By Theresa Elliott
I worked at a donut shop when I was 15. I had a co-worker and friend named Bobbie Lou. One day she pulled me aside to show me her extra curricular fun time donut activities, the little things she did to help pass the time when things were slow.
We went to the baking room which had two fryers as well as two towers of stainless steel trays, full of various frostings. Without hesitation, she pulled out one of the trays, spit in it and began mixing it in. She started laughing, and explained: no one will ever know. She then proceeded to do several more. If this is what she did for fun, what would Bobbie Lou do if she were pissed off?
Knowing this event is not simply in the realm of possibility but that I actually saw it happen hasn’t deterred me from eating donuts. However, a possibility that I never considered and also witnessed was an old man ahead of me at a water fountain. He hacked up a yellow-brown stream of phlegm and spewed it onto the faucet where moments earlier I had considered getting a drink. I now avoid drinking fountains and this is your public service announcement.
My experience tips me in favor of believing the secondhand horror stories of restaurant employee shenanigans, and you had best mind yourself. Treat your server in the way you’d like to be treated and you might get through dinner unscathed.
I worked at a college bar called O’Callahan’s when I was in my mid-20’s. It was exactly what you imagine when you think of this genre, complete with loud music, cheap ‘n plenty grease “fud”, and subversive mixed drinks where the sugar content masks the high volume of alcohol contained within.
Enter Toby and The Strawberry 204.
Toby was part of a three man bartending crew whose intelligence and wit far exceeded the I.Q. required to be an O’Callahan’s barkeep. These man-boys ran the show, much to the consternation of management who had no idea how to handle the crew. I idolized them.
The Strawberry 204 was a stealth concoction of four liquors, shrouded in a pre-fab strawberry sludge designed to foil what should be the body’s organic reaction if only it could taste what was in that thing. This was the drink of choice O’Callahan’s offered gratis to its customers turning twenty-one, to initiate them and celebrate the world of legal drinking. It was notorious, and the drink most commonly ordered by those wishing to get stomping drunk.
Toby was in fine form one Friday night when a contemptuous sorority treat came in with her bevy to celebrate her twenty-first birthday. Something set Toby off, besides the obvious, and while making her free birthday drink, declared “I’m going to give this girl exactly what she wants, and I’m going to make her puke.” He set about his work with a level of zeal that told me to pay attention. His pours, by any standard, were quite liberal.
Two hours later I went to the women’s bathroom. As I opened the door, the first thing to assault my senses was the sound of wretching, followed by the smell of it. There she was, the sorority sister surrendering mightly her birthday Strawberry 204 to the toilet. I will admit to a level of admiration for Toby in that moment that could be perceived as misanthropic, but from a never-mind-the-ethics mixological standpoint, he clearly knew his product and his customer. He gave her what she came for, was even generous, and probably did her a kindness by helping her to vomit. I can’t image how she would have felt the next day had she not.
Fast forward thirty years. I work at The Big Box, a minimum wage department store position I took while on sabbatical from teaching yoga. I am now fifty-five and I’ve gotten clear about a few things. For example, I don’t do well when blamed for things I have no control over. Don’t blame me for things my ancestors may or may not have done. I wasn’t there to remedy or worsen any situation, and neither were you, to verify or substantiate your claim against my kin. Additionally, don’t blame me for a system that is broken. I may work in that system, but don’t assume I’m part of what broke it. For all you know, I’m trying to fix it.
It’s a Saturday after Black Friday, and the brokenness of The Box shines like a beacon to all. As usual we are short handed, either because not enough associates were scheduled, or because more employees called out sick than who actually showed up. My section is known for its brisk business, and being in the middle of the store, we get customers from other departments desperately trying to checkout. Many items are priced incorrectly because The Box has all but done away with “recovery”, employees whose role it is to empty dressing rooms and put merchandise back. This work has now fallen to the ever underrepresented sales staff, already struggling to keep up at the register. So when push comes to shove, “customer first”, the mantra of The Box, gives rise to un-purchased clothing left hanging on “go-back bars”, sometimes for months in a far, far away room at the back of the store. When these items are eventually rescued and placed back on the floor, it’s not uncommon the price tags have fallen off, or the pricing is no longer accurate. It is thusly foisted upon the flagging sales associate at the register, who when presented with these items of clothing, must ferret out how much it costs by going out onto the floor to find a “like item”, usually while a customer loudly proclaims it was found it on the 65% off rack, and can one of the many coupons be used?
Enter the irate phone caller looking for merchandise.
I was knee deep in customers, returns, go-backs and incorrect price tags when the phone rang. It is never a welcome sound, even under the best of circumstances. Customers who call are often under the mistaken assumption that the sales staff is clairvoyant.
“Good afternoon, this is Theresa, can I help you?”
“Yes, I was at The Big Box 50 miles north about a month ago. I saw a shirt and I’m wondering if you have it there?”
“Do you have a UPC or web ID number?”
“No, but it was on the mannequin at the front of the store. Or maybe it was near the elevator.”
“Do you know the brand or maker?”
“No, but it was white, I think. Do you know what shirt I’m talking about?”
My current caller was operating under another common assumption, thinking we had adequate staffing and that the new hires had been trained.
“Good afternoon, this is Theresa, may I help you.”
A verbal tirade came at me and I instinctively pulled the phone away from my ear. Most of what she said was probably true, but she made the mistake of blaming me for her less than satisfactory experience with life. “What the hell is wrong with you?”‘ was the final admonishment the caller wanted me to meditate upon, clearly confusing me with my place of employment. With several customers in front of me and a manager behind me, I knew exactly how to remedy the situation.
My vitriolic customer needed a different department, and in order to transfer her, I would need to place her on hold. This allows the phone to ring back after a few minutes if the line is not picked up, reminding you there is still a caller on the line.
“I’m so sorry, let me transfer you”, I said. Instead, I set the phone down on the counter and somehow forget the bit about putting her on hold and the transfer. After about five minutes, the light indicating the line was live went dead. Problem solved.
Don’t piss off the help. They have powers you can’t even begin to imagine. They are clever enough to teach you lessons in basic human dignity, and they will get away with it.
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