Some of the reasons why I won’t work service industry anymore, despite having few other options

Sometime in 2010 I stopped being willing to work in any retail or foodservice position. Low pay was an obvious issue, but the snapping point came when a drive thru customer leapt out of his truck and raised his fists at me. My (first-day-on-the-job) shift manager told me to apologize to him. This was just the snapping point; not the first and not the worst of the apparent traumas that have driven me to panicked frustration at the idea of working any kind of front-of-the house or secretarial/hostess service job. The following is a limited list of the major incidents that have driven me away; the broader reasons such as low pay, lack of healthcare and being viewed as a loser are to be assumed.

The first major incident isn’t the first to occur chronologically but it tends to be the one with the most impact upon retelling; one of my paychecks was stolen (and successfully cashed!) by a co-worker and though I filed a police report and the company re-issued my check, no one in the store was fired. Whoever it was, I had to continue work with them for a year. At the risk of indulging in self-victim blaming, I wish I had the guts at the time to raise a ruckus about it. Once they re-issued the check, I went on my disgruntled way. Retrospect is also an indulgence, but I could have argued for a bigger check, heh. Maybe harangued the police more. Maybe call my local TV news, or at least threaten to. At the very least, go home and google my rights a bit.

The next most pungent story is related to the previous as it involves the same person whom I had suspected (but had no evidence) of also being the one who took my check. This occurred about 1 year later, at which point I had become the nighttime closing manager and he was my (usually only) closing crew member. I was stuffed in the closet we called an office (the door jamb was about as deep as the closet itself – why was there a hinged door on it, you couldn’t even close it with your body inside!) counting and closing the tills. He and I were the only people in the building (it’s another issue of contention that so very often restaurant closing crews are painfully understaffed – I basically was the other closing cleaner/counter who also got the responsibility of managerial duties). I’m a woman under five feet tall, he was (estimating from memory, thus subjective) between 5’7 and 6 feet tall. Easily twice as broad as me. I had no car; he was often my ride home. Every once in a while, before I would put the till drawers in the safe, he would have me break a $50 or something big; it was convenient for me because it’s easier to deposit one $50 bill than fifty $1 bills. Over time and better education (thanks for the no-training, Giant Corporation!) I came to realize that this was already suspect behavior, and probably were bills being broken by the very till they were swiped from. So he comes up to my doorway and stuffs his hand in his pocket, asking to exchange it. As he pulls his hand out of the pockets of his very loose pleated polyester uniform pants, my cellphone slides out with it and clanks to the floor. I blink in shocked silence as he squats down to pick it back up, stuff it in his pocket and say “Oops sorry”. I don’t react – act like I didn’t see anything. Were I a male of comparable size to him, or had I been conditioned to be more assertive, I would have confronted him like a manager (authority figure) should. But I was not the authority figure there, not to anyone but a few meeker (or more respectful) co-workers who were in any case not there at that moment. He should have been afraid to get in trouble, but I know he wasn’t. He knew the bosses wouldn’t care. I knew they wouldn’t care. He already had a higher wage than I and I was certainly aware of the interpersonal politics of the crew and management at that time. I couldn’t risk angering him; at the worst I could be in physical danger, at the least I’d have to walk home. I should have had the authority to fire him on the spot, but I knew I deserved to report it at least, so I picked up the store phone and called the General Manager. Groggy from being woken from sleep, he instructed me to call the Assistant Manager (that’s what in business-wanker-lingo is called “delegating”!) While I was pacing in the dark dining room with the phone, my crewman was sheepishly cleaning the corrugated stainless steel of the food line. Maybe he was trying to overhear me; I was trying not to be overheard but also pumped by anger and possibly loud enough, who knows. Maybe I’m injecting more paranoia into the memory than was there. I woke the Assistant Manager Lady with my call and explained the situation to her as well. That I hadn’t confronted him yet but would very much like some help in doing so, and frankly scared of being alone with him. She said okay give him the phone and she’d talk to him. I told him merely “[name] wants to talk to you” and handed it over. A few minutes of talking in Spanish (which I regrettably have never learned) and he handed the phone back. She told me that he had found it in his car, didn’t know it was mine, but must have been dropped when he had given me a ride home. She said I was lucky he was giving it back because he didn’t have to (really?). She said not to mention it to other coworkers. She said nothing about talking to her superiors (and neither did I, which was my ignorance and meekness in play). Immediately after hanging up the phone, he brought the cellphone to me, handed it to me and said “Sorry, I didn’t know it was yours.” I took it and stupidly never said a word about it to anyone at work. But I sure was angry and depressed about it.

Some few weeks later I finally walked out after a brand-new shift manager (designed to give me a break from hours as I had been the only dedicated closer since I started the job) proclaimed that she was going to spend the entire shift inside the walk-in fridge rearranging the position of the entire stock in storage and I was to be the drive thru person and the closing dishwasher. This was the position that I already had been doing and frankly it was someone else’s turn. I told her quite calmly and with no whiny head-bobbing, that her position was that of floor manager and that she is to be within sight of the production area at all times. She is to put a headset on and supervise the drive thru, while I assist during rush hours, then shift position to dishwasher for closing. She clucked her teeth and told me she’s the manager tonight and I’ll do what she says. I slowly took off my headset, placed it on the production line and said “If you won’t do your job tonight, you will be doing my job for the rest of the night.” ** Of course she simply affirmed that I should leave, and so I did, feeling immensely relieved.

These are just the major incidents that I have the energy to write out in one sitting; all the broken mufflers and squeaking brakes blaring into your ear from  a squawking headset (once a prankster decided to give his order through an electric megaphone! Once he got to the window I kept his credit card until he apologized, hah) and all the “plain cheeseburger plus ketchup and mustard” and all the “DON’T PUT TOMATOES IN IT I’LL DIE but make sure there’s ketchup packets” and all the dirty diapers left on dining tables for me to clean, they add the fuck up. 

So that snapping point I mentioned at the beginning of this rant, this happened a year or so after all that, at a different fastfood restaurant. Despite my previous managerial experience, I had insisted I only be a crew member rather than a shift leader, because I knew the pay would not be proportional to the responsibility (I’m talking a 3 cent raise for the promotion, no joke). I’d been inexplicably shifted to daytime hours and was serving as a sort of floating help, dishwasher, dining table cleaner, gopher etc on this particular day. A bag of food had been accidentally dropped in the transfer of hands from window to car, and I had been sent out to clean it. With my broom and articulate dustpan i stood at the end of the driveway waiting for the next car to exit. It a large-ish pickup truck. He stops near the curb so that the window is directly in front of me and sticks his arm out, pointing at the fallen and forlorn bag of food. He says “Hey you think you could you know, lemme have that?” Bored at the time waste and probably obviously so, I recited the standard ” I’m sorry sir I can’t serve food that has touched the ground or -” He cuts me off with a scowl and says “Hey you should lighten up!” I roll my eyes and say “fuckin idiot” and move towards the back of his truck and the bag, intent on doing my duty and going back inside. He jumps out of his truck waving a fist around, clutching what seemed like a necklace or some sort of gold chain and badge. He shouted “come here bitch!” and “I’m a firefighter you need to respect me!” Fist and gold/brass metal object (I assume, his firefighter badge) reeled back, looking ready to punch. Not in a vertical position as a display of what was in his hand, but hooked and cocked and aimed at me, advancing. I backed up in a fast shuffle, shouting for help and someone call the police, I’m being assaulted! The shift manager (whom I had only met that day) asked what was going on, I said “He asked me to give him food off the ground and I called him a fuckin idiot. That’s fuckin stupid and he’s a fuckin idiot.” She told me to apologize, I looked at him and said “Nah, I wasn’t wrong, he’s a fuckin idiot.” Walked back inside, leaving them both there to fuss at each other now, and started doing dishes. Shaking and angry of course, but silent. Some time later (no idea how long, probably only a few minutes) she came to the back and told me I should take the rest of the night off to calm down. I agreed. I never came back, except to turn in my uniform on payday. Was interesting to note that I had been written off the schedule the very next day and had no discussion whatsoever with my General Manager about the incident.

I haven’t been able to go back to that kind of work since then. The idea of being right in between being exploited by my employers and threatened with violence by the people I serve literally triggers a panic response. I can’t even stomach the idea of being a secretary or a desk clerk; anything that has me in the front-of-the-house position of having to greet and placate every person who walks in the door grips me with fear. I’m currently in school to become a Medical Assistant and even some aspects panic me because I will refuse to work as the person who runs the hospitality/service aspect of patient intake. While certainly a necessary position, it can I believe be reasonably compared to being a hostess or waitress at a restaurant. Being the first place your customers AND employers come to complain and find blame, having to interact with dozens to hundreds of strangers a day; I simply cannot do it anymore. I’m going to push really hard to get a laboratory job, so here’s to hoping this degree doesn’t just make me a glorified medical secretary.

**I’m not saying I never have attitude, but this was all delivered matter-of-fact-ly, almost bored; I was absolutely willing to leave and not upset at myself for demanding that the shift be positioned correctly.

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