K.S. ANTHONY: Fast Food

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.