Mind Your Manners

06/08/2012 02:24 pm ET | Updated Aug 08, 2012

It's 2 a.m. after the Nebraska Cornhuskers have pounded their latest victim on the way to another winning season, and the restaurant's packed. Every table and booth is filled with college kids who've been partying, and now they're hungry. The restaurant isn't staffed for a crowd this big at this hour, and one busboy in particular is feeling the heat.

I'm mesmerized, along with most of my friends. The busboy's moving so fast we can't believe dishes aren't shattering, but somehow he keeps up -- and at it.

There's nothing to do but watch him at work while we wait for our orders. Oh wait. I take that back. We don't have to just watch. We can be obnoxious! Still in our school spirit, a few tables start in with a round of, "Go! Go! Go!" Some students start clapping, and soon the whole place is caught up in a round of Cheer for the Busboy.

There's just one problem. Said busboy hasn't lived long enough to roll with it, to join the dance, to ham it up and make fun of himself along with the college kids. I can still see him, pale-faced and pimply-cheeked, growing redder by the minute. He was tall and gangly, maybe 17 years old, and humiliated. It's been more than 30 years, and it still hurts to think about him.

I wasn't clapping, but I was there -- and I didn't do anything. In the course of writing this post I wondered if I should've made some kind of statement. Should I have left the restaurant and told the kid on my way out how sorry I was for the company I kept?

Not necessarily. That might've made it worse. It reminds me of tipping a McDonald's employee for whatever kindness -- probably exchanging a Happy Meal toy for one we didn't already have -- and making such a big deal out of it my husband was embarrassed. "Here lady," he guessed the guy wanted to say, "I'll give you the money back if you would please just shut the hell up and get out of here."

I can't watch people at work without mentally trading places with them and wondering what it would be like to be them.