It’s Saturday afternoon when I pull into the drive-thru of my local Burger King with my baby in tow. Not the best nutritional choice, I know, but Natalie’s been a hot mess all morning and I haven’t eaten a morsel. Since parenthood begets frugality I order two cheeseburgers off the value menu for $1.19 apiece and a small Diet Coke.
“That’ll be $4.58,” the voice coming out of the speaker squawks. The meal should be $3.50 tops.
“$4.58!” I say. “How’s that possible? How much is the Coke?” The speaker box doesn’t answer.
Because the three cars ahead of me are ordering enough food to feed an infantry brigade, it takes fifteen minutes for me to inch up to the cashier. Fast food my ass. Luckily my baby always falls asleep in the car.
“$4.58,” a skinny teenager says as I pull up. My order is ready and the receipt is stapled to the bag.
“May I see the receipt?” I say. The kid holds out the bag but, because my vision is bad, I still can’t read it.
“Closer, please,” I say. The kid moves the bag half an inch. Smart ass.
I reach out and grab the bag. Reflexively, the kid tries pulling it away, probably thinking I’ll drive off with it. I wonder if management would make him pay for it if I do.
“Just give me the bag,” I say, pulling it out if his hand. The kid looks pissed and I feel kind of bad but when I look at the receipt my guilt is quashed. My burgers cost $2.38. The small Coke is $2.00.
Costing pennies to dispense and garnering big profits, fountain drinks are a racket in the restaurant business. I once worked in a place where the owner upped soda prices a nickel a week in order to make up his food costs. He also demanded charging for refills but, after a father freaked over a $40 bill for his children’s drinks, I stopped that usurious practice. Burger King is trying to make up their losses on the “value menu” by overcharging me for soda.
“I don’t want the soda,” I tell the cashier. “Just the burgers.”
“Just take the soda off my bill.”
The kid disappears and returns with the manager. “What’s the problem?” he says.
“Nothing personal,” I say, “But two dollars for a small soda is a ripoff.”
“We told them that,” the manager says, shrugging. “But I gotta do what I’m told.”
“Tell your boss I won’t be coming back because of this.”
The manager looks like he couldn’t give a damn. “Why should I tell them that?”
Now it’s my turn to shrug. “Customer feedback?”
“Have a nice day, sir.”
I park and eat my lunch. Luckily I have a bottle of water in my car. A hard rain is falling and as I listen to the drops pelting the car’s roof I unhappily realize I’m becoming a middle-aged grump. When I was a waiter those people aggravated the hell out if me. They’d hyper examine the bill, question prices, and bitch about portions. Now I’m doing the same stuff. The karmic wheel turns again.
In some ways I’ve grown into being like my old customers. As I inch closer to 50, thanks to news about predatory lenders, financiers betting you’ll lose your house, computer wizards gaming Wall Street, bank bailouts and corporate money in politics, I’ve become more cynical. I’m beginning to think life is a con game where everyone is on the take. Burger King’s attempt to screw me out of two bucks just reinforces my paranoia. But there’ve been other incidents.
A few weeks ago I had four skin tags removed by a dermatologist. I was told the procedure was covered under the cost of the office visit. Later, when I got a bill for $300 and saw my insurer was charged $3800 in various fees, I called the billing department and told them I’d report them for fraud. The bill was magically erased. “It was a coding error,” they said. Bullshit. They were trying to see what they could get away with. That seems to be the ethos of the modern age.
It’s a dynamic that plays out in human interactions large and small.. While waiting on a long line at Babies “R” Us, my wife and I watched as smartly dressed couple wheeled their tot in a $1000 carriage past the waiting customers and sauntered up to the register. I loudly complained until they left red faced with embarrassment. And when a guy, despite having a perfectly serviceable driveway, parked his two cars in the spots my neighbors and I dug out after a snowstorm, I let him have it. He didn’t move his cars that day, but he didn’t come back the next. These people were seeing what they could get away with and someone pushed back.
Of course, my “little sheriff” attitude hurts as much as helps.. Each time I confronted these doctors, line jumpers and spot stealers I got angry, my blood pressure shot up and I was grouchy afterwards. We also live in a world where “Don’t rock the boat” is a powerful social more and those who speak up are often viewed with suspicion. As a new father I can’t afford to alienate Natalie from future playmates by being the town crank – but I’ll be useless to her if I let people walk all over me. You have to pick your battles, but it’s often hard to know which one is worth fighting.
Lunch finished, I turn in my seat to check on Natalie. She’s starting to squirm so I sing her an appropriate snippet of Bob Dylan.
Look out kid
They keep it all hid
Better jump down a manhole
Light yourself a candle
Don’t wear sandals
Try to avoid the scandals
Don’t wanna be a bum
You better chew gum
The pump don’t work
‘Cause the vandals took the handles.
Good advice written before I was born. As Natalie grows up I’ll have to help her figure how to avoid life’s vandals. But I’m also aware I’ll never be able to protect her from them all of them. To even try would hurt her. The only solution I can think of is to raise her with the notion that money isn’t everything; selflessness is the greatest virtue and the spiritual and corporal works of mercy aren’t just suggestions. The best way to do that is to raise her with an awareness of how beautiful the world is despite all it’s nonsense. That means my cynicism and I are on a collision course. I can’t be a middle aged grump all the time. How will I work it out? I have no idea.