“I’m sorry, we don’t have any side orders of toast.”

Waitress: I’m sorry, we don’t have any side orders of toast. I can bring you an english muffin or a coffee roll.
Bobby: What do you mean you don’t make side orders of toast? You make sandwiches, don’t you?
Waitress: Would you like to talk to the manager?
Bobby: You’ve got bread and a toaster of some kind?
Waitress: I don’t make the rules.

That is from the diner scene with Jack Nicholson in the movie Five Easy Pieces. All he wants is some toast. The waitress refuses because it’s not on the menu… and, well, there is the management-mandated rule: No substitutions! It leads to what in the movie is great comedy but in real life would be frustration for all involved. In my employment as a city parking ramp cashier, I suspect that some customers think of me in the way this waitress is portrayed. But from my perspective, I’m simply some schmuck doing my job, just following orders of management and city policy. And yet many people don’t understand why I can’t simply do what they tell me to do (e.g., not charge them $23 for a lost ticket because, after all, they assure me they were only parked for an hour).

I give them the official set of options and they don’t like any of them. This makes them unhappy and sometimes quite upset. A few of them start yelling and have tantrums. If there was a bunch of glasses to knock to the floor, they would be so inclined. Telling them, in a calm but stern voice, that they can talk to management rarely appeases them. As the person in front of them with the immense power to open or not open a gate, they see me as the ultimate authority figure who stands in the way of their being able to leave, the bad guy who is denying justice and common decency and who is refusing to do what obviously makes sense. I get it. Life sucks. And my blank face, after dealing with customers all day, probably comes across as unfeeling an unsympathetic, maybe cruelly indifferent and hardhearted. I’m the enemy, the ‘Man’, the ‘good Nazi’. Their entire fate rests in my hands.

We live in a world of rules, sometimes meaningless rules. And then there are those whose job it is to follow and enforce those rules. This is what we call ‘civilization’. Without it, we’d become savages and society would collapse into chaos! Who am I to defy all of civilization? As a mere peon, what is a bureaucratic functionary to do? It’s not just about the ‘toast’. It’s about the principle. There are ways things must be done because that is the way things are done because someone said so, someone above both of us. It’s the order of things. And if I don’t comply with the system, I’ll be fired and some other schmuck would be hired to replace me. The system itself will continue on. You’re still not going to get your side order of toast. I’m sorry about that.

Besides, look at it from the other side. This scene is from a movie script written for Hollywood. This was no small production. Jack Nicholson at the time already had 18 movies under his belt. And this wasn’t the first movie by either Carole Eastman (as Adrien Joyce) and Bob Rafelson who co-write the screenplay, specifically that scene. They weren’t poor nobodies struggling in the world. Imagine you are an impoverished and struggling waitress with a bunch of kids at home, a husband who left you, and bill collectors who keep calling. You work long hours at multiple jobs while going home to clean, cook, and hopefully find some time to sleep. Then a pompous Hollywood big shot comes into the diner where you work demanding toast, but the owner or manager has rules about no side orders of toast nor substitutions.

You don’t know why your boss makes up stupid rules. All you know is your boss, an middle class white guy, likes to yell at you and would be glad to fire you in an instant if you don’t do what he tells you to do. If you lose this job, you won’t be able to pay the bills or feed your kids and the threat of homelessness might be very much real. Or even if your financial situation isn’t that extreme, you’re simply overworked and underpaid, you’re tired and stressed. You have very little energy left over to deal with people making your life even more difficult.

Now tell me this. How would you feel toward some asshole acting like Jack Nicholson in this scene? This customer is another white male who has no clue what your life is like and who thinks its is his right and privilege to boss you around and tell you what to do, to harass and intimidate you. Guess what? Fuck such assholes! Leave the goddamn waitress alone. Order your fucking meal and, if all you want is the toast, then throw the rest away. Or if you don’t like the rules, just quietly go away. Don’t go away mad. Just go away. Don’t turn the situation into melodrama to feed your ego. Yes, the world sucks, but you aren’t the center of the world. Life is hard for others as well, quite likely far harder for others than you might imagine. Be kind. Be compassionate. Or failing that, keep it to yourself. Don’t add to the suffering of others in a false crusade of self-righteousness.

* * *

Bobby: I’d like a plain omelet, no potatoes – tomatoes instead, a cup of coffee and toast.
Waitress: No substitutions.
Bobby: What do you mean, you don’t have any tomatoes?
Waitress: Only what’s on the menu. You can have a #2 – a plain omelet, comes with cottage fries and rolls.
Bobby: Yeah, I know what it comes with, but it’s not what I want.
Waitress: I’ll come back when you make up your mind.
Bobby: Wait a minute, I have made up my mind. I’d like a plain omelet, no potatoes on the plate, a cup of coffee and a side order of wheat toast.
Waitress: I’m sorry, we don’t have any side orders of toast. I can bring you an english muffin or a coffee roll.
Bobby: What do you mean you don’t make side orders of toast? You make sandwiches, don’t you?
Waitress: Would you like to talk to the manager?
Bobby: You’ve got bread and a toaster of some kind?
Waitress: I don’t make the rules.
Bobby: Okay, I’ll make it as easy for you as I can. I’d like an omelet, plain, and a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast, no mayonnaise, no butter, no lettuce and a cup of coffee. 
Waitress: A #2, chicken salad sand. Hold the butter, the lettuce, the mayonnaise, and a cup of coffee. Anything else?
Bobby: Yeah, now all you have to do is hold the chicken, bring me the toast, give me a check for the chicken salad sandwich, and you haven’t broken any rules.
Waitress: You want me to hold the chicken, huh?
Bobby: I want you to hold it between your knees.

4 thoughts on ““I’m sorry, we don’t have any side orders of toast.”

    • Instead of being a cog in the machine, I could sacrifice myself by becoming a monkey wrench to be thrown into the works. I’d be ground up and spit out. After that impotent act of defiance, I could get some worse kind of work, such as going back to being an impoverished janitor. Or if I remained recalcitrant toward all systems of authority, I could end up homeless or maybe institutionalized.

      Derrick Jensen, a radical critic of civilization, wrote about the time he decided he would never again work for someone else as a clock-puncher. When fresh out of college, he was sitting in an office staring at a clock, waiting for it to get to the end of his shift. He realized he was selling away his life, hour by hour. So, he thumbed his nose at those petty managers of humanity and he quit that mindless, soul-sucking drudge work. Then he became a famous writer and speaker who presumably now makes good money. Such an easy solution. Why didn’t I think of that?

      I recall something from back when I was much younger, around my late teens. I was in an office reception area. The secretary looked quite unhappy, probably stressed and overworked and underpaid. I thought to myself that why would anyone work a job they hated. Why not just get a different job? Oh, how naive I was. Then I became a ‘realistic’ adult who had to pay rent and pay the bills. I’ve since worked many crappy jobs that I hated, although my present occupation is fairly decent, as I’m a unionized bureaucratic functionary (the worse kind!).

      It brings to mind yet another memory from around that time of life. One of my uncles was visiting and he has a massive belly. My brother and I were talking, and we both agreed that we wouldn’t get fat when we were older. Then I got older and got fat, not morbidly obese but more weight than was necessary in being 60 lbs in excess. Life has a way of humbling us and occasionally that leads to self-awareness… or else it leads to jaded cynicism. I try to avoid the latter.

      • It’s a rotten situation. We’re hardly the first (per Jack in Five Easy Pieces and so many others) to be confronted by the soulless Borg system.

        “Plastics” as the adult goon says to Hoffman in The Graduate.

        Have had essentially nothing but lousy jobs one after the other.

        Low pay relative to cost of living, grinding commutes, crazed supervisors, crazed coworkers and crazed landlords and psychotic roommates – it’s awful.

        The ugly truth is the exploitation is not a bug but a feature of the system.

        Poverty (relative poverty) by design.

        And for those who think…stress and or existential doom.

        “Hard to be a saint in the city” – not that I’m aiming for sainthood.

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