Monday, July 19, 2010

“Shooting The System” by Amy Bergen

And can you tell me, he said with his mouth full of ceviche or whatever the hell it was he had ordered, can you tell me what you were responsible for?

We were sitting at one of those fancy new diners, the kind that serves eggplant curry but still has Coke with ice. I think we both knew I wasn’t getting the job so why we kept it up, I have no idea.

I made sandwiches, I said. Mustard and mayonnaise on white bread. Wheat bread. Flatbread. Focaccia. That low-carb bread they have now. Stacking loose-leaf lettuce into those skinny little slices. Chopping tomatoes. So much stuff can fit in bread, it would surprise you. Beef folded over five times. All ripply.

I'm sure, he said.

And cheese. You've got your swiss, cheddar, provolone. Your American, the orange plastic. Then you get the odd customer who asks for brie, camembert, roquefort. Feta, parmesan we had to grate sometimes. Cheese gets disgusting after a while. Like eating rubber.

Brie? Really?

Oh, everything.

So you had upscale clients?

Well, depending on who came in, we'd have to special-order stuff. Like if the premier of France came in, that's just an example, he’s never been in, but anyone who was a big deal, we'd get caviar, truffles, whatever they wanted. Or an exec would call in a fancy order in advance. But we couldn't do that for just anyone. You'd have to call it in.

I see, he said. So, if I had the money to order, say, salmon and lox, you could make it?

You'd have to call it in.

Right. Who were your usual customers?

Now this, see, I'd already told him. But I told him again. We were in a hotel, and we'd get the people that stayed in the hotel. Business people. Rich families who ordered four-ninety-five deluxe hot dogs. And regulars. This Indian guy, he was fascinated with the grilled cheese, he'd always get grilled cheese. Like he couldn't believe that cheese on bread could hit the spot every time, that that was all it took.

Interesting, he said.

Sure, I said, though what I wondered about was why I loved these people so much, these normal people, that twiggy little Indian guy. It got so seeing them felt like home. Seeing them was home, it was the same thing.

And also we'd get this one lady, I said, she was normal size, middle-age, blonde, tall, suit, you know. She'd order the Full-Size Italian Hero. Whenever she came in, maybe once a month, she'd get it and eat it all right there. Ham, pepperoni, prosciutto, vinegar, oil, two layers of mozzarella. And the white bread, the poofy kind the ladies never get. I couldn't eat a Full-Size Hero all at once. Maybe after a workout if my gut was gnawing. The guys I worked with, Serge, Jesse, they couldn't do it. But this pinstriped chick, she'd sit down and there it went. It was something to watch, I tell you what.

He gulped his water. Now I'd bored him. But then he was back, asking, Can you give me an example of how you handled a difficult interaction?

And I'm sorry, but I started to laugh, because the first thing that came to mind was Pinch. Even though that didn't seem like the kind of thing he was getting at.

This family came in a lot, I said. Balloon-fat people, real Midwestern, you know, you know. They had this redheaded boy. Five or six. Little maniac. Like a cockroach you can’t get a hold of, that fast. And what we'd see him do, is he'd pinch people to get their attention. Pinch his mom, pinch his sister, pinch his dad until his dad whacked him and then he didn't pinch dad anymore. We just called the kid Pinch, as in, there's the Pinch family again, them and their bruises, ha ha. And then he pinched Serge when Serge was bringing them their sandwiches. Got him good on the upper arm. Serge said it hurt like a bitch, then I stopped because I guessed I wasn't supposed to say bitch in the interview. But he didn't say anything.

So I see that Serge can't really hold his tray anymore, I went on. It's a slow day so I come out to run interference. And I guess I should have seen this coming, kid starts pinching me. Not as hard as he got Serge but hard, twice, once on each arm, and then the kid laughs like a little devil. He's got this high girl laugh. Creepy. And then his mom grabs him and starts saying sorry. She pins the kid like a wrestler. She’s not that much bigger than him. We figure if we laugh it off maybe we’ll get a big tip. So we get the food on the table and walk away, and then I feel something like a bee stinging me from behind.

This guy’s face didn’t even change. Pinch pinched me on the butt, I said, because maybe he didn't get it. That's the whole story. So how I handled it, I don't know.

Well, he said. He wrote something down in his notebook. I wanted to look at what he was writing but I wasn’t dumb enough to actually do it. I also wanted to order more fries, they gave me like a handful for five bucks.

How do you work with supervisors?

I'm as good to them as they are to me. This was something that Serge had said once. I think he'd said it about women, though.

And how, he asked after swirling the ice in his glass, putting the glass back down, picking it up putting it down until all the quiet almost killed me, do you work with colleagues?

I had a bite of roast beef sandwich in my mouth so I had to do that thing where you nod and chew and let the other guy sit there awkward as hell for a minute.

We had a system, more or less, I said. Jesse fixed anything that broke, he had wizard hands. Most of the stuff that went wrong was just glitches, some machine breaks down and your whole system's shot. Actually whenever any of us screwed up we just called it shooting the system. Like if Serge hit the wrong button on the cash machine one of us would point at him with a thumb-and-finger gun and be like, bam, shot the system. It was funny for maybe half a day and then it stopped being funny but we still did it.

So Jesse did the dirty work. Serge was good at dealing with the bigwigs, he'd talk to the owner, he'd get you your salmon and lox. I handled the upset people, if someone got an onion in their sandwich and they were allergic, or if we took too long. Just let them yell. Then I’d go to fix their problem and they’re like, forget it. They just wanted to yell.

It sounds like you did the dirty work.

It got dirty, I said, and I kind of laughed. At this point I was just wasting the interviewer’s time, and these guys, time is the one thing they don’t have. It feels good to remind them that you have it and they don’t. Wave it around in front of their face. Time like sky. Open, yours.

We had a homeless guy come in a couple times a week, I said. I don't know how he kept getting through security. Maybe the guards felt sorry for him. He wore this black Chicago Bulls jacket, I think that was the team, and these big brown boots, and he'd come in when we were really slow and just talk about this, that, the other thing. Politics, movie stars, the bus system, what had happened to his family, which ladies he'd like to...but I didn't finish that thought, because even though ladies were maybe fifty percent of what this guy talked about, the man across from me looked ready to puke the ceviche back into his dish. We weren't supposed to give out food, I went on, I mean that's one of the things we could get fired for. Not even the day-old stuff that was going to the dumpster anyway. But Jesse would hand the guy an old bread loaf, some of that sticky American cheese. And this old man said thank you kindly until one day, and I don't know why, I still don't know why. He kicked the bread like a football and said, I want a real sandwich. On some of that real brown bread. Onions and peppers and ham.

What did you do? he asked, not so much because he cared but because that was the point in the conversation where somebody would ask, what did you do.

Oh I made him this nice deal with sautéed green peppers and pumpernickel on the house, I said, even though that wasn't quite the truth. What happened was Jesse was working the register and he got pale once the man started kicking bread around, and the customers in there at the time, they were staring hard and I think that's what freaked Jesse out more than anything. I remember holding up whole wheat and asking the guy, Is this the brown bread? Nope. Then I got rye out, Is this the brown bread? Nope. I had to scrounge pretty hard for some dark pumpernickel. Then we were almost out of onions. Serge had jumped behind the counter at this point and somehow this sandwich got made, all three of us busting ass to make a sandwich that we knew we'd pay for out of our own pockets, and we threw in chips and a soda and that's what we did twice a week for a long time until the homeless guy stopped coming.

You did a good thing, he said. He looked at me like he wanted me to say thanks, or ask for the job, or ask for something. I just stuffed my face full of cold french fries. I didn't say anything. I mean, what would you have said to that?

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