I’m always fascinated to watch people who’ve never had to really work for a living interacting with waitstaff, cashiers, and retailers.
There’s this sort of weird classist thing going on – like “those” people are lesser, for having that job, for getting paid $5.45 an hour to wipe your kid’s smeared shit from the restaurant tabletop, like they’re stupider than you are, like they have no other aspirations, and if they really don’t have other aspirations, that that makes you somehow better.
It got even weirder when I found myself as the member of a hoity-toity group of executives who did a corporate dinner down in Indianapolis. I had a much greater loyalty and affection for the waitresses, but I was pretty fucked from the moment I sat down, cause I wasn’t “one of them” anymore, I was “one of the enemy.”
Oh, we hate our customers. Oh, yes. I remember. For every sweetheart who leaves you a ten dollar bill on a bad day, there’s the couple with six kids who smear mashed potatoes all over the tabletop and leave you four pennies.
My parents were burger flippers. They started working behind the grill and the counter at the local burger joint when they were 16 and 17, respectively. They came home smelling like burger grease, smeared oil and dusted in the remnants of hamburger buns. It’s a not unpleasant smell to me, actually, and I have fond memories when I walk into the backrooms of fast-food restaurants, as I spent a good deal of time in those places. And it means I’m also well aware of how people get treated in food service. People assume you’re stupid. They assume that nobody there takes pride in what they do. And that’s a load of shit.
It was very important for my parents to instill in me a good work ethic. They showed up to work on weekends and holidays, and I have fond memories of hanging out at the burger joint while my mom mopped floors on Christmas Eve. This was what you did. You did everything the way it was supposed to be done. You didn’t shirk the floor on Christmas Eve, or any other day.
My parents would come home and talk about the people they knew at work. The managers, area managers, my parents’ fellow employees, were a bit like an extended family. They would hash out the latest goings-on, compare notes about how well their stores did when they became managers, when they became area managers. When they became VPs, most of the talk was of corporate crap, and they didn’t come home smelling like grease as often, but my dad was still in the back flipping burgers for store openings, making up new burger ideas, and loving every minute of it, and my mom would come in and make a batch of fries and mop up somebody’s floor, and chat with the employees and let them know how valued they were. Cause they were people. And they were amazing people who had amazing stories.
There were women who’d come in after being housewives for years, and never had a job in their life, and this was it, and they took such incredible pride in what they did. And there were dumb teenagers who often stole money to pay their cell phone bills, and had to be let go. And there were other women coming out of bad marriages, divorces, and men coming out of divorces, and people who’d had life shit on them, and were using this to get through, or move on, on the way to anywhere.
There were petty arguments and stupid resentments and in-fighting and sexual harrassment and love affairs and fast food. And these were the people I hung out with, the people my parents befriended. And they were real people, with real problems, and they worked their goddamn asses off every goddamn day to make ends meet.
When I was sixteen, I got a cushy admin job in the corp. office, having parents who were VPs, and having been in and out of the fast-food joints my whole life. I understood the business, I understood the people, I liked being there. I started at minimum wage and within about six months, went from making copies to running the behind-the-scenes set-up work for employee training sessions and company events, hauling training materials back and forth, interacting with hotel staff and organizing box lunches. I copyedited training manuals. I started writing a company newsletter.
For a number of different reasons, my mother was let go from the company (“Choose between your marriage or your job”), and my dad told them all to fuck off the next day.
My parents were never really the same after that, because for 25 years, this place, these people, had been their entire life. They had talked of nothing else. They had spent all of their time, their effort, their energy, invested in this company, in these people, and they passionately believed in making it better.
Afterwards, I went through a number of different jobs. I’ve worked behind the counter at a health food store, worked collecting ticket money and behind the concession stand at a movie theatre; I spent six months cleaning dog kennels on weekends at the local vet clinic, I worked as a file clerk at a medical center, I’ve done some of the most insane work at a weekend catering business where I ran around with people engaging in the best of guerilla food terrorism, and I have been a hostess and waitress at a low-end restaurant chain where I was looked at by customers with an IQ half that of mine as being no more than the dirt beneath their shoes. And I smiled and was nice to them for my four pennies. I have worked in a call center at an electronics seller during Christmas time and had people scream at me, hang up, bitch about holiday orders. I’ve found fraudsters and cancelled orders and learned how to pick up a phone every two minutes and be incredibly polite to the next caller after being shouted out by the one before. I have done temp work, office drudgery, research. I’ve made a handful of dollars selling short, violent fiction.
And there has been a strange disconnect for me now, realizing that when I come up to the receptionist’s desk at the hotel, in my suit jacket and nice shoes, carrying my corporate card, that I’m not “one of us” – I’m “one of them.” They’re paid to be nice to me and put up with my bullshit. When you’re lucky, you can bust down the power divide and connect with them – sometimes the telemarketer calls and I can hear it in the background, I can remember that little office cubicle I had, can remember how crappy it was to cold call people to verify orders and have them pissed off because they thought you were a solicitor. I remember the phone, every two minutes. I remember this is a person sitting exactly where I was, and if we’re both in a good mood, you can connect, I can say, “No thanks, dude, I used to do what you do. I totally understand,” and he goes, “It sucks,” and I say, “I know. Have a good night, OK? Hang in there.”
Because they’re busting their asses and getting bitched at for $8 an hour. And I’ve been there.
I don’t bitch about my waitstaff. I don’t make unreasonable demands. I tip well. I do this because I’ve been there, because I’ve been dirt fucking poor trying to make it on tips, had my phone cut off, been worried about paying the electric bill. I’ve been in that place. I know what it’s like.
And that’s why I always get so goddamn irritated with people who forget that the people paid to serve them may not actually like them, in fact, may loathe them, and that endearing themselves to that person is not about making their night worse by demanding that they acknowledge how smart and witty you are, or bow to your demands so that you can feel better than them.
They just want to make money and go home. Be nice to your waitstaff. Be nice to the people on the other end of the phone.
That’s you. Could be you. Was you. Might be you.
Don’t be an asshole.