Happy Meals

I am working as a grill cook in a local diner. A television sits on the counter of the 1950’s-style restaurant, and I’m listening to a news broadcast on the FOX channel as I flip burgers and mix milkshakes. The customers sitting at tables near the television set nod in approval as they devour ëfair and balanced’ news, eat good food, and sip cold drinks. Happy meals.

I bite my tongue as my customers chew cheeseburgers. My political views are not on the menu.

My workday at the diner is similar to a session on the Internet reading web sites like FreeRepublic.com and the DrudgeReport.com. Except for the sound effects (burping and slurping) and the enraptured facial expressions, I get the same opinions and arguments from reading words flickering across my computer screen as I get when my customers speak their minds at the diner. I do not respond to either irritant.

It is not in my job description to tell customers that their facts can be challenged, or that believing what they hear on FOX News is akin to believing that the sound of a balloon popping is a potential – code yellow – terrorist threat. When the squawking gets loud in FOX’s henhouse, I turn my back and scrape crud off the grill. Yet, for the same reason that I read screeds on the Internet, I listen carefully to what my customers are saying as they express their opinions. This old habit is part my job description: I am also a reporter.
* * *

“Mikulski should be dead,” says an older man as he orders a burger and fries. He is a U.S. Navy veteran, walks with a cane, and has thin white hair and a thick Baltimore accent. He obviously dislikes the junior Senator from Maryland, Barbara Mikulski.

“Why?” I ask.

“She’s a liberal,” snaps the elderly man. “All liberals should die.”

I cook food for my customers, but I do not grill them. I don’t ask many questions. Queries are considered dissent, and dissent is not welcome. So, as a dutiful employee, I butter up the bread, and the diners, satisfying their hunger and their egos. I engage in very few arguments about politics and religion in America, preferring to listen, learning the unfiltered views of people like the Navy veteran. I just look at the man, notice his defiant eyes and, when I reply, I speak the truth.

“Okay,” I say. “Liberals are a little screwy”.

I begin to scrap furiously away at the already sparkling clean surface of the grill, wondering what the old man has in mind for those of us who believe that American liberals are too damned conservative.

Diners, like barrooms and barbershops, are where opinions are unedited, raw and emotional, and very conformist. They are ëchat rooms’ filled with real people needing conformation of their beliefs. The Navy veteran doesn’t want to hear a differing opinion, nor does he expect one from a cook in an out of the way country diner. I am just part of the scenery, like bartenders and barbers.
* * *

During the months I have worked at the diner, I’ve switched the television channel from FOX News to CNN, to MSNBC, to the local stations and, of course, to C-Span. Each network, and how they report the news, elicits a response – positive, mostly negative – from my customers. In fact, many of the conversations I’ve overheard in the diner are initiated by television talking heads. However, any original thoughts or nuanced meanings flitting through the minds of my customers usually get lost in a stew of slogans, headlines, and blatant propaganda.

When my customers regurgitate what they learn from television news programs and other media, I get indigestion. News is Food, and people are what they eat. Consumers can take the time and effort to find news and information of importance, or they can allow themselves to be enticed by blandishments from editors of television networks, newspapers, and radio stations shouting ‘see me, read me, hear me’ as stories are cooked up and served with a smile that really means ëeat me’.

Earlier on this blustery late winter day, a news reader on the FOX network was telling the story of a judge being shot to death by a prisoner making an appearance in a Georgia courtroom. After killing three more people, the gunman escaped. A manhunt was in progress in Atlanta. I looked up and glanced at the television screen. The face of the fugitive was being shown, a mug shot photograph prominently displayed, and appropriately menacing. The alleged killer is a black man.

“I figured it would be a n—-r,” said Ron. “They should shoot the son of a bitch when they catch him.”

Ron was sitting at the counter. He is a regular customer. Ron owns a liquor store in a small village about fifteen miles north of the diner, and visits every few weeks. A co-worker claims Ron carries large amounts of cash, and a small gun. A cigarette is always dangling from between his lips, and racist or sexist comments frequently spew forth from his mouth. However, it was the first time I’ve heard him use the N-word. I muttered an equally disgraceful obscenity – something about Ron’s resemblance to female genitalia – and walked off into the kitchen.

I did not challenge Ron’s ignorant, racist remark, but he realized that I did not want to listen to the rest of his tirade. He sneaked a furtive glance in my direction as I left the dining room. In the kitchen, I made a lot of clattering noise washing a few dirty dishes. I wanted to confront Ron with more than an expletive or spatula (as some of my readers would undoubtedly think appropriate). Instead of telling him off, though, or flattening him like a greasy burger on a hot grill, I decided to tell his story. I am a cook in a diner, but I am also a reporter.

Ron was still sitting at the counter when I re-entered the dining room. He got down off his stool, hitched up his ash-covered pants, and sauntered out the front door.

Eat me, Ron. I report, you deride.
* * *

Justin and Rob are carpenters. They labor hard at their jobs during the week, and spend the weekends partying harder on a mountaintop in West Virginia. After work, they eat dinner at the diner. Bacon cheeseburgers are their usual fare. Justin and Rob enjoy the food, knowing that the burgers are prepared with fresh meat in a clean kitchen. The burgers are made with beef.

“We can’t serve venison,” says my boss Mike in response to a question from Justin. “The meat has to be inspected by the USDA.”

Venison is deer meat, a specialty of licensed hunters – and poachers – with a taste for ‘gamey’ steaks and burgers, and a penchant for shooting animals in the wild.

“But,” added Mike, “if you eat venison instead of beef, you can avoid Mad Cow Disease. Your brain won’t turn to mush.”

“Hey,” I interrupt, speaking to my boss. “Eating venison might cause Mad Deer Disease.”

“Yeah,” retorts Rob, “but the only problem that’ll cause for humans is freezing when caught in a car’s headlights. Traffic at night could be a bitch.”

Ah, wonderful, I say to myself, another happy meal at the roadside diner, where the grill is always clean, the food delicious, and comedy competes with tragedy when customers have something to say other than “make mine to go, buddy.”

JAMES T. PHILLIPS can be reached at: jamestphillips@yahoo.com