It’s Saturday afternoon when I pull into the drive-thru of my local Burger King with my baby in tow. Not the best nutritional choice, I know, but Natalie’s been a hot mess all morning and I haven’t eaten a morsel. Since parenthood begets frugality I order two cheeseburgers off the value menu for $1.19 apiece and a small Diet Coke.
“That’ll be $4.58,” the voice coming out of the speaker squawks. The meal should be $3.50 tops.
“$4.58!” I say. “How’s that possible? How much is the Coke?” The speaker box doesn’t answer.
Because the three cars ahead of me are ordering enough food to feed an infantry brigade, it takes fifteen minutes for me to inch up to the cashier. Fast food my ass. Luckily my baby always falls asleep in the car.
“$4.58,” a skinny teenager says as I pull up. My order is ready and the receipt is stapled to the bag.
“May I see the receipt?” I say. The kid holds out the bag but, because my vision is bad, I still can’t read it.
“Closer, please,” I say. The kid moves the bag half an inch. Smart ass.
I reach out and grab the bag. Reflexively, the kid tries pulling it away, probably thinking I’ll drive off with it. I wonder if management would make him pay for it if I do.
“Just give me the bag,” I say, pulling it out if his hand. The kid looks pissed and I feel kind of bad but when I look at the receipt my guilt is quashed. My burgers cost $2.38. The small Coke is $2.00.
Costing pennies to dispense and garnering big profits, fountain drinks are a racket in the restaurant business. I once worked in a place where the owner upped soda prices a nickel a week in order to make up his food costs. He also demanded charging for refills but, after a father freaked over a $40 bill for his children’s drinks, I stopped that usurious practice. Burger King is trying to make up their losses on the “value menu” by overcharging me for soda.
“I don’t want the soda,” I tell the cashier. “Just the burgers.”
“Just take the soda off my bill.”
The kid disappears and returns with the manager. “What’s the problem?” he says.
“Nothing personal,” I say, “But two dollars for a small soda is a ripoff.”
“We told them that,” the manager says, shrugging. “But I gotta do what I’m told.”
“Tell your boss I won’t be coming back because of this.”
The manager looks like he couldn’t give a damn. “Why should I tell them that?”
Now it’s my turn to shrug. “Customer feedback?”
“Have a nice day, sir.”
I park and eat my lunch. Luckily I have a bottle of water in my car. A hard rain is falling and as I listen to the drops pelting the car’s roof I unhappily realize I’m becoming a middle-aged grump. When I was a waiter those people aggravated the hell out if me. They’d hyper examine the bill, question prices, and bitch about portions. Now I’m doing the same stuff. The karmic wheel turns again.
In some ways I’ve grown into being like my old customers. As I inch closer to 50, thanks to news about predatory lenders, financiers betting you’ll lose your house, computer wizards gaming Wall Street, bank bailouts and corporate money in politics, I’ve become more cynical. I’m beginning to think life is a con game where everyone is on the take. Burger King’s attempt to screw me out of two bucks just reinforces my paranoia. But there’ve been other incidents.
A few weeks ago I had four skin tags removed by a dermatologist. I was told the procedure was covered under the cost of the office visit. Later, when I got a bill for $300 and saw my insurer was charged $3800 in various fees, I called the billing department and told them I’d report them for fraud. The bill was magically erased. “It was a coding error,” they said. Bullshit. They were trying to see what they could get away with. That seems to be the ethos of the modern age.
It’s a dynamic that plays out in human interactions large and small.. While waiting on a long line at Babies “R” Us, my wife and I watched as smartly dressed couple wheeled their tot in a $1000 carriage past the waiting customers and sauntered up to the register. I loudly complained until they left red faced with embarrassment. And when a guy, despite having a perfectly serviceable driveway, parked his two cars in the spots my neighbors and I dug out after a snowstorm, I let him have it. He didn’t move his cars that day, but he didn’t come back the next. These people were seeing what they could get away with and someone pushed back.
Of course, my “little sheriff” attitude hurts as much as helps.. Each time I confronted these doctors, line jumpers and spot stealers I got angry, my blood pressure shot up and I was grouchy afterwards. We also live in a world where “Don’t rock the boat” is a powerful social more and those who speak up are often viewed with suspicion. As a new father I can’t afford to alienate Natalie from future playmates by being the town crank – but I’ll be useless to her if I let people walk all over me. You have to pick your battles, but it’s often hard to know which one is worth fighting.
Lunch finished, I turn in my seat to check on Natalie. She’s starting to squirm so I sing her an appropriate snippet of Bob Dylan.
Look out kid
They keep it all hid
Better jump down a manhole
Light yourself a candle
Don’t wear sandals
Try to avoid the scandals
Don’t wanna be a bum
You better chew gum
The pump don’t work
‘Cause the vandals took the handles.
Good advice written before I was born. As Natalie grows up I’ll have to help her figure how to avoid life’s vandals. But I’m also aware I’ll never be able to protect her from them all of them. To even try would hurt her. The only solution I can think of is to raise her with the notion that money isn’t everything; selflessness is the greatest virtue and the spiritual and corporal works of mercy aren’t just suggestions. The best way to do that is to raise her with an awareness of how beautiful the world is despite all it’s nonsense. That means my cynicism and I are on a collision course. I can’t be a middle aged grump all the time. How will I work it out? I have no idea.
Perhaps life is a mix of Subterranean Homesick Blues and St. Francis’ Canticle of the Sun.
You have reached your mark. I have followed you for nearly 9 years, and it has been nothing but a brilliant ride! I live all the way over on the other side of the USA, but I applaud all of your growth & insight… as a man, but most of all, especially as a writer. I thank you for leading us to question all of the hypocrisy in our lives today. Remember that saying “Question Authority”?
And congratulations to you both….for embarking on the challenges of raising a child together. How very blessed you are!!! Please savor every moment.
Hey Steve – I’m hitting 50 in 2 years and thanks to the wonderful world of pharmacology (due to a dance with cancer) I get this major psycho menopausal broad thing going on every six months. I become that Crazy Old Lady screaming at people who drive the wrong way in a parking lot, howling at vegans who are worried about the geese who are being force fed for fois but don’t care about the migrant workers hand picking their fava beans and threatening the life and limbs of a lot of others who get my goat. I ask myself, when did I become that crazy old person shaking my fist at those damn kids on my lawn? I feel ya, dude, I feel ya.
I hear you, buddy. I have no problem with being a crank as you describe it, though I do have the same concerns:
“As a new father I can’t afford to alienate Natalie from future playmates by being the town crank – but I’ll be useless to her if I let people walk all over me. You have to pick your battles, but it’s often hard to know which one is worth fighting.”
I have intentionally tried to teach my now-14-year-old son to take calculated risks. We’ve shot guns, jumped off small cliffs into creeks, etc. Along the way, I’ve always tried to explain how I assess the risk to teach my son to think for himself. In many instances over the years, my son’s childhood friend who lives across the street has gone along with us. I treated him like my own son, and I’d never gotten any concerns from his parents.
Well, one day about 3 years ago, the friend’s parents got wind of something I’d done with the kids that they thought was life-threateningly dangerous, and they let me have it. In the midst of the verbal tirade, they let it be known that they’d long thought I was endangering their son. WTF?
I haven’t spoken to those neighbors since (though they’ve remained on polite terms with my wife). Their apparently long-standing concerns about me haven’t kept them from letting their son continue to spend much of his free time at our house (our son hates to go to their house).
Since that event, I’ve refused to do any activities with just me and the boys, but apparently the parents aren’t so concerned that they’ve given their son instructions not to do stuff with me. I’ve asked him. In fact, they told him to use his own discretion. Way to go with parenting–tell an 11-year-old to figure out for himself if an adult is doing something dangerous with him!
My point? Well, I’m not sure I have one, except that people suck and life is complicated. Embrace your crank-itude!
On a separate note, my retired next-door-neighbor literally became the ‘get off my lawn’ dude a couple years ago. We live very close to the local elementary school, and a lot of kids walk home past our houses. My neighbor started hanging out in front of his house waiting to growl at kids who walked off the sidewalk. His wife must have pointed out the irony to him because he only did it for a couple of weeks.
Embrace your inner curmudgeon!
I went through a similar phase before I started in the restaurant world as a career. My first experience was with a window company in southwest Michigan. They screwed me pretty hard when my boss gave my job to his cocaine dealer. Set me off on quite a whirlwind tour of angry bitterness for the next several years. The second was my being “restructured” out of General Motors in 2008. By that point I had realized that the corporate scum that run AmeriKa (as I came to writing it at the time) were just that and I would do all I could to put my financial misery back in their greedy pockets. Foreclosed on two homes and relocated back to Northern Michigan where I found peace as a dishwasher. Quite a change from the $38k salary I had become accustomed to. I worked in a French Provencal style restaurant in a quaint little cow town. Due to the restaurant’s success I was afforded quite a nice wage of $10 + tip pool. The servers would pay in 30% to the hourly staff which would then be added to our hourly pay. Some weeks I could make $20 an hour washing dishes! I saw a goldmine. I started watching the chef and asking questions. The next thing I knew I was running the line on Friday nights and making my own menu for Sunday brunches. After the business did what it does, I parted ways and ended up as a dining room manager. I get to make people happy for a living now and have a blast doing it. I’m at peace now and no longer does the angry bitterness come out as it once did. (Thanks in part to MY little blue pill, Zoloft)
Where you found cynicism in the business as a waiter and manager, I have found peace. Even with the socially retarded sociopaths that I kiss up to on a daily basis. Almost like a little hole that I was able to hide in.
I really dig your work Steve! Just finished Waiter Rant and I have been reading through your blog. Thanks for sharing all the stories.
I forget where I read this but it’s something I try now. Whenever someone does something stupid, greedy, selfish, etc… try to come up with a good heart-warming story about why that person would do that. For example, lets say you see some jackass swerving in and out of lanes trying to get a few cars ahead you could say “Maybe that guy just got a call from the hospital and his mother is on her death bed and she wants to say goodbye before she goes”. You can also make it a game with the people you are with, whoever comes up with the best story wins. It seems corny but it actually works. Just a hint, normally stories involving dying loved ones or kittens go on to win 😉
Dan, your suggestion reminds me of this:
You MUST listen to the end.
Maybe I’m crazy, but people who don’t put shopping carts in the cart return make me lose it. Why would you leave the cart in the middle of a spot less than 10′ from the return?
My wife and I tried to figure out why that was such a huge issue for me, and I think it comes down to the fact that the person who can’t be bothered to put the cart back is creating more work for someone else.
And that attitude of “That’s not my job, someone else will take care of it.” really really bothers me and I think it is at the core of a lot of problems in the world today. Personal responsibility is everyones job.
Oh, and I’m only 41. At 50, I assume I’ll be writing angry letters to the newspaper.
Congrats, we’re working in a world where nobody looks out for the little guy and the people who serve the 0.1 percent are doing everything they can to harvest money off the rest of us. Nobody’s in charge, and nobody will defend you but you. And the little guys follow the example of the big guys, because being a nice guy doesn’t get you anything.
BK tries to rip you off, and the manager shrugs and tells you it’s the system. In the greater scheme, it’s a system he’s agreed to be a cog in, so that’s BS. But he’ll tell you he has to survive.
Frankly, if human beings were naturally this way, we’ never have made it out of Olduvai Gorge. You’d be running from a leopard, screaming for help, and your buddy Thak would ask, “What’s it worth to you?” We are better than this. But we’re in a cage kept by unseen people who make arbitrary rules, and human relations have been reduce to a matter of cash flows. At least by the people who are currently telling us what society should be.
It won’t last. But the collapse is going to be ugly.
As for your curmudgeon status, aspire to Zen Master. Be able to say and do all the same things without getting angry. It’s a tough one. I hit it about one time in ten. But it’s worth it. If you can project without being angry, you’re in control.
Thanks for the posts.