The Panera Bread near the boys’ school is located in an old outlet center under construction. Golden bulldozers and backhoes decorate the parking lot, former Laundromats and Dollar Stores collapse into dust while steel skeletons of new stores emerge from their ashes, and hardhatted construction workers cut thick patchwork pieces from the asphalt like haberdashers into fresh fabric. Once finished, they trim the entire site, barricading the cut edges and broken piles with a neon-orange mesh. Driving through to as-of-yet untouched parking lot before Panera is akin to competing in an off-road obstacle course, skidding over uneven road and avoiding the sweeping necks of monstrous machines. Nevertheless, the ensuing chaos and haphazard construction does little to disrupt the flock of young businessmen and women, who congregate before Panera every morning.
I arrive at the bakery quarter of eight in the morning, after dropping the boys off at football practice, to grab a breakfast sandwich and some cold tea. The suits are all there, mingling outside the store and gossiping inside around coffee and bagels, bedecked like fashionable New York models. I order my food and within a few minutes they leave all at once, flying off to their jobs like startled pigeons migrating between park statues. The café empties and I am left with the Panera staff and an eclectic group of seniors. Most look either relieved for the return to silence or totally oblivious to the change at all.
The chef behind the counter calls my number, shoving a rolled up bag across the counter. Oblivious myself, I continue to sip iced tea and hum old tunes from the 40s, recalled from years of Bug Bunny cartoons:
“You musta been a beautiful baby, you musta been a beautiful child, when you were only startin’ to go to kindergarten I bet you drove the lil’ boys . . .”
“Right!” I shout and the chef glares at me simultaneously muttering “Have a nice day” with programmed absence.
Maybe my dress is not on par with the rest of the café’s patrons, but it is early on a Monday morning so I cut the guy some slack. Other encounters have not been so warm. Fast food cashiers for example never seem particularly energized. The low pay and long hours without thought probably does little to boost moral. Yet I wonder sometimes whether people work their jobs or whether people’s jobs work them. Sometimes it falls to the customer to galvanize those who serve him into action:
Nothing about my cashier suggested anything but loathing toward me and the food consuming public as a whole. The family and I had stopped on the way down to Florida at combination gas station-Wendy’s-DairyQueen-market for food and ice cream. She – let’s call her Wendy – seemed like she wanted to kill herself and the most of humanity in one fell swoop. Her monosyllabic greeting slid from her mouth like a crash victim, slowly and with great pain. Normally I would have been taken aback. However, Wendy had mumbled the programmed welcome with such perfect fluidity and indifference that I paused before announcing my order, clearly impressed and thus resolute to pester her with cheerfulness.
“Hello, how are you today?”
“Fiiinnne . . .” she moans with a sigh. Success! Already I had struck a nerve.
“Could I get a . . . um, a chicken sandwich and . . .”
“Fried, spicy, grilled, or sautéed?”
“Oh . . . well, what would you recommend?”
At first, I get no response. Wendy glares at me incredulously. Clearly – and probably wisely too – she does not eat here. Nonetheless, she musters a response: “Um if you like spicy hot food and heartburn, get the spicy chicken. The sautéed chicken is greasy. Grilled is decent, and crispy, well . . .”
Here she paused and for a moment I spied a slight grin, mischievous and rebellious. “. . . is God-awful,” she whispers.
“Right, grilled then,” I laugh. “Oh and a large iced tea as well.”
Fast food cashiers by in large are like that, moaning and groaning like the titular characters in a George Romero zombie flick. Of course, I saw “SuperSize Me” too. If my job involved knowingly feeding the general populace fatty sauces and questionable meat, I would try to frighten away future customers far from our value meals. That reminds me, have you heard the new advertising for McDonalds’ chicken strips: now guaranteed with 100% real meat! Should we ask what kind of meat? Moreover, what exactly did I ingest several months ago? Was it animal, mineral, or vegetable? I do not envy any fast food worker, accosted with these heavy questions.
Fast food workers however are not the only ones afflicted with occupational depression. Take my recent encounter with the drink girl at the local golf course for example. Typically these maidens with their roving oases exude a pleasant cheerfulness, offering liquid hope to the heat-irradiated sportsman, yet this story involves a rare specimen. The girl seemed pleasant enough, if you ignored the bug-eyed sunglasses, petulant sarcasm, and Sunday-morning face of the late night drinker. As she drove near the green, my brother Shannon repositioned the flag and asked for a sandwich:
“Ummm . . . it’s eight o’clock in the morning,” she explained.
“Oh ok, well . . . thank you,” Shannon replied, taken aback. “But do you have any sandwiches?”
“No . . .” she sighed. “We have only few snacks and muffins. That’s it.”
“Iced tea for me,” I clamor after missing my putt.
“I’ll take a muffin,” Shannon’s friend, Chuck, says handing her a hundred dollar bill. For the next year or so, until he finishes his senior year at high school, Chuck is staying with us. The large bill represents the entirety of his spending money for the next six or so months. However, the girl clearly interprets his eagerness to pay for their drinks as futile attempt to flirt.
“I’m not impressed,” she responds, hurriedly passing him his change and driving off.
Clearly alcohol and early mornings mix as well as beer before liquor (never sicker). This alarming trend concerning those individuals in my life who prepare my food gives me pause. Luckily enough, I can always depend on those wonderful folks at my local bookstore cafe. After grabbing my daily egg sandwich at Panera, I read for a bit and then visit the book emporium before retrieving up the boys from practice. This has become a daily routine so much so that the baristas ready the iced tea as I walk in:
“Mornin’ Murph, your usual? Large iced tea again today?”
“You got it, Joel, but with a splash of raspberry syrup if you got any,” I respond, momentarily distracted by a large table of novels. “Buy 1, and purchase another for ½ off.” I remind myself to scour the titles before I leave.
“No problem, man,” Joel responds, energetically. “Scone? We just got a fresh batch of cinnamon and apple . . .”
“Well . . .” I love scones. “Oh, what the heck. Heat it up for me.” I sip my tea while Joel throws the triangular pastry into the oven.
“Did you manage to see any movies over the weekend?” Joel asks, as soon as the oven chimes. Of all the baristas who work at the café, Joel loves discussing comic books, movies, and all things geeky. Moreover, he is the epitome of the perfect barista: energetic, efficient, and friendly. I anticipate our morning discussions every day.
“I took my folks and a few of the siblings out to see “The Dark Knight” for the eighth time. Did you see it yet?”
Joel pauses and frowns. “Yeah, but I didn’t like it. The costume was all wrong, more like a SWAT gunmen than a superhero. They totally forgot about Harvey’s dual personalities, and I lost track of the characters after a while. It was all so confusing. I nearly walked out halfway through . . . Hey, dude, don’t you want your scone?!”
I gasp and mindlessly stagger out into stacks, my fanboy pride in tatters. No disillusioned fast food cashier could have hurt me more. Quickly, I buy a stack of novels, childrens’ lit, and five or so volumes of manga (Buy 4, Get the 5th Free) to ease my pain.
I take a long sip of iced tea to cleanse the bad taste from my mouth. Yes, it truly is a shame: the blended raspberry and the iced tea were delicious, perfectly delicious.