I woke up early Saturday and took my son to breakfast at the local Denny’s. As he scarfed down his chocolate chip pancakes and I sipped at my sad cup of black coffee, I wallowed in a silent lament of the fact that I hadn’t come up with an idea for a FlipCollective piece.
And then it happened. Yeah, believe it or not, sometimes the ideas just find you at Denny’s.
A middle-aged woman was seated a few tables away and spoke in a pretty loud voice, the kind that says, “If I practically yell, regardless of the fact that I’m in a public place, I will give off the appearance of someone who knows what she’s talking about.”
She, like many Americans, and the first of three I encountered on this delightful sunny day in the Pacific Northwest, is a member of the work force. And she, like many Americans, I would wager, does not like her job.
During the course of her impressive dismantling of what appeared to be a Lumberjack Slam (two buttermilk pancakes, a slice of grilled ham, two bacon strips, two sausage links and two eggs, hash browns or grits and choice of bread, and at least 960 calories), this large woman, whom I assumed to be of Native American descent because of her skin coloring and her repeated reference to the nearby Tulalip tribe, dominated the conversation of the three-top (most likely her college-age daughter and another middle-aged woman, perhaps a co-worker). The situation at work had become dire enough that she was forced to vent about it.
And vent she did.
In the course of twenty minutes, I managed to have a fully engaged conversation with my son while getting the majority of the good parts of the other interaction. This woman, whom we’ll call “Laura,” has been working as a caseworker for many years and has been great at her job. She cares for her clients, treats them with respect, and seems to routinely perform above and beyond the call of duty in a manner that makes her the best employee in her entire office … by far.
Naturally, Laura would like to be promoted to a senior-level position in which she can oversee the actions of other caseworkers. But several women, including “Marie,” the latest offender in this particular story, have somehow overcome their grossly inferior job skills by leveraging some sort of magical political legerdemain into Laura’s dream gig.
Laura navigated through the plot points of the story like Luke Skywalker in the Death Star. She made it clear that she’d told this story before — maybe even a few times that day. She did it with a stoic, knowing roll in her eyes, too, and when her friend changed the subject to mention the results of this week’s “American Idol,” Laura redirected the topic back to this “fucking dirty whore Marie” within about fifteen seconds. It was masterful.
The next encounter came a few hours later when I decided to take my boy for a ride on the weekend-only vintage locomotive that runs through the spring and summer months on the tracks of a nearby train museum. We sidled up to the old-fashioned ticket window, I paid the twenty-five bucks for two round-trip tickets, and we waited for those railroad cars to pull up to the wood-paneled depot for our journey.
Upon arrival, a museum employee named Chuck hopped off the dining car and got to business. He was hungry, and he had a big, fat cheeseburger waiting for him around the corner at a tavern that was doing its Saturday afternoon grilling outside. He came back just in time to resume his duties as conductor, shouting, “All Aboard!” and then taking a hell of a bite of his burger, squirting a large dollop of mayonnaise onto his hand.
Ten minutes later, the train pulled out of Snoqualmie, bound for North Bend, and Chuck, now apparently satiated and with wiped-off hands, ambled up the aisle to take the tickets. As he stopped by my seat, the person sitting behind me asked or mentioned something to Chuck that got a smile and a burst of energy out of the man, who had graying reddish hair underneath his old-time conductor hat and a belly that suggested the cheese-and-mayo burger was not the first he’d consumed in his fifty-odd years.
“You know, someone made a movie on the front car,” Chuck said to a few obligatory oohs and aahs from the paying public. “An independent movie. They filmed it in the car and then they green-screened in the train barn, too. They put up a fifteen-foot-tall green screen and filmed in there, too.”
Chuck was pressed for the name of the upcoming film but couldn’t deliver. He did, however, mention that the director of the movie didn’t have major-studio distribution lined up as of yet and would try to “hit the festivals” to generate a buzz to one day land that type of big-time Hollywood deal. Chuck’s tagline for the film was something along the lines of, “It’s about a hobo in the Eighteenth Century. It seems like a pretty cool deal.”
The passenger who got the earful agreed with Chuck. “Yeah, sounds great,” he said. “Sounds like something I’d like to see. I hope it gets made.”
The two were now prepared to part ways, with Chuck punching a hole in my tickets and waving goodbye to his new friend. The passenger mentioned that he thought Chuck’s line of work was not only admirable but probably pretty fun, too.
Chuck winked and smiled. “Keeps me out of trouble,” he said.
The last stop of the day was at the Fred Meyer superstore. The items on the list were Levi’s for my son, some pre-prepared food for dinner so I wouldn’t have to cook, rye bread, potato chips and a few pieces of fresh fruit.
These items didn’t take long to procure, and since there weren’t many things in the cart, I figured I’d let my son scan them on the self-checkout machine and we’d go our merry way. He, of course, took on this challenge with gusto and performed his duties well.
The older gentleman on the machine to our left, however, did not. This man, whom we’ll call “Butch,” stared at the screen for a protracted moment when it didn’t do what he wanted it to do, began poking it hard, as if he were trying to bore right through it straight into its digital soul, and then simply threw up his arms in exasperation and looked at the insulated ceiling, perhaps trying to summon supernatural assistance from the industrial-sized fluorescent track lighting units.
“Damn it,” Butch said. “Damn it.”
While he was busy damning it, an acne-faced Fred Meyer employee named Andrew approached and offered his help. Butch was not happy to see him.
“I thought these things were supposed to be self-checkout,” he said.
“They are,” Andrew said. “But sometimes it’s easy to miss a step, and sometimes they don’t work at all.”
Butch accepted his answer and allowed Andrew, who was probably twenty-one years old, to assess the situation on the screen. Whatever the hangup, Andrew had rectified it almost immediately, and Butch was free to swipe his debit card.
Butch was now defeated by Andrew’s quick expertise that followed his own ineptitude, and he let the kid know.
“So they have a person working in the self-checkout department simply to deal with idiots like me, huh,” Butch said.
Andrew laughed and tried to remain humble.
“No, sir,” he said. “It’s not that. It’s just that sometimes there are malfunctions, so it helps if there’s somebody around to see what’s going on with the machines.”
Butch nodded, put the last bag in his cart, and rolled away into the American afternoon.
For more from Tom …
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