"Can we have fast food for dinner tonight?" my daughter asked the other day. She might as well have asked me if we could slaughter a kangaroo and dig a pit in the backyard to roast it, the question was that absurd.
"Fast food?" I repeated, thinking I hadn't heard right. "Is this one of those high school things, like your discovery of hair products? I'm not about to add fast food to our budget. I'm still paying off your hair masque."
"No, I just have a craving for fast food," she said, "I don't know why."
"I'll tell you why," I said, "it's because your body needs more salt. Why don't you just drench your food in pink Himalayan rock salt?"
She gave me that look that teenagers the world over have perfected which manages to convey scorn, pity and embarrassment in a single glance.
"Please? Just a cheeseburger?"
"Alright," I said, "But this is a one-time thing; don't go thinking we're going to turn into fast food people." I gave her that look which moms the world over have perfected which manages to convey authority, surrender and preoccupation with a million other things in a single glance.
So we get to a drive-through window and before I even have a chance to find the price of burgers, a voice on the callbox says, "May I help you?
"One cheeseburger," I said, as my eyes scrolled across the menu as fast as I could move them, fixing on the Cajun bunny rabbit sandwich or some such goofy thing. Then I saw the Angus burgers. Now I know that a fast food Angus burger is like fast food filet mignon. Let's face it, there is an implicit understanding that when our food is handed to us from a window by someone wearing a headset and a paper hat, no matter what they call it, we aren't going to ask for the recipe. Hot salt and grease soaked in something puffy is about the best that we can hope for at these places. But I thought asking for the Angus burger might minimize the disappointment. So I said, "No, never mind. Two Angus burgers, one with cheese and one without."
"Two Angus burgers and one cheeseburger?" the voice replied.
"No; no cheeseburger; two Angus burgers instead. One with cheese, one without."
"No, no cheeseburger. I don't want any cheeseburger, I changed my mind."
"How many cheeseburgers?'
"No cheeseburgers. Zero, none at all. Just Angus burgers. Two."
So that's how it went. I threw in some fries, small size, however small might be defined (having learned that a tall coffee means the shortest one these days).
We got home a couple of minutes later and I contemplated how we'd get inside without being seen carrying a bag full of fast food.
"Quick, you take it, and be sure no one sees you," I told my daughter.
I took a quick look up and down the sidewalk and when the coast was clear, she bolted for our door.
Then we unpacked the bag. Two bags of near-white fries and the Angus burgers. And two cheeseburgers. And the food was colder than a dead man, but not nearly as appetizing.
After we'd stopped laughing, I knew what to do. I'd call them up and tell them I did not want those damn cheeseburgers and would return them the next day.
Well, let me tell you, complaining about being overcharged and served bad food at a fast-food franchise is like complaining to a drug dealer for taking so long to deliver. They don't exactly care.
"The burgers are stone-cold," I said.
"That's because you got them with lettuce and tomato," the woman answered, "It cools them down. Next time, just ask them to hold the lettuce and tomato. They'll be warmer that way."
She really said that.
"Look, I'm tired and it's too late to drive back there," I said, "I'll bring the cheeseburgers back tomorrow."
"Okay; what is your name?"
I gave her my name and spelled it for her and hung up the phone. But even after re-heating the burgers and fries, we gave up, declaring it was not an edible meal but my daughter had learned her lesson.
"I promise I will never ask for fast food again," she said, brushing her teeth to be rid of the taste.
"In that case, it was worth it!" I said as I set the bag of cheeseburgers by the door. I'd take the whole thing back the following morning and settle it, for the principle of the matter.
Now I learned long ago that whenever I fight for principles, I'd do better to complain about growing old. It's truly pointless and wastes good words. But I was really ticked off about those cheeseburgers. I mean, really. I said four or five times I didn't want any cheeseburgers. Was throwing them in some kind of insult?
Later that night, we smelled something awful. At first I thought it was the cat litter box, but that was clean. Then I thought there must be something rotting, like a dead animal. But the only thing dead was my appetite. It turned out to be those cheeseburgers.
"Just throw them out!" my daughter suggested. "That smell is awful!"
"No, I'm not throwing them out, I'm taking them back," I insisted, "Just inhale a box of baking soda and you won't even notice."
So the next morning, I tried to take them back.
"Your name is not in our list," the cashier said, "I can't refund your money."
"But the burgers are right here," I said, "It's not my fault my name wasn't written down. I gave my name, I even spelled it. But I'm here now, and want a refund."
"I'm sorry, but you'll have to come back at ten and speak to our manager," she said.
So at ten, I called the manager.
"Listen lady," the disinterested manager said, "There's no note here, so if you don't like it, take it up with the owner. " She had about as much interest in her job as a quadriplegic hooker. She didn't care what I did.
"How about I come back at rush hour and wait in the drive-through lane for my refund?" I suggested. "You'll call the police, but by then all the cars behind me will have backed up and gone to your competition." I saw something like that in an episode of Frasier, and though it didn't turn out well for him, it somehow struck me as the perfect strategy in this case.
"I don't care," she said and hung up.
Well, what could I do? Any manager who responds to a customer's concerns with "Listen lady," is in the wrong profession. But she had my money and she had my cheeseburgers. What did it matter to her if I was happy or not? She was paid less than a babysitter and had to smell cheeseburgers all day. Still, she needed an attitude adjustment.
So I called the owner, and left a message, indicating I'd been sold food I didn't order and his manager refused to refund my money and had instead insulted me. His name was Abboud, and I was pretty confident that Abboud would care about my problem. After all, he had proudly posted a sign guaranteeing quality and service and encouraged customers to call with any comments.
I left my comments, but Abboud never returned my call. Still, I was not giving up that easily, not when principles were at stake. So I went to the corporate office website and filled out a customer complaint. They'd do something; I was making real trouble for that fast food manager now.
The next day, the corporate office sent a personalized reply. It was very long and assured me of how happy they were that I had written. My feedback was very important, they explained. They were very concerned about my experience, and wanted to do something right away to be sure that I was happy. I would be pleased to know, they continued, that they had contacted the manager of the franchise and explained to her I was unhappy. Then they thanked me and assured me again of how pleased they were that I had written.
Now I was really mad. How dare they? I spent the whole day fuming and plotting revenge. I'd report them to the health department; I'd buy burgers from the competition and pass them out to customers, so they wouldn't spend any money there. I'd start a social media campaign and no one would ever eat fast food again!
It was getting late, and the day was shot. I hadn't done a damn thing all day but rage at the injustice of it all. Then it hit me. Those were some mighty powerful cheeseburgers to make me think so much. The cost of that fast food was indeed worth it, I concluded. My daughter learned not to crave that crap and I had learned what principles really matter. People will make mistakes, cheat and insult us and not give a damn all the time. And when they do, our lives are just too brief to feed the anger they've provoked. Sometimes the principles we most need to protect are those that tell us to just throw the damn crap away, and smile. Because there's always a better meal yet to come.