Saturday, March 7, 2009


As you may already be aware, my Number One Rule of Life is as follows:


Nowhere is this more, and more obviously, true than in those retail establishments known as "fast food" places. Although the people working there are, supposedly, trained to do their specific assembly-line jobs, they are clearly not trained to do anything else, and are clearly not expected to think -- about anything, ever. The result is that in these places there is a thin veneer of order and organization, but the minute the slightest thing goes wrong the entire system experiences a meltdown, with people either standing around scratching their heads, or breaking out into fits of cursing and screaming (I'm talking about the staff here -- the customers are another matter entirely). In discussing this with various people I've discovered that there is general agreement as to the one event which is certain to bring the operation of a fast food place to a screeching halt, and that is the dreaded "running out of cash register tape" syndrome. Whenever this happens, you may be certain that there is not a single person on the premises who knows where the rolls of tape are stored, or how to replace them. (Or, in the rare case where someone knows where they are stored, that place is invariably locked and no one has the key.) And of course, I don't have to tell you that if the tape runs out while your order is being processed, you're stuck there until it's fixed (or until they close, whichever comes first -- lots of luck if it's a 24-hour place!). I've had to walk out of a grocery store leaving behind a checkout belt loaded with my carefully-selected groceries when this happened. (And the strong implication conveyed by the staff was that it was my fault the machine broke down while my stuff was on the belt.) (Actually, they could have been right. I have the same effect on radios and copying machines -- but not computers, thank goodness!.)

There is another phenomenon that I've noticed, and it continues to mystify me, because if you've ever taken a close look at the typical fast food operation, you will find that everything -- and I mean EVERYTHING -- is standardized and organized on a minute level. This is to keep the people who work there from ever having to think, as I said -- or adapt to new situations. The old Army notion of "when in charge, take charge" simply does not apply in the fast food business. When things go wrong, you quickly find out who's in charge: no one! The place apparently operates by sheer inertia, and the most senior person on duty (which usually means they've been there long enough to collect two paychecks) is no more able to cope with a crisis than the newest floor sweeper. This is in stark contrast to, for example, the instructional posters which appear behind the scenes, but which are always in full view of the staff -- with tidbits like the exact color french fries have to be in order to be considered cooked.

But back to the phenomenon in question. I patronize a certain fast food place, which shall remain nameless, in a neighborhood which shall remain ditto, out of sheer necessity -- because there are simply no other places to eat within walking distance. And I don't take advantage of the entire menu -- far from it. My selections are limited to just about a half dozen items, in rotation. And I try as best I can to place my order as clearly and unambiguously as possible -- plus, I grew up just a couple hundred miles from here, so my accent is not enough to shock anyone locally. But for any given menu item or standardized meal, I can wind up with about a half dozen different outcomes, based on the identical order (or so I assume). Something mysterious happens between my vocal cords and the ears of the person behind the counter, and another mysterious thing happens between there and the keypad they use to register the order... and still more mysterious things happen between that point and what winds up on the tray. I swear, it's truly amazing how much variety can be squeezed out of the simplest possible order.

I know they try to standardize the terminology in these places the best they can, but there is always the human factor to consider. Take the simplest possible example, namely tea. It is only served in two ways (both iced), either sweetened or unsweetened, and I always get the unsweetened because the other stuff tastes -- because it is -- about as toxic as something dug up from the Hanford Works dump site. OK -- so far so good. Now, if I ask for "tea" I have about a 50-50 chance of getting either one or the other, because they only ask "what kind" half the time, and the baseline assumption is that, of course, every normal American drinks his tea with a quarter cup of sugar per eight ounce cup, right? So now you're saying, well, dummy, don't just say "tea", say "unsweetened tea", and the problem will go away. Not so fast! I can say that, but I know that they'll only hear the word "tea", and not the word "unsweetened". But it gets better! On occasion, they will actually ask, "Sweetened or unsweetened?", I answer, and... you know the rest. I still get the wrong kind. So basically we're dealing with invincible randomness here, something that no amount of training, or organization, is ever going to fix.

Now this is all pretty standard stuff, and I'm sure it happens to just about everyone on a regular basis. But there is another phenomenon that is a bit more rare, and that's what makes it all the more fascinating. Let's say you've waited in line and given your order... paid... and are now waiting for your order to come across the counter. Suddenly the person who waited on you vanishes! Disappears! Without a trace! You have entered into that twilight zone I call "shift change limbo". A new staff member appears at the same work station. You naively assume there's some mechanism by which they are informed -- or at least have the information available -- as to unfulfilled orders taken at that station. You also assume that if you are standing there, in plain sight, right in front of the station, that would tip them off that there is some _reason_ you're standing there, other than maybe you're trying to learn English by reading the menu board over and over. But no -- none of these things apply. You have been dealt a fatal blow by the system, which, for some reason, and after decades of refinement, does not recognize shift changes as a special case. This is that depersonalization Marx talked so much about. As far as the system is concerned, all the workers are identical -- just gray, faceless serfs. It never occurs to them that Serf A was, on some level, keeping track of something in his or her head, and that something was important, and that he or she had no standardized way of passing this knowlege on to Serf B -- or, more likely, they just didn't care. So Serf B steps up to the plate, in all innocence, and as far as he or she is concerned, you don't exist -- you're just a blob of empty air hovering around in their visual field, and not worthy of any attention.

So the question then becomes, what now? How do you crawl up out of shift change limbo and reassert yourself as a paying customer on the brink of starvation? To begin with, you'll probably have to stand in line again just to get the attention of Serf B. Then you'll have to somehow convince Serf B that you've placed an order, PAID (this is the hardest thing to prove unless you used a credit card -- unlikely in a fast food context), and are now waiting for your trans fat-laden Happy Meal. And of course you must do this in your preferred language and dialect and accent, and the chances of that having even the vaguest correlation with Serf B's preferred language and dialect and accent are virtually nil. Plus, they deal with scam artists all the time. The world is full of characters who wander into a fast food joint, claim they've given an order and paid, and demand their food. Not so fast there, buster! "Who took your order?" This is, of course, the ultimate weapon in this battle, since (1) you don't know the person's name; (2) you might not even be sure of their gender; and (3) they've vanished, and a veteran police artist could not provide a description that would ring a bell with anyone currently on duty. (I've tried saying "I think it was Kinesha, or Moneesha, or something like that" -- certain that the odds were with me. But all I get is one of those cold "honky fool" stares.) Plus, aren't people wandering into the place all the time dressed like employees, and pretending to be employees for a while just for fun, then leaving? Isn't that a favorite gag -- a bit of "guerrilla street theater", if you will?

Ah, but you have a weapon of your own, which you have not yet brought to bear on the situation. You say -- foolishly -- "Let me talk to the manager", and then right away repent of your folly because you remember that no one is in charge, and even if there is a person labeled "the manager" they are no more in charge than the guy sweeping up cigarette butts in the parking lot; they're just paid more per hour to scratch their head.

I leave you, dear reader, with this unresolved dilemma -- unresolved because I'm sure it has been resolved, in as many ways as possible, over the many years fast food palaces have blighted the American scene. And, it has clearly _not_ been resolved in as many ways as possible, leading in some cases to armed violence, lawsuits, destruction of property, and so on. But as an illustration of my Number One Rule of Life, it's hard to beat.

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