An Honest Living
They didn’t actually pay us on our breaks, but typically if you were in a rush to get back to work, especially on a Saturday night during rush hour, it wasn’t out of eagerness to collect an extra five minutes’ pay. The sixty-six cents that one could make working five minutes on minimum wage was not worth any extra time spent having to serve fast food. If you came back early from the safe haven of the crusty McDonald’s break room, it was usually because you cared about whoever was stuck alone at the front counter and understood the insufferable experience they were probably having with the entourage of impatient customers.
The particular coworker I was going back for was my favorite coworker—a tiny Hispanic woman named Virginia who always wore a black polo from the uniform for a different fast food company and had a charming, wide smile filled with crooked teeth. Late on a Tuesday Virginia told me that she was a single mother and hadn’t spoken any English when she landed in the US, carrying nothing but one bag and her fatherless infant son. She told me how hard it was to learn English and she told me that I’d better go to school and make something of myself and then she told me that I had brewed the coffee wrong again and certainly wouldn’t last there much longer, repeating again that I’d better get myself into school.
When I got to the front counter there was some sort of scene unfolding. I wasn’t outrageously surprised, and I shouldn’t have been because throwing a tantrum at McDonald’s is the only thing upper-middle-class people like more than coffee. I still hurried over, motivated by a curiosity I can only compare to the way that people driving cars slow down to stare at a car accident like it’s some sort of show.
The woman on the opposite side of the counter was blonde and white, a scarf tied fashionably around her neck and a tan pea coat knotted fashionably around her waist so tight that it seemed if you untied it the top half of her body would fall right off the bottom half. When I approached the counter a smile of relief spread across her face and she looked up at me thankfully, as though we were on the same tag team and I had finally come to relieve her and let her step out of the boxing ring.
“What’s wrong?” I asked a haggard Virginia, but the blonde woman answered instead, jumping up like a child answering a petty question in a classroom. She answered with great zest, as though she had been eagerly waiting for someone to listen to her talk all day.
“She’s trying to take extra money for herself,” she said, matter-of-factly. She spoke to me as though I am in charge of Virginia, a woman fifteen years my senior with years more work experience than I have.
Virginia said nothing. I looked to the register, a glaring “$7.87” staring back at me. I then turned my eyes to her order, a large cappuccino with some sort of specialty sauce drizzled over a layer of whipped cream at the top, and a meal enclosed in a white bag. I begin to sort through her items and before I can finish she has shoved the screen of her iPhone on the counter saying, “I added it up. It should be seven dollars.”
Later I would pick out exactly what words were apt to yell across the counter. Later I would list vocabulary just harsh and true enough to hurt. “Entitled” would be at the top of the list. “Insufferable little priss” would be somewhere down the line. Later I would think about standing up to that woman and calling out her bigotry, protecting someone who didn’t have the privilege to protect herself. I would think about all of the contents of the scene I would throw at McDonald’s. But in that moment I did nothing. I was not a hero.
“Tax.” I replied quietly. Her determined look melted to an expression of realization. “You didn’t factor in tax.”
The woman stuttered something and fished out the remaining change, something you might give to a child to buy milk with or put into a gumball machine, but of course something my coworker, a woman working two eight-hour shifts at two disgusting fast food restaurants each day to make an honest living, would try to steal out of her cashmere pockets.
“Have a nice day.” Virginia said. I wished she hadn’t, but the store’s pleasantry policy does not make exceptions for racists.
That night an article about the bystander effect would come across my computer screen and I would close the window and pretend I hadn’t seen it at all.
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