I’ve stopped by an infamous breakfast food chain and ordered a bottomless coffee, and a breakfast combo that comes with two fried eggs, two different rations of fried pork and bottomless pancakes.
Waiting for my order, I notice that not less than four varieties of syrup rest on the table, accompanied by salt, pepper, and a ceramic cup full of packages of sugar and two varieties of artificial sweeteners.
A whole tub of single-serve full fat creamers comes with my bottomless coffee, which I promptly sent back.
The young lady serving is massively obese, as are most of the other people who both serve and patronize this business.
And this is business as usual throughout the south, and now most of America, particularly at these sorts of times, especially in these sorts of businesses.
The joint had only been open since the top of the hour, and so I could overhear the duty manager dealing out the day’s duty rations.
As two of the team followed her around, I heard her explain that she was reserving the spillover seating section for whoever showed up “super-late.”
Knowing management speak, I heard ‘super-late’ as a shaming label used to monitor and control behavior.
I heard her punctuate these instructions by explaining that someone’s shift had started at 5:30 yet they still hadn’t shown up.
“You ok, sweetie,” the young lady breezes over and asks me casually.
“I’m fine,” I quickly replied, adding: “It’s good, too,” as if she or the cook had actually hand-made any of this meal.
They’ve each opened a prescribed set of processed-food packages, followed heavily prescribed recipes, and followed heavily prescribed orders passed down from management.
And yet I do appreciate their labour.
In my capacity, I get to sit and muse about them, while THIS is their career.
Yesterday, while sitting in another infamously southern* roadside-mass-food-chain, my uncle mentioned that he was pleased to see that young people were working at these types of places again.
“Uh huh,” I hummed agreeingly as I panned the restaurant noting the youthfulness of the staff.
Since the 90’s and certainly since the recession, these jobs had become life-long career moves, where previously these were held down by early-career part-timers.
Whether paying their way through school or training, or beefing their resumes for eventual factory employment, these part-timer jobs weren’t suitable for adults as they come with few, if any, benefits…most notably, healthcare.
Back in my bottomless breakfast, my server keeps inquiring if I’m ok as she goes about setting up the condiments and flatware for each table.
I’m the only one here, which I remark upon.
This is the south, so that remark garnered a whole commentary on her part.
She detailed when they opened and closed, and that she’d recently shifted from the nightshift to mornings, as “making $10 here and $10 there don’t cut it.”
She then added that she’d served a party of 15 who’d left her a $40 tip.
She further explained that last year she’d served at a 1-year old’s birthday party, “because they didn’t have no cake.”
By now, I’ve gotten a good look at the server and sense that she’s in her mid-twenties.
As I listen, I, of course, contemplate what sort of tip I should leave: Would it be obscene to leave a $10 tip which I could easily afford. Afterall, I had shown up in what must seem like a large, expensive, exotic European vehicle (how could she know it’s my mom’s not mine; how would she know that I’m just passing through town).
This year, she continued, they had her “second birthday party right back there,” pointing to a far corner.
Remember, all I did to kick off this conversation was remark how quiet it was at this time in the morning.
From then on, the server kept offering me little tidbits of info each time she passed by.
I hadn’t lived in the south for many years, but it was still this sort of human interaction that drummed-up home for me.
“I’m gonna go ahead and do my syrups,” she quipped as she passed each table over lightly with a dry cloth.
Then, after passing to reassure me that my next helping of pancakes was on its way, she explained that the location was under new management.
Pointing to the woman I’d overheard earlier dealing out duties and instructions, the server said, “This one’s only been here since Sunday.”
It’s Tuesday morning.
Now, I notice that the server has leaned against a nearby chair, pausing with her other hand on her hip.
It’s as if settling in to tell me a good story. She is now giving me unsolicited insider information.
I start to realize and remember just how such interactions are so disarming. She had something to say each time she was within earshot, as if mindfully managing our shared personal space.
I smile at this realization, recalling the familiarity with which people speak in Vietnam. The distance of more formal ways of being and communicating seem silly here…and there.
I am simultaneously reminded of life in Mali, where people genuinely do greet anyone nearby, referring to those in their personal space with some term of familial familiarity depending on the relationship and perceived ages like auntie/uncle, or else girl/boy-friend (teri- muso/ce), big/little- sister/brother (koro-/dogo- muso/ce).
It’s as if all of these experiences collide into the present moment, and I experience them all at once, like Dr. Manhattan.
The server then explained in detail how the previous manager had fallen ill and could therefore only show up intermittently.
Apparently, the point of all this was that they were hiring a manager, and sought someone outside the current team, because, as my server said, “We all know one another.”
“Don’t that make sense,” she said raising her brow, nodding grinningly.
“So, if you know anybody with management experience,” she said, then tailored off.
I suddenly wonder what Flannery O’Conner must have witnessed in her life and times in the dirty south.
I was on my way to grab a coffee at THAT internationally known coffee house, but passed this all-day-breakfast joint on the way.
I recalled the bottomless offers here and knew I could get more value here than a $5 Latte. Sure, I’ve got country music in the background, but at least it’s not tuned to conservative propaganda Faux News like in most other public spaces here in Alabama.
Indeed, for just a few dollars more, I’ve got access to bottomless filtered coffee and well more than any human should eat in any one sitting.
Besides, no one is in here posing, and, as I said, I got a side of free companionship.
*Infamously southern food consists of mostly fried foods negotiated in ingredients and meaning along the color line.