When you read that story recently about the Burger King customers who were called "bitch ass hoes" on their order receipt, you may have felt shock, outrage and sympathy for the customers.
I felt a little of that, but something else, too: I felt empathy for the employee who typed up the receipt and then got fired over it.
That's because I worked in fast food for years, and let me tell you: The customers there can be the absolute worst. They can be the worst part of a pretty terrible job, one that involves grueling physical labor, rock-bottom pay, miserable working conditions and the feeling like you will never, ever get the smell and feel of grease out of your hair, face or clothing.
Of course, I don't condone giving a customer a receipt that calls them a bitch ass hoe, or says "fuck you," like another infamous Burger King receipt did recently. Burger King had every right to fire those employees.
But I can kind of understand how it happened.
In my time working at a Hardee's in West Columbia, S.C., I personally never dealt much with the customers. I stayed in the back, flipping burgers and frying fries (and chicken patties, and fish filets, and apple pies, all of which went into the same vat of scalding brown grease).
But we could all hear the customers loud and clear. Drive-through orders were broadcast over speakers throughout the store. Jerks at the register were also typically loud enough to be heard all the way back in the kitchen. We could hear when people berated the women who ran the registers. (They were almost always women, unless they wore a manager's tie.) Being rude, cursing at them, belittling them, accusing them of getting orders wrong when we could all hear they hadn't.
The people who worked the registers were on the front line of a daily trench war that ended only when the store closed late at night and started over again at the crack of dawn the next day. We were in that war with them, and we partied with them and sometimes dated or married them. When customers were rude to them, everybody took it personally. You might think employees can fight back in these situations, but too often your tip or your manager's good graces depend on just putting your head down and dealing with whatever cruel thing the customer throws at you.
I'm not saying that all fast-food customers behaved badly. Most didn't. Most people who eat at fast-food or other restaurants treat their servers with something between indifference and grudging politeness. That's fine. That's the social compact.
Then there are the rare customers who treat their servers like actual human beings, not only being polite but also smiling and making small talk with them about the weather or whatever. Those are the people who sometimes get extra apple pies or chocolate chip cookies slipped in their bags, gratis.
But then there are the customers who treat servers like dirt. I don't know what percentage of customers at any given restaurant fall into this category. It's small, but it's not small enough. And these people are everywhere, even at fancier places than Hardee's.
I have no idea what led to those Burger King receipt incidents. Let's just go ahead and assume the customers in those cases didn't deserve the harsh treatment they got.
But I do know the frustration that comes with working at a job that strips you of your dignity on a daily basis. Sure, it's paying work, which is better than the alternative. Many of the people who do the work aren't high school kids, as I was, but adults trying to support families. Still, it can be easy to lose perspective in the heat of the moment.
I can fully imagine these Burger King employees, in moments of weakness, needing a way to vent their frustrations, maybe by typing "FUCK YOU" into the cash register. They may not even have realized it was going to show up on a receipt and cost them their jobs.
But be warned, rude customers: Most people in the restaurant industry won't make that mistake. They will get their revenge in quieter ways.
Let's just say that when Tyler Durden pissed in the lobster bisque in "Fight Club," it did not entirely come as a shock to me. That absolutely revolting scene (trigger alert: Dane Cook is involved) in "Waiting," the 2005 movie with Ryan Reynolds and Anna Faris? Only slightly over the top.
As Reynolds says at the end of that scene:
"Don't fuck with people that handle your food."