New Orleans is regularly recognized as one of America’s unique cities, different from the cookie cutter variants seen in other municipalities; history, architecture, culture, different tongues, peoples and food blended together within a southern milieu. The city regularly makes the news; festivals, sports, its people. The most recent story: a McDonald’s employee attacking a customer because the customer had the gall to complain about the fries. Is this story a manifestation of New Orleans’ uniqueness?
The customer admitted he might have been abrasive – when reading this, I assumed as much. When viewing the video – it was so. He was.
The recording starts with an employee yelling – “Get out”. A female employee interceded, and pulled the male employee away. The customer – he too of the male persuasion – followed both. The employees seemed to feel the customer’s presence. The male turned and reengaged; pushing, shoving, hitting. What, I thought…? All over some nasty fries…?
Years ago, I visited America’s quirkiest city to attend a seminar. On day two, three of us decided to venture out of the French Quarters. We asked the concierge for a recommendation, somewhere to eat outside of the Quarters. As an aside, the McDonald’s in the recently reported story is located on Canal Street, in the Quarters. Moving slowly through the city – before GPS’ mass distribution – anticipation – longing for the New Orleans’ experience – and hunger were forever present.
The restaurant was small, comfortable, and clean. The crowd was a mixture of both locals and tourists. After looking at the menu, I played safe, I ordered a chicken salad. Let me explain why: I have this theory about cooks and food. Determining the skills or talents of a cook/chef/restaurant is best gauged by doing simple. You don’t understand…?
Fish, chicken, a salad, basics; salt, pepper, garlic, butter; unblemished, not hidden, not distorted, not covered, and dominated by a sauce – doing simple. If the restaurant advertises its breads, does it do the basic breads well? Is it fresh, how is the crumb, is the texture consistent? Few does, few can. So I ordered a chicken salad.
The insufferable August heat, local culture, our hunger were our companions while waiting. When the food was served, we reverted to our childhood. Silence! Pure and utter silence; looking down, to the right, left, at the others’ plates, guarding with one hand, eating with the other; racing to finish first, to get the first debs on seconds.
My mother would periodically look over from the kitchen, commenting, laughing – “Slow down, y’all act like y’all are starving orphans.” We weren’t – we didn’t care. Silence – with the exceptions of slurps, gulps, coughs; working too hard, too fast, while doing simple.
Two bites I realized the mistake. I had been given a chicken sandwich, not a chicken salad. I waved to the waitress. She came over, I told. She went and told – whispering to an older woman, pointing my way – causing the older woman to approach. She – the older woman – had greying tips – less than mine are now. She was approximately my mother’s age – as I am now. She took up sentry on left side. Her leg touched both the table and me – shoulder, arm. my body. Her eyes foretold peril. I understood the touching, it too part of the message. I felt six, seven, no older than nine. I did.
And out-of-body experience she forced me into – I was.
“What are you trying to pull…?
“You’re trying to get free food…”
“Ma’am … No, ma’am, I just want you to know of the mistake so my bill can be adjusted…”
I said one thing. She heard another.
My, “I, I…” was followed by those her telling, threatening eyes and a declaratory sentence. A plain, simple, non-passive voice, declarations, she spoke … “We’re not giving you free food…!”
I tried “I, I…” again – to no avail.
“You saw your waitress put a sandwich on the table, and you still took two bites! You’re not getting free food! You better shut up and eat your sandwich!”
The elder one turned and abruptly went back to the area of the restaurant she came from – the place she where she was told. She extended the same gift before leaving thought – that frightful look. I said what I said. I swear I heard, “enjoy”. I’m sure I reverted to six….
One of my companions was a New York, New Yorker. I don’t remember her name. I remember her to be a honey-colored woman. She was one of the few women at the seminar. she had spent the last two days fighting off the advances, using different tactics with each advance – smiling, frowning, cajoling, off-putting laughter, silence. This escape from the hotel was her respite, suggesting lunch, moving toward the front desk of the hotel, asking for directions, moving comfortably into the restaurant, breathing an audible sigh of relief. Her reaction – that day, that moment showed her other side.
New York’s mouth went agape; both hands skyward, then outward. A finger pointed at the elder one. I grabbed the finger, then her arm. I moved the arm from one level another – lower, to the table. In a New York, New York, kind-of- way, she raged – “How dare her!”
“I’m sorry. I wouldn’t pay. I would have to go to jail.”
I dutifully ate the chicken sandwich. I was horrified she pointed at Momma. I waited for the invisible hand of Georgia to reach cross the room and correct her aberrant behavior. Absolutely, you are free to laugh. I am a big boy. I ate the damn sandwich.
I grew up in a segregated culture and viewed eating in public a hostile act. Followed as a teen, as a young adult, wherever I went; forever the suspect – these are influencing factors. Not permitted to eat in most eating establishment; watching and living the civil rights struggle in living, daily color; electing when and where to be the guinea pig. These influences bubble to the over surface years – sometimes expectant behavior, most times not – over and over again.
Trained to pick “carefully your conflicts”; avoid societal attempts (“you will be baited”) to make you react by persons in authority (“police, teachers, administrators, store owners”); move away, save and fight for another day – get home – avoid the seat reserved place in the jails for those who looked like you, for the slightest of infractions – was the advice. Both told and learned behavior.
Existing in a well-enforced, generational-ingrained, apartheid-like system of rules and mores; the 1866 Civil Rights Act – the society ignored the law, didn’t it! The 1964 Civil Rights Act passed one hundred years later, wasn’t it? It was, I remember, I was ten. Old enough to understand differences color imposed. In language, rules, prohibitions, seen through the eyes of a child; laws admittedly implemented slowly, deliberately – daily, by the courts, store owners, the police.
“They passed what?! Civil rights law?! You either leave or go to jail.”
Let me debunk a couple of assumptions. The sandwich was okay. Nothing exciting, but this muse is not about food, nor is it about race. The customer in New Orleans was white, the worker was black. Look at the video. The video has nothing to do with race; it is a video of two fools interacting in the night. In my case, the elder was black, my mother-mother’s color, and everyone at our table were black. I said – this muse has nothing to do with race. I muse to say, instead of restaurant employees trying to physically assault customers when they complain, or accuse the customer of wanting free food, public establishments should remain conflict free zones. Instead of customers pressing the point over bad food, insulting the workers, any untoward acts should be viewed as misguided and counterproductive.
҈ ҈҉ ҈
Years ago there was a small restaurant in my community, located in an alley, housed in a shotgun house. A shotgun house is a small house, no more than one thousand square feet, twelve feet wide – “a shotgun fired in the front, will go through and through, entering and leave every room before exiting” – so was the explanation given to me for the name. The restaurant seemed half the size of a typical shotgun house, a smallish, confined space. People literally squeezed-in; limited seating, not by design but circumstances. A restricted menu – two items a day, no substitutes – open five days a week, awaited the customers who came for an exceptional home-cooked meal. Drinks too were limited – tap water served on ice – the owner didn’t permit sodas to be served. “No, no sodas.” I remembered sometimes there was tea, I think. I don’t remember, maybe, maybe not.
Food was served as long as there was food in the pots, meaning roughly and hour and a half lunch service. Much like visiting any grandmother’s home, the owner sat among the guest; every day, every meal; listening, nodding, occasionally laughing, resting tired feet, after having spent the morning hours cooking for family and guests.
He – a white man – came in first; excited, happy. “This is it baby!”
She – a white female – followed – she seemed to be a girlfriend to me, not a wife – looking around – a foreign place, a foreign people, not part of her milieu. I don’t remember any other whites in the restaurant – that day – this day. Then she did it – – she said “eewww” with both eyes. Back up – remember this muse is not about race. Hers was not the old world “eewww” of my youth. If the truth be in me, her face was no different than mine when I first squeezed-in visited the unpaved alley in the middle of the summer, entered a foreign place and looked around, amazed, eewww… a restaurant, really…?
“Baby, you’re going to enjoy the food,” he said excitedly.
His was an out-of-control octave moved upward, downward, sideward – with excitement, anticipation, an uncontrolled instrument. His body told too, excited to be back – a Frankie Beverly joy – joyous, joyous behavior – boyish behavior, ready to enjoy the anticipatory feast.
She of shocked eyes said nothing – compliant, hesitant trust – following her beloved. They took two of the remaining seat. She looked around, before she reached in her purse. She pulled out a toilette to wipe the table. I smiled to myself – my behavior too girl the first time I came and every time I eat here. She remained perplexed – looking around, not at people – never making eye contact; asking her the gods, her God – How on earth did it pass its health inspection? Truthfully, I always wondered the same thing.
Her mate ordered his and hers. Remember – your choices are limited – there are only two plate choices – a easy decision. He continued to bounce in place, excited. He waved at the owner a few table over – meaning, she was a mere five feet away.
The mate remained stupefied, in manner and mode. The rest of the room continued to eat, watch and talk about her/him/them. She’s leaving him. Oh Lord, poor child. You think she will stay. I am sure she couldn’t hear what we said; you can’t hear when you are in shock. His excitement deprived him of both sight and sound.
“Welcome back baby?” – The owner intoned.
“How’re you feeling today?” – He responded, giddy, giddy; a giddy man he was.
“I feel good, blessed.”
“… Food good today…?”
“Always is…?” Is that your lady?”
Before the Giddy One could say what she was – girlfriend, wife – both plates were put in place. “You ordered the smothered steak … you get the fried chicken? Daughter never talked much. Daughter said little else. She wiped a runny nose with the right hand; wiped the newly soiled right hand on her apron, before turning, slowly – back to the kitchen. Daughter always moved slowly, so did her mother. The owner was in or nearing her nineties; Daughter, her seventies.
We – all of us – watched while – having seen the behavior before. We were all primates, restrained in place and time, intruding on each other, tapping on glass, rattling each other cages, seeing nothing wrong with our respective behavior.
Giddy One didn’t care, he was not a participant. He raised both hands, gave thanks to his God, lowered his head and went to work, enjoying every morsel. She remained reticent, tentative, timid, a captive of the circumstances; looking around, taking only a small portion of food initially – dangling it on the tip of the fork – to taste, carefully – as if poison doesn’t kill in small portions.
Her face told – ummm – then the verbal expression escaped, telling the observing primates (us), the world was fine. The bold seasonings entered every orifice, captured the senses, and compelled her guest to take a sip of water (only water, remember). The owner heard, smiled in a sleepy, small town, southern kind of manner. Reticent One’s reaction was no different from others. The owner had seen the reaction before; she knew she had captured another beast.
Reticent One moved downward for a larger forkful. She lowered her shoulders, more relaxed, squeezed-in, like the rest of us had been for some time. Giddy One remained locked in place, eating, saying little, nodding, wiping, shucking – each fingers – a consumed man. He was at home, comfortable, among his fellow primates.
All good stories possess a dramatic turn at some point. This one does too. First seen in the hands (much like an arthritic twitch) – flowing to both arms – upward, outward – having a cause-effect on the stomach; moving – inward, outward, causing air to propel through the diaphragm; expanding, causing a vibration in the vocal cords; causing the clear and distinct utterance of two words – only two – distinctly filling the small space we collectively shared.
“… A roach…!”- Her first words spoken since entering the restaurant.
I looked at my food – saw no roach. I’m good. I kept eating.
My painter was with me – he took his fork and moved the food around in the plate – looking, looking – looking. “No roach”, he said. He too was good. He kept eating.
Daughter moved slowly out of the kitchen – no rush in her step. She stood next to the Shattered Soul’s table and inquired, “Where?”
Shattered Soul pointed. Daughter looked, nodded in agreement.
“Yep, that’s a roach.”
Shattered Soul didn’t say she had taken a couple of bits. Daughter didn’t make her eat the mean. She did the right thing – I guess – if we are to go by my standards. She didn’t argue. She took the plate and disappeared. The other primates went back to eating.
Daughter came back and placed a fresh plate in front of Shattered Soul.
Giddy One finished his food. Shattered Soul didn’t finish hers.
Giddy One paid for both meals, happy, waving to everyone as he open the door for Shattered Soul. We stayed in our lane, never asking why Shattered Soul wasn’t given a free meal.
҈ ҉ ҈
Martin Lawrence – the comedian – commonly bases his comedy on a rather simple concept – bouncing someone, something – said with comedic effect, in a declaratory, derisive, off-putting manner, metaphorically ridding himself of the offending person or thing. In music, the concept can be described more like – bounce-bounce – found in all genres, done with raised hands, a frenetic, participatory crowd in place, accompanied by a pulsating, melodic beat. I muse to say, sometimes we have to bounce in life and not sweat the small stuff. Put ourselves in the shoes of the other person – even if the other person, in our eyes is a damn fool – and even when seemingly, we shouldn’t – bounce.
Cold, overcooked/undercooked, limp/burnt, greasy fries – we have eaten worst. Complain – sure, do so – however once the push back comes, particularly when the fool comes from behind the counter – bounce! Thrown both hands up, move backward … bounce! Complain later and never go back. No, no, no, don’t follow the fool and re-enraged. The customer is not always right – particularly when pushing, pushing, pushing an overworked and underpaid worker, uttering abrasive words. My Mother’s mother would have slapped the customer on the first step, while never uttering a profane word.
My, my … back to the video – the worker in New Orleans can be seen pushing, shoving, assaulting, letting years of frustrations come out on a customer’s head. He in turn being the drunk manly-type – I think that’s what we call it – stood his ground – and was an abrasive, utter ass. Over french-fries? Really?!
I get it – the workers/owners/managers are sick to death of the games people play. Maybe the confluence of the sun, wind, the tropical depressions, and one too many YouTube videos are the proximate causes for the bad days playing out before our eyes.
Struggling to make a profit, working with the public – is always difficult proposition – for owners. The workers show up not because they love McDonalds, they are trying to feed themselves, their families, realizing the salary the corporation is paying them is even sufficient to allow them to regularly eat at McDonalds.
“You’re going to pay for the sandwich.”
No, I didn’t see race in New Orleans during lunch. I saw a tired restaurant worker/owner who was sick and tired, sick and tired. She never heard a word I said. She told me her truths instead; particularly when commanding me to eat the sandwich and shut up; the same as my mother would have, her mother would have … and you know what you do in those circumstances … you eat the sandwich and bounce. Our exchange was a real world one – she instructing me on the literal meaning of the word bounce – which I did, like a ball.
“Eat and enjoy your sandwich, pay and leave.”
I complied with each instruction, left a tip, bouncing and giggling at the horrified New York, New Yorker. “Gurl, she ain’t goin’ to hit me up-side the head.” I knew she would. I knew she could.
So I muse…