I BEGIN EVERY day in tears. “Six inch or foot long?” I ask, my eyes red and watery, my face flushed. Nobody seems to care or even really notice. I suppose tears seem perfectly appropriate on the face of a fast-food employee. Why shouldn’t I be miserable? It’s just so fitting. Much more so than my grungy, ill-made uniform—an outfit that turns even the most attractive fast-food worker into a mound of shapeless flesh. God forbid any customer notice that there is a person buried under my uniform or think of me as a real human being with thoughts and feelings.
So what if my tears are only caused by the bag of onions I have to chop each morning? My customers don’t know this. For all they know, I could have two weeks left to live. I could be on the run from the mob. Maybe my hamster just died.
You know what goes through my mind when I see a fellow human being in tears? “Is this person suicidal? Should I offer some kind words of support, or maybe leave a quarter in their tip jar?” I like to believe I have some kind of basic human compassion. Maybe my customers do too, but they do an amazing job of hiding it. As far as I can tell, the only thing that interests them in the least are their iPhones.
“Hey, check out my new app! It enables me to completely block out the outside world, thereby making lowly fast-food workers feel like the scum of the earth. What fun!”
So maybe I don’t deserve their sympathy. I know I’m not the most charismatic person in the world. I’ll admit that I scowl when someone asks me to change my gloves before making their food, and perhaps my eyes do roll back in my head when a customer demands more olives (“No, more than that. More. More. More. Even more!”). And maybe I didn’t have to berate that uppity vegetarian who yelled at me for not using a clean knife on her sub.
“If you’re that committed to your vegetarian lifestyle, perhaps you shouldn’t have asked for cheese,” I muttered, smiling gleefully as her jaw dropped in disbelief. That seemed like a fantastic interchange to me, but according to my boss, it was inappropriate behaviour on my part. Go figure. Customers are perfectly within their rights when they scream at me, but when I point out their hypocrisy, I’m in the wrong. Huh.
You see, we fast-food workers are apparently being paid $10.25 an hour to put on a performance for every single customer that walks through the door. It is supposedly my job to act like I am not a real human being—that I don’t have emotions, that I don’t get offended when people loudly gab on the phone instead of asking me how my day is going, and that I don’t get unbelievably angry when someone walks away without saying “thank you” after I serve them.
“You are WELCOME,” I’ll yell after them. Another big mistake on my part. I should approach every shift the same way Meryl Streep readies herself for a role. Get into character. Pull my baggy uniform on over my head. Tighten my apron. Straighten my visor. Stand up straight. And finally—the pièce de resistance—force a smile onto my face. Voila: I’m ready for my close-up.
I’m sorry, but no. I refuse. If I were getting paid twice as much as I am, you better believe I would be the perkiest sandwich artist on the planet. I’d tap dance for the customers, shine their shoes, and open-mouth kiss everyone who upped their order to a combo. No problem. But I am not getting paid $20 an hour, and I refuse to smile for anybody unless they deserve it. I will prepare your food for you. I will give you your food in exchange for currency. And that’s about all you’re going to get.
Yes, I am bitter. A lot of us fast-food workers are. Just try to remember that we’re not mad at you as a person; we’re mad at you as a customer. We’re mad that you would ignore us when we say “hello,” yet still demand special treatment. We’re mad that we’re being paid minimum wage, that our boss is a psycho, and that this is our 20th day of work in a row.
The next time you come in to get your six-inch Chicken Teriyaki, try to pry your eyes away from your phone. I know it’s beautiful. I know it’s trendy, shiny, and fabulous, but just try to make eye contact with the person behind the counter (that’s right—person) and note the tired look in their eyes. Note the slumped shoulders and forced smile, and realize that behind my meaningless tears every morning there is actual sadness, exhaustion, and discouragement.
Try to be nice, or even just polite. Don’t yell. Don’t scream. Don’t bark at us. Just treat us like human beings. In exchange, you can expect a genuine smile, a little light conversation, and maybe even extra olives. Deal?