The following story is true. It’s happened to me at least twice at every fast food place in Cold Lake. And it’s driving me nuts.
I enter the restaurant. There are 10 people mulling about in a crowd. There is no order, no organization, no line. Everyone’s just gathered around hoping that maybe, just maybe, they’ll be the next person that a clerk waves over. Maybe, if they just wait long enough, they’ll be chosen to be the next one to get a cheeseburger! Oh, the honour at being chosen! No honour, no order. Only chaos. I chose a place in the crowd that could easily be mistaken for the end of a line and a wait.
An old man comes and stands next to me in the crowd. Or maybe he’s behind me in line, who knows. He looks at his scratch-n-win lottery tickets and scowls. “I can’t believe it, I just can’t believe it!” Is he talking to me? “You know, I was playing one of these yesterday.” Dear lord, he is talking to me. I turn my head in his direction. He’s furiously waving around the lottery ticket. “With the one I had yesterday, I actually had one of those “win a car” deals!” I nod and politely smile, feigning interest. “If I just had two more, I would have won me a new car. Man, I was so close.” I keep nodding, mumble a grunt of empathy. I have no idea if this conversation is over. “But you just know, I’ll keep playing. Yup. For all I know, this one will be the million dollar ticket!” I widen my eyes in faux delight. In reality, I’m flashing back to my high school English teacher as he explained the political implications of 1984. “Lotteries are inventions of oppressive regimes to give false hope to the people,” he told the class. “Now, does anyone else find it scary that we have a Minister of Lotteries?” I look at the old man, mourning his distant loss from the day before. Scary, indeed.
“Next in line!” screams the clerk. I resist the urge to yell out, “Holy fuck! There’s a line?” The crowd looks at each other in confusion. Is this it? Have they been chosen? What if she wasn’t selecting me? What if she was talking to the person next to me? Have I finally achieved nirvana? The bewilderment passes through the crowd as everyone smiles faintly and points to each other, trying to figure out who’s next. “Next in line!” screams the clerk again. The pointing at each other becomes more frantic. I seize the opportunity and walk towards the clerk. The hearts of the crowd sink as they realize…they were not the one.
I remember how much rude customers annoyed me when I worked retail. I smile and try my best to be nice. “Good afternoon! How are you today?” I ask the clerk. She glares at me, unimpressed.
She can’t be more than 16 years old. She was beautiful once, and probably still is to a few 14 year olds. But now, with her hair slightly mussed, make-up fading under the fluorescent lights, and an extra 56 pounds put on by free lunches at work, have resulted in a young woman whose soul was crushed far before her time.
Call me silly, but at fast food restaurants, I have become accustomed to clerks saying, “Hello! What can I get for you today?” I stand and wait for the clerk to ask that. Instead, she says nothing. She just glares at me. I smile politely, waiting to be acknowledged. She locks eyes with me and scowls. I start to feel her eyes boring their way through my skull. The moment is turning awkward. I continue smiling. What was once a simple restaurant transaction has become a battle of wills. I stand, waiting for one of us to crack. Will she finally buckle and say, “Can I take your order?” Will I break down and just blurt out, “I’d like a cheeseburger combo, please!” We stand and stare at each other.
Finally, some movement. She contorts her face. She slightly shrugs. She turns the palms of her hand towards me. I recognize it as the universal gesture for, “What?” I believe that counts as me winning. “Yes, I’d like a cheeseburger combo, please.”
She resumes glaring at me. But I’ve now established dominance. “With a cola to drink.”
Resuming the glare. “To stay, please.”
Resuming the glare. “And I’m paying with my debit card.” I hand her my card. She punches the buttons and hands me the debit machine, then turns around to get my cheeseburger.
I wait for my food. “I just can’t believe what those guys in Ottawa are doing.” Crap! The old man is next to me again. “I mean, with the same-sex marriage, and the legalization of pot, we’re all going straight to hell for sure.” God, let it end. “I’m glad I live in Alberta, where Ralph is protecting us from all that.” Ugh. I hate living in a red state. “And I know it won’t be too long before Bubba and I can finally get married.” What? This guy’s got issues.
The clerk hands me my paper bag containing my order. In protest, I decide to actually eat in the restaurant. I once again marvel that the clerk and I went through all that, and she never uttered a word. As I walk away, she speaks again. “Next in line!” The old man steps forward. “Good day, there, dearie, how are you? Well, I’m just doing fine.” The old man waves his lottery tickets at the clerk. “You know, I was playing one of these yesterday….” The clerk glares at the old man. It’s a match made in heaven.
I sit down at a table. The food costs to much. It’s not healthy. The taste is mediocre at best. And I hate the experience. Why do I keep going back?