Enjoying Work, Whether Fast Food in Ventura or an Elevator on Wilshire

To Serve Man: Why Not a Little Fun?

The other day, I decided to eat breakfast at a local establishment familiar to everyone. Said establishment is familiar to my wife, too. I hope she doesn't read this because she will certainly ask me why I didn't eat a perfectly good breakfast at home, to which my only legitimate reply would be our breakfast foods don't contain a fistful of salt with each serving. Now and again we all deserve a little additional spice, made spicier by sneaking around.

Just in case there was someone inside that might report to my wife, I conducted my purchase via the drive through.

A chipper voice welcomed me and took my order.

When I came to the window, the chipper voice proved to be a young man of maybe 18. Regarding me through round glasses, he smiled pleasantly, took my money, put it in the register, and turned to some paperwork by his side.

I watched him. It occurred to me that this could be a dangerous game, as a hungry customer can be a volatile customer. It would not surprise me to learn that customers have come through the window for less, although I have no doubt this particular fast food chain sizes not only their meals but their windows, then further ensures employee safety by supersizing their customers.

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But this young man sat silent and fearless. He remained ostensibly preoccupied with the paperwork by his side, although he did smile slightly.

Looking up, he gave me a perfectly innocent gaze.

"Well then," he said, "I suppose you'll want change."

Comedic pause and delivery were perfect. Jay Leno would have been proud.

With an owlish grin, he handed me my coins.

"Just having a little fun," he said.

A few yards down the line, I stuck my head out the window and called back, "Thanks for the sense of humor."

The owlish face, now attached to a craning neck, poked forth.

"My pleasure, sir. That's what I try to do with every customer. Add a little twist."

I ate my breakfast out of the bag, pulled into the driveway, popped a breath mint in my mouth and walked into the house, the day a little brighter.

I like people, but working with them can sometimes be a difficult matter. In my teens and twenties, I worked as an ocean lifeguard, and while it was true that many beach goers exhibited passable swimming skills and common sense, it was also true that a healthy number strove gleefully to kill themselves in every manner possible. At the end of some days, I wanted to do it for them.

I also worked for a time as a clerk for Big 5 Sporting Goods. Once management figured out I knew nothing about guns or skis, they dispatched me to shoes. Eight hours working in a Big 5 shoe department (they offer more red light specials than Amsterdam) teaches you much about people. Many were polite. Many were not. I was raised to be a conscientious worker, but I confess there were times I sat in the back with my head in my hands. Oh yes; a few customers, I certainly wanted to add a twist to their day. Starting with my hands around their neck. It is my belief that everyone should work at least one service job. We should all walk a mile to procure eighteen boxes of shoes for a woman who makes Finishing School pointless.

Faced with an endless procession of faces, it is easy to become an automaton. I have been waited on by my share of robots, as I'm sure you have, too, and I will tell you that I do not blame them. Switching off is the easy out. Let the people, and the hours, pass as quickly as possible.

But there are exceptions to this rule. Perhaps you know one of them. People who choose not to shut down, people who choose not to let the day waste away. In my hometown of Ventura they have names like Jackie, Eric, Jeanine, and Nit, and every time I see them they banter with me in a lively manner and maybe, if there's time, we talk a little about our lives or something taking place in the world, and when I leave their place of employ my step is just a bit lighter.

I am inspired by them all. In fact, I keep a folder of clippings about these people. The tab is titled simply "Special People." The clippings are mostly from newspapers and magazines. The folder has filled over the years. There are a lot of special people.

I'll provide one example, pulled at random (for that is only fitting), from the tangle of clippings. When I first read about him, Ruben Pardo had been operating one of the last manual elevators in Los Angeles for 35 years, six days a week, the same 6 by 8-foot car up and down the same 11 stories at the Wilshire Tower. Eleven hour days during the week. Nine hours on Saturday. The workers coming and going, occupied with their own thoughts, their own lives, until they stepped into Pardo's elevator.

"Hello, Victor! Hello, James! How are you, Sami? Nice to see you!"

"How's life, Mr. Pardo?"

"Ah, it has its ups and downs."

Every up and down, Ruben Pardo worked the levers to halt the elevator perfectly level at each floor before bidding his riders a cheery goodbye. In the newspaper article, he tells the reporter he loves his work so much he rarely takes a vacation.

"Can you imagine," he says, "not working for 11 hours and getting paid?"

This particular article was written three years ago. I don't know if Mr. Pardo is still brightening everyone's day. Perhaps if you find yourself passing 5514 Wilshire Boulevard you can pop in and see. If he is still there, please tell him he has inspired folks he will never meet.

I can still see the cashier's face clear as these words, the coke bottle glasses, the Oscar winning deadpan, and then, slooooooowly, the mischievous smile. A small thing, maybe.

Any job can turn you into an automaton. Any life.

This is a grievous mistake.

Next chance I get, I'm adding a little twist.

About the Author

Ken McAlpine’s latest book “Together We Jump” was praised by Sunset Magazine as “lyrical, evocative and deeply moving…a luminous American novel.” He is based in Ventura, California.
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