by Nathan Young
I didn’t know where all of the strange people came from, but somehow, the campus Chick-fil-A was packed. Every Karen and their 4 kids were trying to order some odd combinations of three sandwiches and two tenders and two large fries and a lemonade and a sugar free lemonade but one of those sandwiches needs to be spicy and wait can we get extra sauce but no not that kind of sauce and I forgot one of your special salads can you make it without croutons and do you take MasterCard?
Encountering MasterCards is unusual for the employees of the campus Chick-fil-A. But it was 5:00 PM on a Saturday in November. The basketball game had just gotten out, the football game was set to start soon, and the music department had at least seven concerts that night, so an inordinate amount of “old people” (anyone over the age of 35) had flooded the Cougareat. Not only were they taking up all of the walking space, but the Karens and Dereks were getting snippy and irritated that their order was taking so long, or that they got the wrong kind of sauce, or that the waiting spot wasn’t organized, or that they couldn’t hear the order names being called over the twenty-five hundred other people around them loudly making the same complaints.
I suspect that they couldn’t see that the kitchen space is literally the size of a minivan, and that these Chick-fil-A-Ers only ever make the same three cheapest items on their menu because those are the only things their usual clientele (college students in between classes) order. It’s like they didn’t understand that the poor suckers trying to remove the croutons from their salads are the refuse of the on-campus fast-food employees-stuck dealing with the Karen’ s and their kids and their Mastercards on a Saturday- always suffering through their late shifts knowing that their friends and peers are out smoking marijuana or overfilling small houses past their maximum occupancy or exchanging saliva or binging all 236 episodes of Friends in one sitting or doing anything else more exciting than saying (for the fifth time in the last three minutes,) “no, we don’t take MasterCard.”
I stood with these Karens and Dereks and Chick-fil-A-Ers, waiting for my chicken sandwich. I tried to bury myself in my phone, hoping to avoid any possible association with these people. Yes, I knew that this tactic only reinforced the stereotype that all these old people have about us young folk. I looked like a typical irresponsible, antisocial, phone addict. (Little did they know that I wasn’t even one of the rebellious youth out consuming an inordinate amount of Dr. Pepper at a house party somewhere. No, I just wanted waffle fries, not illegal substances.) As I waited, listening to the chorus of complaints about the Chick-fil-A staff around me, I asked myself, “where do these people come from? Why are they like this?”
Does their inability to be patient with the sandwich makers stem from the fact that, twenty years ago, Saturday shifts at Chick-fil-A weren’t reserved for the wretched of the earth? Were the food court staff in 1989 excited to be there, counting themselves lucky to run the cash register between the basketball game and the football game? Have our “corrupt millennial sensibilities” taken away the joys of emotional service during prime party time? And now, as these people just recoiling in terror that we’re not revering Saturday evening as the Holiest of Work Times, As Observed By The Centuries of Child Labor That Precedes Us? Is this the face of modem moral degradation?
Or maybe they just remember a different campus from back then. Perhaps they’re grappling with the fact that the same institution that housed their glory days and their best memories could also require that they wait 10 minutes for their salad. They must be saying to each other: “Something must be wrong here, obviously, as my recollections of youth and bliss do not align with the terrible reality of Saturday Chick-fil-A line conditions. What’ s more, it’ s the Lord’s school! Things here should run as if angels were directing the distribution of every scholarship and every french-fry.”
Or maybe these people just need that chicken sandwich to recover from dealing with campus parking again.
Looking at these old people, I wonder if, somewhere along the line, they finally snapped after dealing with too many mild inconveniences. One can only find unwanted croutons in their salad or receive the wrong kind of sauce so many times before such things are No Longer Acceptable. That’s the phase of life when it becomes acceptable to speak to the manager. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that they are closer to death than I am? Maybe they gambled the risk of a stroke in public against a chicken salad. Nobody wants to kick the bucket in the Chick-fil-A line, but they can’t go behind the counter to make their waffle fries themselves, so their only option is to caterwaul until their name is called and they are released from this terrible situation.
I grew up in the shadow of these people. I froze in horror when Spencer’s mom looked down at her receipt, at her watch, at her receipt again, and then marched back to the front of the Chuck-E-Cheese’s line to ask about the delay in our pizza. I’ve seen people get chewed out for things that are, in all honesty, not even remotely in their power to control. I would want to disappear or suddenly become an orphan when mom got all huffity about the MasterCard not being accepted. I vowed to be different. I swore not to shoot any messengers, to avoid getting riled up by the news, and never to ask to see the manager. As I stood in the Chick-fil-A line, surrounded by people doing these very things, I reiterated that promise I made long ago: I would never be like any of them.
I grew up with a father, who, in moments of emotional distress, would use words that my Sunday School teachers told us never to say. I knew they were bad, and just hearing them set my hair on end and made my heart stop. It made the whole house feel like filthy dark tentacles were wrapped around every door frame and banister, leaving suction marks on the walls and ceilings. I promised myself that I would never, under any circumstance, be vulgar like that. I would be different than my father in this regard. I held onto that decision with determination for twenty-two years.
Then came the summer before my junior year of college. I was about 750 dollars and 500 hours and two stress-induced breakdowns into a massive project with a six-week final production schedule. The first week was a disaster. The whole thing stood like Frankenstein’s Monster: hacked together and hideous. I was disheartened, but not defeated. I revised, planned, strategized, and took a shot at it again the next week. Week two was even rougher than the first.
I got an email from one of the key supporters of the project. It contained phrases like ”I’m embarrassed to be associated with this,” “You personally are not capable of executing this successfully,” and “It was painful to watch.” Lengthy, tactless and condescending. So was my main assistant and friend. He shrugged. “There you have it.” Another shrug. “At least somebody said it.”
I sat on the edge of my parent’s bed; my mother sat in the armchair across the way, listening while I told her about the project and the email and my team’s response. I felt livid and betrayed and determined and wounded and terrified and despair all at once, each emotion wrestling for domination. Tears welled up in my eyes as I told her that “I don’t know how to deal with all of this shit.”
Part of me was shocked. Had I really just said… ? Yes, I had. And it didn’t stop there. There was something almost cathartic as my father’s words began to come out of my mouth. I had found a way to communicate-and therefore release some of-the emotions that I didn’t know how to handle. After I calmed down, I stared at the floor, feeling the taste of those words, rolling their weight around with my tongue. I had cut them off, but they were still pressing up against me, waiting for another chance to escape. Realization washed over me: I had become my father. I had broken that promise I made as a child. And it felt so satisfying.
Was this what it felt like for him too?
In line at the Chick-fil-A, I look at these people, behaving reprehensibly, making us all to suffer with their whining and complaining. Their chorus of snide quips and goblin-esque grumbles fill the very fabric of the room. I promise myself that I won’t wind up like them. I can quietly deal with the pain of waiting for my chicken sandwich. I’ll figure out better ways to handle the emotional turmoil I may experience at the hands of fast-food employees. Maybe I’ ll look at memes instead, or smoke marijuana or go to house parties. Maybe I’ll never again go to Chick-fil-A at 5:00 PM on a Saturday, just to avoid the possibility of even getting into that state of being.
Or maybe, 10 years from now, after I’ve tried to take my little Evelyn and Xavier to a basketball game, and they’ve done nothing but bicker ever since we left home four hours ago, and we lost the game, and this was supposed to be a break from the corporate hellscape that has come to dominate my 9-5 every other day of the week, and we’re all hungry, and I’m worried that the cops will ticket me for parking in a faculty lot, and my marriage is falling apart, and we probably couldn’t even afford the tickets in the first place, and I’ve already had 4 aspirin today; maybe I’ll cope with it by complaining to the random strangers around to me about how this chicken-serving corporation is sucking away another ten minutes from what was supposed to be fun time. Because I’ve got to release some of the frustration and disillusionment that has been accumulating inside of me. Because that’s more appropriate than complaining to them about all the other things. Because that’s the only way to come out of the line with both a sandwich and my sanity.
I hear my name quietly ring above the clamor around me. I take the bag, find a seat, open my sauce.
They were supposed to have given me a large fry.
I got a medium.