For many years now, I’ve been fascinated by the difficulties waiters and waitresses have remembering that you ordered a glass of water. They rarely forget a coffee, they never forget a bottle of wine, but about 50% of the time, if you order a glass of water it’ll never appear.
Now I gradually developed a theory about this, and I loved my theory. My theory was this: water is a difficult thing for a waiter to remember because it is see-through. After all, the sensory imagination and memory are closely entwined: things are approximately as easy to remember as they are to visualize.
And the thing about visualization, is that it relies on rich sensory detail. We can all visualize brightly coloured, sensorily striking objects with ease. But abstract concepts, numbers and the whereabouts of our keys are difficult to picture in the mind’s eye because they don’t fire the imagination: there’s no vivid detail to grasp onto, no emotion that’s evoked and that might serve as a handle.
Returning to the glass of water, it was, as I say, for a long time my belief that waiters were so persistently forgetting my orders thereof because water is see-through. It’s quite difficult to visualize. When you imagine it, your mental eye often looks straight through the glass and lands on an object behind. This is one of those theories that has the great merit that if it were true, it would be wonderful. But that isn’t necessarily a decent guide to truth.
And indeed, I have come to the rather more banal conclusion that waiters forget my water-orders because water is free. The insight came to me when I noticed that they are as likely to forget an order for bread as they are for water, that they don’t forget sparkling water, no matter how translucent the bottle, that neither do they don’t forget orders for vodka; the final nail in the coffin came while ordering at a café on a peat bog, where the local water is yellow: the waiter returned to the table with my coffee but with not a drop of water.
Reality, how disappointing you can be! Waiters, you capitalist schmucks!