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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.
A Spoken Word poem for young people everywhere, esp Youth in Asia, who may never know WE LIVED before smartphones…and live to tell about it.
Walk down the street.
Find my way.
Go someplace I had previously been.
Go someplace I had previously not been.
Meet friends at a specific time and place.
Meet new people.
Meet new people without suspicion.
Strike up a conversation with a stranger.
Make myself known to a previously unknown person.
Now, everything and everyone unknown is literally described as ‘weird’.
Eat in a restaurant by myself.
Pay attention to the waiter.
Wait for my order to arrive.
Sit with others.
Listen to the sound of silence.
Listen to music.
Listen to a whole album.
Listen to the cityscape.
Overhear others’ conversations in public.
Watch kids play.
See the same picture in the same spot.
Read a book.
Read a long article.
Read liner notes.
I used to be able to stand at a urinal and focus on what I was doing,
Not feeling bored,
Not feeling the need to respond to anything that urgently.
Nothing could be so urgent that I could not, as the Brits say, ‘take a wee’.
Wait at a traffic light.
Wait for a friend at a pre-determined place and time.
Wait for my turn.
Wait for a meal I ordered to arrive.
Wait in an office for my appointment.
Wait in line.
Wait for anything!
I used to appreciate the downtime of waiting.
Now waiting fuels FOMO.
I used to enjoy people watching…
Now I just watch people on their phones.
It’s genuine anxiety.
Walk from point A to B.
I used to could walk between two known points without having to mark the moment with a post.
Now I can’t walk down the hall,
Or through the house or even to the toilet without checking my phone.
I avoid eye contact with strangers.
Anyone I don’t already know is strange.
I used to could muscle through this awkwardness.
Have a conversation.
A friend and I recently lamented about how you used to could have a conversation and
Even figure out a specific thing that you couldn’t immediately recall…
Just by talking.
I also appreciate the examples we discussed.
Say you wanted to mention a world leader but couldn’t immediately remember their name. What would you do before?
Rattle off the few facts you could recall and in so doing you’d jog your memory.
Who was the 43rd US president?
If you didn’t immediately recall his name,
You might have recalled that the current one is often called “45” since
Many folks avoid calling his name.
You know Obama was before him, therefore he must’ve been number “44.”
You know Obama inherited a crap economy and several unjust wars,
Including the cultural war against Islam. And
That this was even one of the coded racial slurs used against him: “A Muslim.”
Putting these facts together,
You’d quickly arrive at Dubya! And
His whole warmongering cabinet. And
Condi Rice. And
That whole process might have taken a full minute,
But so would pulling up 43’s name on the Google.
This way, however, you haven’t lost the flow of conversation nor the productive energy produced between two people when they talk.
(It’s called ‘limbic resonance’, BTW).
Yeah, I used to be able to recall things…
Many more things about the world without my mobile phone.
Allow my mind to wander.
Entertain myself with my own thoughts.
Think new things.
Think differently just by thinking through a topic.
I used to know things.
Know answers that weren’t presented to me as search results.
I used to trust my own knowledge.
I used to be able to be present, enjoying my own company,
Appreciating the wisdom that comes with the mental downtime.
Never the fear of missing out,
Allowing myself time to reflect.
It is in reflection that wisdom is born.
Now, most of us just spend our time simply doing:
Surfing, scrolling, liking, dissing, posting, sharing and the like.
Even on a wondrous occasion, many of us would rather be on our phones.
Not just sharing the wonderful occasion –
Watching an insanely beautiful landscape through our tiny screens,
Phubbing the people we’re actually with,
Reducing a wondrous experience to a well-crafted selfie –
But just making sure we’re not missing out on something rather mundane happening back home.
I used to could be in the world.
Now, I’m just in cyberspace.
I used to be wiser.
Every year millions of people will visit a number of countries for their summer vocations. European, American and Asian, mainly tourists will pack their bags and seek sea, sun and long beaches to relax, in a number of countries. In Greece for example, tourism is big business. The country’s history, natural beauty, large unspoiled countryside and of course, climate make it an ideal destination for those who wish to put some distance between the worries of work and their annual leave. There is something for everyone, for the culture seeker, to the sun lounger, to the all-inclusive resident. For the next however long you are on Greek time.
Last year the country was visited by approximately 30 million tourists, 3 million of whom come from the UK. This is not simply a pleasure trip; it is a multi-billion dollar industry, involving tour operators, airlines, hotels, catering, tour-guides, car rentals and so many more industries. They all try to acquire the tourist dollar in the pursuit of happiness; in Greece alone the tourist contributions last year came somewhere near to 14 billion euros and provide 17% of the country’s jobs.
In this context, tourism is a wonderful social activity that allows people from different cultures to come together, try new things and perspectives. Most importantly to get some tan, so people in the office know we were away, get some tacky t-shirts and a bottle of suspiciously strong local drink which tasted like ambrosia whilst on holiday. Some of us will learn to pronounce (badly) places we have never heard of, while others will
be reading questionable novels about romance, mystery or drama. Others will bag a romance, maybe a venereal disease, heartbreak (especially if the previous is confirmed) or even the love of their life. All these and many more will happen this summer and every summer since the wave of mass tourism began.
During this season and every season, countless people will prepare meals, clean rooms, and serve cold drinks on the sinking sand, paid minimum wage and rely heavily on the few tips left behind. The work hours are excruciatingly long, over 8 hours in the baking sun in some cases, without a hat, protection or even a break. If this was a mine it would have been the one I read about in Herodotus, where the Athenians were sent to as slaves. In the back of the house an army of trainee cooks, warehouse staff and cleaners will slave away without tips or recognition. In their ranks, there is a number of unrecorded migrants that work under exploitative conditions out of fear of deportation or worst.
In the midst of the worker’s exploitation we have the odd cultural clashes between tourists as to who gets the sun lounger closest to the pool and who can push pass the queue to get first to the place of interest you were told by someone in the office you must go to. Of course there are those who have famously complained before, because on their way to their exclusive resort were confronted by sad looking refugees. Not a real advertisement on tolerance and co-existence, quite the opposite. Of course, in this blog I have left completely out the carbon footprint we leave whenever we do these summer escapes, but that shall be the subject for another post.
Tourism is a great thing but when Eurostat claims that one in two Greeks cannot afford a weeks’ vacation in Greece, then something maybe wrong with the world. Holidays are great and we want the places to be clean, we want to travel in comfort and we want quality in what we will consume. I wonder if we have the same concerns about those people who enter Europe in shaky boats, the back of lorries or on foot, crossing borders without shoes.