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Colorful Characters At Taco Bell
Taking Orders And Watching People
I’ve been working at Taco Bell for a little over two weeks now. During that time, I have learned a lot, both about the job itself (see “Unskilled Labor Ain’t So Unskilled”) and about “ordinary” people. As a student of both Psychology and Criminal Justice, I feel that I have learned quite a bit about human nature. However, working in a service-oriented job can teach you much more than any textbook ever could. I’m beginning to understand the mythos of the bartender as informal psychologist (especially when wiping down trays).
No, I’m not saying that I’ve actually helped all that many people with a specific problem that they’ve spontaneously started talking about in between asking for “Triple Layer Nachos” and saying that they want their order to go. The closest I’ve come is taking the time to talk with a relative newcomer to this town who was grateful that I remembered his name the second time he came in before I looked at his credit card (mentioned in my previous Hub). Another customer did spontaneously start talking about his personal problems (too personal to mention here), but all I could offer was my sympathy, no real advice.
I am able to observe many people and get to know some of them through their actions and even their orders, especially those who are regulars. One man is about as regular as it gets. Every day, without fail, he comes in between 3:30p.m. and 4:00p.m., orders a single small item off the “Why Pay More?” (under a dollar) menu along with a water cup, sits down and eats it, then orders another small item and sits down and eats that too. He sits at his table for a very long time, far longer than it takes to eat what he’s ordered. He’s always wearing a “GoArmy” baseball cap and rectangular dark-rimmed glasses, and carries a backpack. While I can’t make a definitive “diagnosis” from these brief encounters, I believe that he has some form of mental disability (what would have been called “slow” many decades ago). This routine is obviously an important part of his day. I often wonder where he goes after he leaves, whether he has a family, what else is important to him, etc.
Another gentleman is quite a bit older and comes in about 3 or 4 times a week. On his first repeat visit on a day I was there, he approached the register and asked “do you remember me? I was in here yesterday.” One of my coworkers remarked that I’d “made a friend.” I don’t even know the man’s name, yet now I always look for him. Like the “GoArmy” guy, I think he must be very lonely and his trips to Taco Bell give him a means of interacting with people. Today, he told me that he took a trip to Prescott yesterday. I got the impression that he could have talked about it for hours. Unfortunately, I had to excuse myself in order to finish cleaning up the dining room and count out my register drawer.
Then, there are the one-time memorable encounters. On my first day, a man asked me about the location of the nearest music supply store. I told him about the one I know of because my boyfriend goes there quite frequently. The moment the word “boyfriend” came out of my mouth, the man immediately said “Oh, you have a boyfriend? Never mind” and walked away. Three days ago, after I took his order and his payment, a customer asked me if I’d like to see a movie with him sometimes. I politely told him that I have a boyfriend, and he didn’t pursue the matter further. I’ve never thought of myself as being particularly attractive. Must be the uniform.
Sometimes, people come in who appear to be homeless. One man who was carrying a bundle of clothing in a grocery bag entered and asked me what he could get for a certain amount of cash he’d managed to scrape together. Looking at the menu prices isn’t enough due to the sales tax, which is quite high. I input two or three items to see how they would add up. When they came out to be too much, I had to call a manager over to delete the order. The customer ended up with two chicken burritos (a total of $2.19 with tax). Then, after a sympathetic other customer gave him another dollar, he was able to order an $0.89 item. It’s times like these that I am glad water cups are free. Afterwards, I asked the manager if we could ever waive the sales tax for someone who was short just a few cents. The reply was an emphatic “no.”
And, of course, since this is such a small town I frequently see people I actually know. Three of them were very surprised to see me behind the counter—I hadn’t had a chance to tell them that I had finally gotten a job. They commended me for doing what I had to so I wouldn’t have to choose between “eating and paying the rent,” as one of my co-workers described her reason for working there. One of these familiar customers works as a waitress at another restaurant and has waited on me many times. We joked about how, at least for this one instance, our roles were reversed. I am glad to say that I got her order right.
Even though this job entails being on my feet for hours on end, constantly cleaning up messes left after patrons have eaten and still learning how to run the register without making mistakes that necessitate a refund, it’s giving me more than just a paycheck. Being in academia can be somewhat isolating. Interacting with many “ordinary people” everyday (or at least five days out of seven) is helping me understand humanity, in general, much better than textbook examples did. Working in doctor’s offices was similar, but there you usually only see a certain type of patient (e.g., pediatric, obstetric, dental, etc.), mostly when they are ill or injured. In a fast-food restaurant, you see many types of people in many different “states:” happy, sad, harried, preoccupied, etc. (I can’t vouch for their health. Every time someone coughs, I hope it’s just allergies.) Some are parents trying to fit lunch into their kids’ busy schedules. Some are students trying to fit lunch into their own busy schedules. Some come in just for the sake of passing the time, finding a safe haven that has become familiar or getting a hot meal for relatively little money.
If this part of my life was a movie, it would probably be a slice-of-life work, like a milder version of “Clerks.” Even though fast-food jobs have been rated among the worst by many, they can be valuable learning experiences about human nature, including my own. In some ways, this reminds me of grade school all over again—some of my coworkers make jokes that aren’t always apparent as such, treat me as “the newbie” and sometimes act a bit immaturely, in my opinion. However, I can’t really blame them. Most have kids, husbands and/or ex-husbands to deal with and this job is just barely keeping them afloat. I am luckier than many. Their “antics” probably serve as a coping mechanism (think “M*A*S*H*” lite). Realizing this, I accept it in good fun, do my job, and look forward to every paycheck (there’s one major difference between this and grade school—I get paid for showing up and “participating!”).
Therefore, every time I put on that uniform, I think of myself as going into the “field” for another day of observation and analysis. Each is unique, so none are dull. Also, they make for excellent (I hope!) Hub material.