I got into another fight at a local McDonald’s.
A man was attempting to ascertain the balance on his gift card. The McDonald’s employee - someone I see almost everyday while getting my Egg McMuffin - explained that she didn’t know how to determine the remaining balance on his gift card unless he purchased something. Then she apologized. “There really should be a way to do this,” she admitted.
Then the man began shouting, telling the woman again and again that she was unprofessional. Spouting off in a way that made it clear that he was not a highly functioning human being.
I was standing beside the man. I had already placed my order and was waiting patiently. Four men were standing behind us, also waiting for their order. An older woman with a cane was standing behind him, waiting to place her order. Everyone stared as this man continued shouting “Unprofessional!” over and over again.
I did not engage. This is my new policy. In the past, I would’ve eagerly leapt into the fray, but I’ve established a new, more mature policy:
Remain uninvolved unless the offending party involves me.
So I stood, waiting and hoping that he might someone engage me, too. Hoping for a confrontation.
Then it happened. The man turned to me and said, “This place is so unprofessional. Right?”
“No,” I said, quickly matching his volume. “Don’t bring me into this. I’m not on your side. I like these people. There’s only one person in this place who is acting unprofessional, and it’s you.”
The man was not pleased. He tried to argue his point, oddly repeating the word “unprofessional” over and over again. I was having none of it, and I was prepared with plenty of comebacks.
“Don’t try to co-opt my agreement just because you’re feeling alone. You’re alone because you’re wrong, buddy. I’m on the side of the good.”
“Stop talking to me. I’ve heard dandelions make more sense than you.”
“People who stand behind the counter, insulting employees like these, are cowards.”
At this, the man took an aggressive step toward me, apparently hoping to intimidate me. In response, I took an even larger, more aggressive step forward, trying to convey in both mind and body the idea that I would fight and win if necessary.
It worked. It always does. The man stepped back. He swore at me. He wished me dead. then he declared that “this town is a ghetto!” and left.
A couple minutes later, the police arrived. I didn’t know it, but the employees has called them when the shouting broke out. They explained to the officers that I was not the offending party. Then they refunded my money for my breakfast. “Oh the house,” she said.
Happy day. Admittedly not the wisest decision on my part, but happy day.
I told this story at my book club later that night. One of my friends asked, “How does this stuff always happen to you?”
It was a good question. I’ve wondered this myself. But then the answer became apparent to me as we discussed:
I look for these confrontations. I stood beside the man, hoping he would involve me. I stared in his general direction. In the words of one book club attendee, “I would’ve been standing as far away from that man as possible, avoiding it all.” And it’s true. There were four other men also waiting for their food, and not one of them made any attempt to close the distance between them and the man. I stood as close as possible and hoped for engagement. Invited it.
I’m good at this kind of encounter. I was a two-time state debate champion in college. As a teacher, DJ, writer, and performer, I’ve spent a considerable amount of my life manipulating language, speaking publicly, and using words to achieve desired results. I use words like other people use hammers and spreadsheets and stethoscopes. Also, I’m a serial nonconformist who lived for more than a decade with a verbally abusive stepfather, and my last name is Dicks. I’ve received an enormous amount of verbal abuse over the years, and so I’ve spent a lifetime sharpening my rhetorical sword. I know how to parry and slash and stab. I have a talent for knowing the worst thing to say at the right moment to produce the most pain in another human being.
I have an inane sense of justice for low wage workers. Having managed McDonald’s restaurants for almost a decade, I am all too familiar with the abuse that low-wage workers suffer on a daily basis. As a manager, I always stood between my employee and the offender, offering sarcastic apologies to horrible people and occasionally going to war with them, too. I cannot stand to watch a customer insult an employee who is trying her best and has done nothing wrong.
I’m in places where stuff like this happens. I pointed out to my book club friends that none of them enter a McDonald’s restaurant with any regularity. “Chipotle is probably your lowest version of fast food,” I argued, and my friend agreed. Another said, “You don’t just go through the drive thru?” No, I don’t. Service is almost always faster inside, and I get to see my people. I talk to Juan, the maintenance man, about football. I say hello to Janice as prepares my order. I chat with the old guy who is drinking coffee and reading the paper. If you’re not entering the realm of the low wage worker on a daily basis, you probably don’t see this kind of abuse.
So that’s it. That’s why I seem to get into more verbal altercations than most.
I look for them. I like them. I’m good at them. I feel the need to engage on behalf of others, And I occupy spaces where these types of encounters are more likely to occur.
See? It’s not me. It’s just circumstance.
All that said, I know it’s not the smartest thing to do. You never know how someone is going to react. It’s not that the world is a more dangerous place today, because it’s not. Crime has been on the decline for three decades. By all accounts, we’re living in the safest time in all of human history.
I know our pervasive media makes people think otherwise, but it’s true.
Still, you never know how someone will react. I should just keep my mouth shut, and more often than not, I do.
I’m getting better. More restrained and sensible. I’m evolving.