sighed and said: "OK, I understand. One medium rare hamburger, right?"


I had forgotten all about our exchange by the time she brought the check. But she obviously hadn't.

"You some kind of professor?"

"Nope, worse. I write for a newspaper. And, listen, I wasn't trying to give you a hard time. A lot of waitresses besides you have made the same mistake. I wasn't trying to single you out."

"That's OK," she said, smiling. And then, glancing at the check, she said:

"Now, how did you want to pay for this?"