It was late, it had been a long day, I’d just muscled my way through Atlanta rush hour traffic and I was hungry. It was too late to eat with Mary Jo, and I was too beat to go home and stare into the pantry trying to come up with something for dinner.
I imagine I could have gone home for a bowl of cereal or something. That’s Mary Jo’s go-to meal in dinner emergencies. But I have a moral objection to cereal for supper. It’s not a meal. It’s something you wolf down on your way out the door or before you start your day. It’s not something you sit down to after a long day of work.
Besides, Wendy beckoned. The freckles. Her siren-like perky little red pigtails. I stopped.
On the whole, I am not against fast food. In moderation, of course. Fast food, chosen wisely, is a fine meal in a pinch. Unlimited soda. Cheap. Warm. Quick. And at Wendy’s, they say, the burgers are never frozen. That’s got to be worth something.
Plus, if it’s good enough for all the painters and plumbers and roofers and other working men and women — mostly men — I see there at lunch rush, it’s good enough for me.
I’ll say it: I like fast food once in a while. In moderation. Of course.
So I walked into the mostly empty restaurant, all ablaze with its fluorescence and its animated menu board, its condiment counter all stocked, its Coca-Cola Freestyle machine waiting to do my bidding, and I bellied up to the register.
Nobody there. I noticed a young woman behind me, about the opposite of Wendy, shoveling a stray ketchup packet into a dustpan. She put the tools of her trade aside and, as she slipped past the counter, she muttered, “Here or to go?” It would be difficult, almost impossible even, to utter those four tiny words in a flatter tone than she did. It came with all the warmth of a Slurpee.
Thing is, I like sitting in a fast food place, taking my time, looking over the restaurant, watching the workers gnaw on impossibly big burgers, three potatoes worth of fries and a soda big enough to have its own seat. It’s relaxing. I also find that there’s little worse, culinarily speaking (probably not a word), than taking a fast-food meal home and sitting down to a carton of cold fries. That’s nasty. I dine in, dammit.
I told her “Here,” and waited for her next question.
This, in fast-food restaurants, is simple etiquette. Common courtesy. Fast Food 101. At The Varsity in downtown Atlanta, they’ll say, “What’ll ya have?” At Chick-fil-A, the well-scrubbed automatons will say, “How may I serve you?” (They say, “My pleasure,” when they hand over a straw, for godsakes. I mean, ugh.)
You’ll hear a, “What can I get you?” and the occasional, “What’ll it be?” Whatever, places almost always will ask you, in effect, what you want to eat.
Not this place. Not the anti-Wendy. Not on this night.
I looked at her, waiting for the question. She pulled up her long sleeves to reveal a tattoo on her forearm, pulled her black visor over her cropped black hair and poised her chewed-up fingernails over the register.
She met my eyes. She said nothing.
I met hers. I said nothing.
I looked back.
She, I think, raised her eyebrows slightly. I couldn’t quite tell. But I could tell, 10 seconds into our staredown, that she was not cracking. She was not losing this game. Not on her home turf.
I took my hand — I remember this distinctly — and rubbed it over my face. I sighed. I looked up at her unmoving face again, just to see if she had softened. She had not.
We both knew the dance that was supposed to be happening here. She asks, I answer. She leads, I follow.
She, evidently, wasn’t in the mood to dance. A few seconds later, I ordered.
From, “Here or to go?” to, “That’s $4.28” — I told you it was cheap — was probably 30 seconds. Max. She counted out my change. I knew immediately what was coming next. Knew it.
Not much bugs me more in public financial transactions, whether it’s at Wendy’s or Kroger or Target or anyplace else, than someone taking my money and not saying thank you. No one ever should work retail without thanking the customer. If I owned a place like that and one of my employees didn’t say something as money changed hands — I’ve had Kroger cashiers hold entire conversations with their baggers without even acknowledging I just spent $95 on Cheetos and milk — it would be grounds for immediate canning. You’re out of here. Turn in your apron and your visor.
But the 666 of Wendy’s employees plopped the bills, some change and the receipt into my hand and said nothing. Not a thing. Not a damn thing.
I looked at her. She turned, slapped an empty cup on my tray and went to get my Frosty. (Yes. $4.28 with a chocolate Frosty.) I stood there. I stood some more. And I knew, again, I was beaten.
I went to the Freestyle machine, mixed my Zero, slogged back to get my tray full of food and found a seat at the back of the restaurant, facing in. I nibbled on some fries as Not Wendy continued her sweep of the dining room. I lingered over my Double Stack (no cheese). I dipped some chicken-like nuggets into some pseudo Sriracha sauce. I refilled my drink. I spooned out my Frosty.
I wiped down the table and tossed my trash, carefully, into the garbage. I topped off my drink and put a lid on it to take home.
I left. I was beaten.
But, yes, I’ll be back. That’s a pretty good deal for $4.28.