You may recall (perhaps through the magic of hyperlinkery) that Spouse and I are firmly of the view that Stinky Tim’s never fails to deliver a memorable Horton’s experience. Having both been brought low earlier this week by illness, and being both more generally afflicted with a less virulent but no less consequential sloth, we decided to make Stinky Tim’s our breakfast destination this morning. Stinky Tim did not disappoint.
For a while there, as I sat munching contentedly on my Bagel B.E.L.T., I thought that the organizing narrative around which today’s trip to Horton’s would revolve is the repeated transformation of our breakfast order by one of the counter staff. I won’t use the name on her name tag, but let’s call her “T”. T. is in her late teens, thin as a rail, pale as a ghost and (as I complete an impressive trifecta of tired clichés) quiet as a mouse. She wears a ton of eye make-up – all black – and though she herself never raises her voice above a single decibel, her entire demeanour fairly screams out that she is shy and profoundly uncertain of herself and her place in the Stinky Tim’s universe. T. struggles mightily to recede into non-existence even as she stands at the register receiving a customer’s order. By the time you’ve made it through “large double-double, bottle of orange juice and an apple fritter,” you’ll wonder who the hell you thought you were talking to because T. has somehow managed to dissipate entirely into the ether so completely, you’ll find yourself unsure about who took your money and made change on that twenty. T. may be emo, she may be goth, I don’t know, but whatever T is in her civilian life and among her friends and peers, she is not at all at ease with her role in the ranks of the Horton’s team.
I am keenly aware that I am far from breaking new ground with my ironically detached superior observation – shock and opprobrium, alert the national media – that a teenager, one working in a fast food establishment no less, has been found to be awkward and uncertain. The only reason I mention T.’s difficulties at all is because her far from uncommon existential struggle seems to have spilled over into her work performance,in such a fashion as to make her almost invariably unable to correctly translate the “variety of donut ordered by me” into the “variety of donut received by me” without exerting some substantial degree of authorial licence. Do you see the irony in this? T. herself acts and speaks in such a manner as to make one doubt her very existence, her very presence being a quiet denial of individuality, yet – at the crucial moment in the customer-service industry transaction where common expectations would include submission, servitude and compliance with externally imposed demands – she instead exerts her own personality and influence with surprising and disconcerting results upon the encounter. I don’t know much about the criteria by which the work performance of Horton’s counter employees are evaluated, but I would have thought that – like foreign language translators – substantial points would be earned by those who manage to remain transparent and essentially invisible in the process, removing themselves from any obvious directing role in the production chain. A skillful interpreter allows the words of Dostoevsky (though written by him in Russian) to enter one’s consciousness conceptually unchanged via the English language without the reader becoming aware of the intermediary through whom they have passed. Likewise, at Horton’s, I would expect that a skillful counter employee would allow the “chocolate toasted coconut donut” ordered to enter my consciousness conceptually unchanged by providing me with a “chocolate toasted coconut donut”, rather than something else. This type of interpretive transparency is not what T. believes in, or at least it is not what she achieves in relation to my breakfast order. At her behest, donuts without jelly have spontaneously acquired it; those with coconut have had it dispatched in favour of sugar or coloured sprinkles; at times, donuts have been entirely and completely transformed into a different foodstuff entirely, and dutchies or fritters have come out the other end of this creative process. This has been happening with regularity and for some time now, and it happened again this morning when the “large steeped tea with one milk” that I ordered was transformed into a “large coffee with one milk” unbeknownst to me at some point during the transaction.
As I munched on my Bagel B.E.L.T., pondering the mechanics of this process, the morning’s real memorable moment unfolded right in front of me. There was quite a line at the counter (evidently, the particular creative process described above is one that requires a slight bit of additional time to undertake, as compared to a more conventional “fill the order that’s given” type of Horton’s). I watched as a lady entered the store pushing a stroller and joined the back of the queue. She had another child with her, one that I took to be her young son, a boy about three years of age. The boy was obviously excited to be going in to Horton’s (he must share my fondness for transformative and creative counter service) and was chattering somewhat loudly and without a sense of being overheard, as young children will do. In front of him and his mother in line, there was a man in his late twenties. The man happened to be a black man. The child chattered about a number of topics in rapid fire serial fashion- what he wanted to order, events that had taken place on the way to Horton’s, the toy he held in his hand – and he seemed to say the things that he said the moment they came into his mind. You might already see what is coming, but I certainly didn’t as I sat there chomping away on my bagel. Just like that, the kid turned to his mother and asked her, gesturing towards the man in front of them, “Why is he black?”
It was one of those moments in which time kind of stops. It would be wrong of me I suppose, as a white guy, to say that I have any real idea how the fellow in line felt about the child’s inquiry, about having to deal with this situation in the middle of a crowded Horton’s. By watching him and his body language though, he seemed initially at least to be a little uncomfortable, wondering how to handle the situation. The child’s mother certainly seemed more than a little uncomfortable too at first, though only for a moment. It was as if both she and the man decided in an instant and without speaking that this encounter was not going to be awkward. She leaned down, gathered the child up in her arms and picked him up, holding him at her own (and the man’s) eye level. The child seemed to study the man’s face for a split second, then turned to look at his mother as she said something to him along the lines of “because that’s the way that he is, just like you” (though I confess I could not hear the exact words that she said. The man answered the child’s question too; I think he said something like “that’s the way God made me” and smiled at the kid. There was neither embarrassment nor discomfort obvious in either his voice or body language, and the young mother too seemed not to be flustered by the situation.
The moment passed just like that. The kid’s question had been answered, and he moved on almost immediately. He certainly seemed to accept the man in line; the child held out the toy in his hand, a little R2D2 figurine, and asked him a question that I couldn’t quite hear. “I don’t think he wants to play robots, dear” said the mother, as the man smiled but declined to take the figurine. “He just wants to get a coffee.”
Good luck with that.