I make a pretty good egg cream, which, if you don’t know, is a mix of chocolate or vanilla syrup, milk and seltzer. The secret is how you mix them, but I won’t tell you how I do it, or I’ll lose my edge. It’s a trick I picked up when I worked at a New Jersey diner one summer, and I developed a reputation among the regulars as the go-to egg cream guy. Dubious distinction, I suppose, but we’ve all got to be proud of something.
One day that summer, a customer complimented John, the perpetually unsmiling owner, on my egg cream mastery. This fan must have thought he was doing me a favor, but John just nodded and moved on with the conversation. Later, John took me aside and berated me because, in his logic, “You can’t make something different than everyone else, because what if a customer comes in and you’re not there? It’s bad for business.”
That’s the sort of guy John was, bless his desiccated heart. When he was around, you couldn’t do anything right. Giving the customers extra straws — “bad for business,” carrying too many plates — “bad for business,” and so on. In three months I never heard him compliment anyone, but not a day passed without his criticism, delivered maliciously as if we, the waiters, busboys and cooks, were children.
I suppose, however, that whenever John did anything, in all his diner-owner wisdom, it must have been “good” for business — like when he lied to customers, telling them that we served fresh bread and not microwaved frozen loaves. Maybe he thought that criticizing everything I did was “good for business,” too.
But I had it easy — I think John quietly respected me, in his condescending way, because I listened to his rules and was a good waiter. Well, maybe not. But he respected me because he had to, because I’m a paid employee and I have rights, a leverage of sorts granted to me by law. The same was not true for the Salvadorians in the kitchen, and John made that pretty clear.
They were “mojados,” a slang Spanish term they used for themselves that translates roughly to “the wet ones” — illegal immigrants. They did not share the rights of citizens like me, and John made it pretty clear that he understood that. Forget rights; he acted as if they, as his employees, as Hispanics and as illegal immigrants, didn’t even deserve respect.
Take “Miguelito,” for instance. He was a multipurpose employee, part busboy and part janitor. We called him “Miguelito,” the diminutive Spanish form for “Michael,” because he was just a kid, about 17 years old. We cut him a lot of slack, because however hard life is for your average illegal immigrant, it’s that much harder for a kid barely old enough to finish school and who’s 10,000 miles away from his parents.
But John wasn’t as sympathetic to Miguelito as the waiters were. Once, when John was in the midst of explaining to me the “proper” way to make coffee — because what I was doing was “bad for business” — he spilled coffee grinds all over the floor. Angrily, he shoved the grind-holder at my chest and, pointing to Miguelito, said “you!” then pointed, just pointed, at the mess. He then stalked away, apparently too busy to apologize or help clean up.
On another occasion, around midday when there was little for him to do, John hovered over Miguelito for an hour while he unclogged a pipe, gesticulating and muttering about why things were taking so long. To add insult to his dismissive attitude, John cobbled together some Spanish words and blurted them at Miguelito, followed by a grotesque pantomime, as if the kid’s foreign, illegal immigrant brain were incapable of understanding anything but crude gestures. And Miguelito, who worked from 8 a.m. to midnight, fought back the tears when John turned away.
Now, I’m not a diner owner, just a lowly former employee. And I understand that a business owner has certain responsibilities: He has to meet overhead; he has to pay taxes; he has to make a profit; he has to provide a good product at a reasonable cost. He has to make enough money to pay for his home, food and for his children’s education. Those are important things. But unless I’m missing something, that can all be accomplished without making a kid like Miguelito cry.
The problem is that too often we are so blinded by our professional goals that we see others merely as a job description: waiter, busboy, accountant, driver or simply “employee.” We forget that behind the task at hand lies a person, a human being who has dignity even if his job is to clean up after us. Because whether it’s an egg cream specialist or a busboy or a dishwasher or a guy who sweeps the coffee grinds, everyone needs a little pride in his work. Legal or illegal, he deserves the dignity that comes with recognizing his contribution.
It might even be good for business.
Jonathan Panter is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at email@example.com. The Storyteller appears alternate Fridays this semester.