K.S. ANTHONY: 2014

05 May 2014

Fast Food

Sometimes I walk to the Jack in the Box on Sunset and Ivar, usually when it's fairly late. I don't know what time they close, or even if they close at all. Their carnival red sign never seems to dim, even after Amoeba's neon goes gray and the noise in Hollywood changes key from exuberant to scary. I don't go because I have any fascination with fast food. It's never satisfying. I always feel slightly worse both physically and as a global citizen for having eaten it. I don't go for the food, even though I always buy it.

I go because even in Hollywood where there's always a 5150 on the verge of punching a scabby hand through the soda machine or a junkie girl with dirty arms in a clean shirt, it feels friendly to me. It's the rehearsed overcompensating fake friendliness, I'm sure. I worked in various counter food service environments and I know that 99% of it is forced: mandated by little "reminder" stickers, secret shopper surveys, chats about the guest "experience" and the constant threat of termination. It's friendliness enforced by fear. The people who work there undoubtedly need their jobs more than, say, Leonard Comma, who, at 43, makes an estimated $2.6 million as CEO. I have no idea if Mr. Comma has ever stood behind the counter at one of his restaurants with aching feet, stinking of restaurant grease, scared shitless about whether or not the last customer who got the Ultimate Cheeseburger with mayo instead of without it was "shopping" the store or not, and smiling as brightly as possible to the tweakers who come in for refills on soda cups they bought a week ago, but that's not for me to speculate on.

The last time I was in Jack in the Box, the fellow at the counter was apologizing to people for "the wait." I don't know if anyone besides the tweakers was in any kind of hurry, but this guy was really anxious about anyone having to endure "the wait." It took me a few minutes, but I figured it out. He had just replaced someone behind the counter who had miskeyed an order, causing a minor backlog, which was then exacerbated by some Stereotypical Hollywood Jerkoff who rewrote the entire menu so as to please his companions (who were not present) who apparently had very particular tastes when it comes to food from the home of two tacos for 99 cents. Long story short, he was flustered. The cooks were probably getting pissed off. There were more customers milling about than usual. He was probably worried that things were going to get worse, so he attempted to compensate by being really friendly...in the form of being preemptively apologetic. No one was complaining. Why complain in Jack in the Box at 11:30 pm on a Thursday? No good can possibly come of it.

I got to the counter feeling really rather sympathetic. I had been writing all day and night and my characters were having a tough time of it, so when I got up there for my "Sourdough Jack, no mayo, sandwich only, to-go please," I felt bad for this guy in a purple shirt.  I thought of all the really awful jobs I had through my teens and early twenties and how rare it was to come across anyone who was just nice; who knew that I probably hated my job and who aimed to make it a little less awful.

I'm sure he had no interest in my sympathy, or even my forgiveness, when he issued his automatic and rehearsed "sorry for the wait," but I don't think he was quite ready for my reply.

"It's just fast food, man. Take your time. Don't worry about it. It's fine." He paused a second, then regained his footing, and went on to the next customer.

I waited. My number was shouted over the crowd and I walked up and to claim my bag. "Sorry for the wait," he said again. But this time he did something he hadn't done with his last ten apologies. He handed me a cup. I hadn't ordered a cup and, for some reason, I backed away in surprise before I realized he was offering me a cup.

"Oh, thank you. That's not necessary, but it's very kind."

"Are you sure? It's on me. I mean...you waited."

"Yes, I'm sure. But thank you. That's good of you." I left and I worried if I had accidentally insulted him by refusing his offered gift. Then I realized that he had probably already forgotten it, even though I was still thinking about it the next day.

Sometimes even in the rush of rehearsed and scripted niceness, there's a tiny bit of the real stuff that comes through, almost accidentally, as the result of someone being--or at least trying to be--understanding without being condescending or phony.

It happens on both sides of the counter.

It's not necessary, but it's very kind. 

25 April 2014

A Certain Kind of Hope.

There is a certain kind of hope that comes with sitting alone in a café with a book. You don't really find it in bars. The disinhibition that comes with alcohol leaves no room to create an illusion of solitude, though I have known drinkers--myself included--who can go into a bar and drink and not talk to anyone. To sit alone in a café, though, is to hope.

What I have hoped for in cafés is invariably the same thing: the unexpected company of someone who miraculously gets me. The book has to provide what the hoped-for company might provide, but it's also a prop: an excuse, an invitation. There's a certain snob appeal to reading Flaubert or Balzac or Proust in a café: a kind of self-conscious attempt at sophistication that people mock but that all people engage in on some level or another. The public exhibition of personal taste is often the exhibition of personal loneliness; of private longing. Any writer who has scribbled on a bar napkin has hoped for the right person to ask what he or she is writing. Anyone who has sighed and re-read their favorite paragraph or poem has hoped to look up and see someone smiling.

The hope is never for just anyone. It's a hope for the perfect stranger, who, of course, will be attractive and confident while being humble and kind; intelligent and soft-spoken while being passionate and erudite. The perfect stranger isn't carved from marble or painted on canvas because that perfect stranger would then be perfect for everyone and therefore not perfect. What makes this a hope is that we're searching for the stranger who will be perfect for us; who will recognize in us--by our taste in coffee or tea or pastries, by our refined taste in 19th century French authors or rare jazz recordings from the 1930s--a kindred spirit, a soulmate.

Of course, we can never be too obvious. This is why we must sit alone. We need the illusion of solitude in order to really give ourselves over to this hope. How could the stranger know that we're waiting for them if we're with some tedious person with whom we grudgingly pass the time and who laughs too loudly, argues too rabidly, and slurps their cappuccino? I hold that we are most ourselves when we are alone and hoping, our dogeared paperbacks and battered notebooks stained with coffee and marginalia.

If not that, then we are certainly our best selves: the selves we present when we're doing something as careless and as cautious as falling in love, confession by confession, secret by secret, second by second. One cup, one page, one hope at a time with those who have looked at us and miraculously found us to be perfect strangers.