I pulled up to the squawk box on the drive-thru. I was thirsty, but I didn’t want the 55-gallon drum of diet soda. I was going to be on the road for a while. I was thinking more along the lines of the Sparkletts jug-sized tub of diet soda.
This was a number of years ago, at the height of the fast food companies’ battle to Super Size Everything. They were like a bunch of guys who were overcompensating for something by putting lift kits and monster-sized tires on their pickup trucks. Ours is bigger than theirs…
“I’d like a medium Diet Coke, please,” I told the kid taking drive-thru orders on the other end of the squawk box.
“We don’t have medium,” came the reply. “We have small, large and extra large.”
I took a deep breath. I counted to 10. After all, I remembered being young, stupid and in charge of a fast food drive-thru. It was my first job. Del Taco at Bouquet Junction. Early 1980s. I was 15, just old enough to get a work permit. I was ecstatic to be making minimum wage — $3.35 an hour. The world was my oyster. I would soon spend it unwisely, mostly on girls or things that I thought would result in … well, girls.
On my first day, I showed up ready to take the fast food world by STORM. They put me in charge of the drinks station. The first order came in. It was for a medium soda — back then, we HAD medium — and I grabbed that medium cup as fast as I could, scooped the ice so fast it would make your head spin, ice chips flying everywhere, and thrust it up against the little trigger thing that made the soda come out.
I was putting the FAST in fast food.
Then another order came. And another. Soon I had a station full of drink cups, overflowing because I couldn’t keep up.
The owner of that Del Taco, a former Major League pitcher named Randy Taylor, was watching. I think he could tell I was as nervous as Kamala Harris at a Trump rally.
I don’t remember Randy’s exact words, but it was something like, “Settle down, Chief.”
Randy was an intimidating figure. And he called you Chief in a way that reminded you that, in fact, you very much were not THE chief.
I settled down, eventually, and I got much better at fast-fooding. I even got to be kind of cocky as the drive-thru cashier.
Looking back, I was super obnoxious. If I could meet my former fast food self right now, I’d want to punch me in the nose.
So, I felt some sort of strange kinship with that kid on the other end of the squawk box whose brain hit “tilt” when I asked for a medium Diet Coke.
“You have three sizes, right?”
“Yes,” he replied. “Small, large and extra large.”
“And I asked for a medium.”
“Yes, but we don’t have medium. We just have small, large and extra large.”
He sounded a little smug. I failed to recognize the irony.
“Yes, but of those three sizes — small, large and extra large — which one is in the MIDDLE.”
“THAT’S the one! I’ll take one of those.”
I was reminded of all this when I went to another drive-thru a few weeks ago, just after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill raising the state’s minimum wage for fast food workers to $20 per hour.
I have the same gripes about that legislation that a lot of people have. To wit:
• It will kill jobs. Fast food companies will double down on their efforts to automate, because robots and computers never whine about when they are getting their break, and never need Saturday night off to take Sally to the drive-in. (Humor me. I know drive-ins are dead.) So, instead of making $20 an hour, a lot of people will be making $0 per hour.
• I have a philosophical problem with the government deciding certain jobs will pay more than others. It’s an over-reach. Yes, there should be a minimum wage. I’m not sure the minimum wage should be enough to support a family of four on one income, but regardless, the same minimum wage should apply to all jobs, without the government playing favorites because politicians are pandering for votes and/or appeasing a labor union.
So, there I was, at another drive-thru, my memories of the “small-large-extra large” exchange having faded with time.
But then, I was reminded of it.
I looked at the menu board and there were, to my relief, “small, medium and large.” But, I couldn’t tell whether their medium was the old-fashioned medium — 20 ounces — or if the medium was 32 ounces and the large was the 44-ounce tub.
I didn’t want the 44-ounce tub. I also didn’t want the 20-ounce “old medium.” I wanted 32 ounces.
“How many ounces are your medium drinks?” I asked.
“Pardon me?” came the reply, sounding SUPER disinterested.
“I’d like a 32-ounce Diet Coke. How many ounces are your medium?”
“I don’t know. Let me check.”
So, I sat, and waited, and waited, while the kid on the other end of the squawk box went to find someone who knew which one of their three sizes was 32 ounces. I don’t know how long it was, but it was a while, because I literally saw the needle on my gas gauge moving down. I think maybe they had to call Corporate to find out. I pictured the place being staffed by those sloth characters at the DMV in “Zootopia.”
Finally, he came back. The large was 32 ounces. I ordered one and pulled forward to the window, where I paid and was handed the soda with a minimal exchange of words.
And as I drove away, I thought to myself, “For $20 an hour, shouldn’t we raise the bar, a LITTLE?”
If you’re working the fast food job, making several dollars an hour more than the minimum wage for pretty much EVERY other job, maybe care enough to learn the answers to basic questions, like how many ounces the drinks are. After all, it’s not like we’re asking you to be able to make change. The machines do that, in their steady march toward making you obsolete.
You could also show a little enthusiasm for that $20 an hour, even if you’re faking it.
Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal.