Today throughout the United States, fast food workers are striking for a $15 per hour minimum wage. As someone who worked only one summer at a McDonald’s in Orange Park, FL as at teen, I can tell you that they deserve it. Not only is working in a fast food restaurant arduous labor, it exposes you to tremendous abuse and, yes, even violence.
And I’m not talking just about sexual harassment and corporate exploitation. I’m talking about nasty customers who forget that the people behind the counter taking their order and packaging their meals are, you know, people. And when you consider how many fast food workers are women and/or of color – check out page 5 of this table from the Bureau of Labor Statistics one has to question the role that sexism and racism play into the entitlement that too many customers feel to disrespect and violate fast food workers. (Side note: in some parts of the country and in these economic times, more and more elderly people are taking jobs in the fast food industry because, as little as the work pays, retirement, pension and Social Security still isn’t enough to survive.)
While the following scene from my novel PICTURE ME ROLLIN’ is a work of fiction, it was inspired by a real incident. The scene takes place at the McDonald’s at the Hub in the South Bronx (although the inspiring incident did not take place there.) And if I documented all the times I witnessed the abuse of women of color by customers of all genders, race and class, I could fill a book.
“A complete meal has four components,” Esperanza said, imitating Luciano’s Agent Smith drawl during a slow period. “The sandwich, the beverage, the French fries and the dessert. If I order a Big Mac and a Coke, what are you supposed to say, Tenille?”
Happy to finally have another shot at the register, Tenille took her teasing in stride. “Would you like fries with that?”
“What about an apple pie or sundae?”
“Customers frequently adding the missing component to their order when you suggest it. You’re not the cashier, Tenille, you’re a salesperson. Stop bring so timid and sell the product. Upsell, upsell, upsell!” Esperanza jabbed her finger in the air to punctuate the unusual word, and Tenille giggled.
“Frequently my behind,” Tenille said. “For the most part people know what they want and freakin’ order it. I worked at Mickey Ds one summer in Atlanta, and I didn’t mind upselling there. But people around here get, like, offended when you suggest what they should eat. Do you know how many times some smart-ass has told me, ‘If I wanted fries, I would’ve asked for them’?”
Esperanza did know. “And the attitude’s not even necessary. A simple, ‘No, thank you’ will do.”
Tenille laughed and turned to her customer, a tall boy of about seventeen with a sneer on his face. “Yes, how may I help you?”
“Yo, this shake you sold me is spoiled.”
She seemed flustered at the accusation. “Are you sure?”
“What you mean, am I sure?” He slammed the cup onto the counter.
Esperanza said, “That’s the first batch of the day. I put it in myself.” Tenille still looked panicked, so she added, “But I’ll go check, ‘cause maybe…”
As Esperanza walked to the shake machine, Tenille told her customer, “We’re going to check it for you right now, sir.” The guy sucked his teeth and mumbled under his breath. Tenille joined Esperanza just as she ahd porued some milk shake into a cup and tasted it.
“There’s nothing wrong with this, T. Taste it yourself.”
Tenille refused Esperanza’s cup. “Well, he says there’s something wrong with it. “
“He’s just trying to get over. Go check his cup. I bet he drank most of that shit.”
They both went back to their respective registers. Although she had a customer to serve, Esperanza kept her eyes on Tenille. The guy yelled, “That shit you sold me is spoiled, and I want my money back.” Tenille took his cup, removed the straw and lid, and took a sniff. “What the fuck you smelling it for?”
From where Esperanza stood she could see that the milk shake cup was two-thirds empty, as she suspected. “For something that was so rotten, muthafucka sure had to drink a whole lot of it to notice. Esperanza greeted her customer, keeping on ear on the order and the other Tenille’s situation. Good for you, she thought when Tenille finally found the courage to taste the milkshake herself.
Tenille place it back on the counter and said “I’m sorry, sir, but there’s nothing wrong with that shake.”
“Esperanza waited for Tenille to rip him a second asshole. Instead she said, “Even so, if you had brought it back somewhat full, I would’ve been happy to replace it for you.” Esperanza rushed to finish her current customer, who herself seemed eager to get out of the restaurant.
The guy leaned across the counter and stuck his finger in Tenille’s face. “I’m telling you, y’all sold me a spoiled milk shake, and I want my fuckin’ money back now.”
Tenille placed the cup on the counter. She took a deep breath and said, “This shake is just fine, sir.”
“You think so?” He picked up the cup and tossed the remainder of the milk shake into Tenille’s face. “Try that shit again.” And then, as if nothing had happened, he turned around and bopped toward the exit.
Esperanza gasped as Tenille stood frozen, vanilla milk shake streaming down her ebony face and dribbling onto her collar. Several coworkers rushed to her with napkins, and the girl on fries ran to the back to get Luciano. Tenille whimpered with humiliation as customers shook their heads and pointed their fingers.
Esperanza bolted over the counter and raced through the dining area. When within an arm’ reach of Tenille’s attacker, she reached out and shoved him, tackling him to the floor. He hit the tile so hard his head banged the floor, and his baseball cap sailed under a table. Esperanza pummeled him in the head until she felt a pair of masculine arms hook her into the air.
As Luciano dragged her away, she screamed, “The customer ain’t always right so who you callin’ a bitch?”
Have you witnessed a fast food worker suffer from abuse or violence? Have you yourself been a fast food worker who has experienced something like this at the hands of customer? I’d love for you to share your story in the comments.
And if you like to know more about PICTURE ME ROLLIN’ you can check out my Pinterest board, watch the book trailer, or even download a free sample chapter from the Kindle ebook.