I work at a drive-thru coffee shop, a national chain. I would say it’s a living, but it isn’t, since I just make minimum wage, but that’s supplemented some by the tips (and honestly the benefits are the real reason to work there). I used to work at a cafe and the tips there were good, but the drive thru tips sort of stink. I’m not sure why – I think some of it is that the speed of drive thru makes the kinds of customer connections that lead to tips hard to create, and because people aren’t trained to tip at other drive thru establishments – but since I started working at drive thru my weekly tips have really nose dived.
The way it works at my coffee shop is that everybody shares tips, and all the tips of the week are pooled and parceled out by hours; ie they count all the tips, divide that amount by the number of hours worked total, and that gives an hourly tip rate. Then you get that rate times your worked hours; ie, if the tips are worth $1 an hour and you worked 20 hours, you get 20 bucks.
It’s not a lot, but it’s spending money. I saved up about six months worth of tips and used it to finance a trip to Las Vegas for the big Star Trek convention this summer, and it was a delight. Sometimes I use the tip money to buy food, or to get a record. It’s a small sum that feels extra and brightens the week.
Anyway, today I was working the window at drive thru and as I was handing off drinks to customers I saw a reflection on their car. A human figure. In the drive thru. For whatever reason I take this really seriously – I feel like people could get seriously hurt fucking around in an active drive thru – and so I leaned my head out the window and said, “Sir, I’m sorry but you can’t walk in the drive thru. There’s a walk-up window on the other side of the building.”
It was a homeless guy. Very very homeless looking – ragged clothes, big puffy afro, only one shoe and that one torn to shreds. He looked rough, and his eyes were a little vacant. He kind of shuffled in place, twitching and scratching himself. It was hard to tell if the scratching was because he was dirty or because he was on drugs. Six of one, I figure.
He looked at me and I repeated myself and he said, “I want water.” Which was reasonable – it was in the 90s. I told him again he could go to the walk-up and we’d be glad to give him water. As the car I was serving pulled away, the guy walked slowly forward and then, suddenly, grabbed at the little plexiglass tip jar on the drive thru ledge. He was trying to take the whole thing, and I grabbed it, but then he dug his hand in and took a huge handful of bills. We hadn’t emptied the tip jar in a while, and it’s hard to say how much he got.
“Hey!” I yelled, really impotently and without any impact. I had this thought of jumping out the window and tackling the guy, but a) haha there’s literally no way I could jump out the window and b) it was maybe 20 bucks that he got. I watched him as he left, simply sauntering away, knowing I couldn’t go out and catch him.
I was mad. This was infuriating, and I was helpless. The way the guy sauntered off maybe infuriated me most of all, the casual ‘fuck you’ of it.
So here’s what happened next, none of which involves finding the guy, getting the money back or solving Los Angeles’ desperate homelessness problem.
I become very conscious of being mad, and how silly that was. This guy was homeless! He had one fucking shoe! Yes, it was uncool to steal from people earning minimum wage, but I always think when I see people complaining about the 1% how the complainers are, globally, in like the top 2 or 3%. Even as a poor barista I’m doing miles better than this guy.
But here’s the thing: I was still mad. As much as I knew that this guy was suffering and trying to get by, as much as I knew that the stolen money was an inconvenience to me while it could be meaningful to him (and yes, I too immediately started thinking he would spend it on drugs, but maybe he’ll spend it on food. And at any rate, even though I’m sober, who am I to judge someone without any shoes who wants to get high for a little while), I was really mad about the whole thing.
A year ago I might have gotten really upset with myself about being mad. After all, what holy person would get mad at a poor man who is forced to steal? The priest in Les Mis gives Jean Valjean all his silver, after all. But you know, I’m not a holy person. I’m a regular, dumb, fucked up person just trying to get by without causing more harm than I already have. And when something like this happens – something that makes me feel financially insecure (even in a small way) and that makes me feel ineffectual and helpless, I’m gonna get mad.
And that’s okay.
But the key was to not let the being mad run the show. I had to let the being mad just sort of pass through me, because I couldn’t take the being mad and bring it into my next interaction with a customer. That wouldn’t be fair, and it would make my day worse to hold on to the anger. So I let it go, and accepted it was there without clinging to it.
I also consciously kept in mind that this guy was in a desperate and bad mental state, whether or not he was on drugs. What’s the real distance between me and him? When I used to drink and use I would sometimes catch myself grumbling out loud while walking home from the bar, reciting my litany of resentments, having one-sided arguments with people who weren’t there. There’s a version of the last three years where, rather than clean up, I got worse and ended up on the streets, grumbling and cursing to myself. And god knows I’ve stolen enough, and that sometimes I’ve stolen while feeling very entitled to whatever I was taking. Knowing this lets me feel empathy for the guy – not sympathy, which is from a distance, but empathy, which is much more close up.
Hours later I still feel kind of mad. It’s interesting to look at what masculine things are wounded by a small incident like this – I’m weak because I couldn’t stop him, I’m weak because I didn’t run out and get him – and to look at where those dumb feelings come from. But more than that I’m trying to take that anger I feel and direct it elsewhere.
It’s fucked up that there’s a man on the streets with one shoe. It’s fucked up that he’s in a position where it seems good to him to steal from workers. It’s fucked up that we let this happen, as a society. It’s fucked up that this is something we all accept, that we allow other human beings to suffer on the streets, to get ill and starve, to sometimes die. I’ll direct my anger at the system that let this guy down.
And the helplessness I felt? I know how to deal with that – by being helpful. It’s been two months since I did food service for the homeless, and it’s high time that I organized another outing. I don’t know that I can ever help this guy in any meaningful way, but I can try to be of service to other people at least. I’ll take my helplessness and convert it into service.
This story isn’t a big deal. I didn’t have a huge perspective shift today, I didn’t solve anyone’s problems, nobody is all that much better off at the end of it. But it’s the little moments like this where the work gets done, where you get a chance to observe yourself in stress and anger and see that the work you’ve been doing pays off. It’s the little moments like this where you understand that you may never be free of the negative emotions, but you’re no longer a slave to them. It’s little moments like this where you get to make a choice in how you respond. Hopefully you have the ability to notice these little moments in your life, and to acknowledge the distance you’ve already traveled.