Incident at Burger King

TUESDAY — Beginning at noon, I sorted fish. Usually I sit on Telegraph and sell the fish, and sometimes I sit in my kitchen and make the fish, scissoring them out of fish-pre-printed mylar sheets. Today I sorted through many thousands of fish, counting them and sorting them into bins of fish, because Jay wanted an inventory.

After about six hours of counting and sorting there were 31 piles of fish, including a few that had been discontinued months ago. Then I phoned Jay with the tallies, and at her instruction, began scissoring and re-stocking the fishies we were low on.

Sorting, counting, bagging, binning, and then a few hours of scissoring left the fish in tidy, well-organized piles, but my brain was fished out.

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Had a cup of ramen for dinner, and a few slices of bread and butter, a meal so mild it couldn't possible disagree with me. Everything has for weeks, so I wanted to take no chances.

For dessert, two vitamin C's, two multi-vits, and two illegal antibiotics, and then I puked everything up. I'm hoping it was just the pills fighting each other, because other than the barfing I felt not bad all day.

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WEDNESDAY — "Fuck off," was the first thing Mabel said when she swung open the door. "You're not working for me today, or ever. You son of a bitch. You're worse than my own kids. You could at least flush the toilet. When I flushed your huge shit the whole bathroom was floating in it, and I don't pay people to shit all over my house…"

And on and on, and then she started coughing, with a hacking wheeze she hadn't had a few days ago. Whatever she's got I hope she caught it from me.

Her hollering trailed away as I walked down the street. I'm out the price of a BART round trip, $4 or so, but it was worth at least $3.50 to see the funny fury on her face, and to never have to set foot in her messy house again.

The toilet overflowing wasn't worth arguing about, so I didn't even tell her it wasn't my shit she'd waded through. My piss, yes, and my vomit too, but the toilet had been full of shit and piss before I got there on Monday night. I hadn't flushed because anyone could see it was going to overflow.

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Per Mabel's instructions, I'd arrived early, so there was time to catch a discount matinee. I'd been wanting to see Dead Man Walking, so I BARTed to 12th Street, then walked to Jack London Square.

It's a weepy prison melodrama that humanizes the issues of capital punishment. It's not against the death penalty and it's not for it, doesn't seem to have an opinion one way or the other, but it's fairly fair, and simply addressing a controversial issue makes Dead Man Walking a towering achievement in American cinema, so I'll recommend it, with reservations. Lots of reservations.

The killer on death row only develops a conscience and almost a man's worth of humility when he knows he's going to die, so maybe the movie's point is that fear of execution leads to redemption? If so, that's putrid. 

And Bruce Springsteen's dull, not quite musical theme song, with lyrics that rhyme "dead man walkin'" with "dead man talkin'" — brilliant, Bruce — was nominated for an Oscar? Springsteen is overrated, but usually he's better that that. The song sounds like a dead man singin'.

Tim Robbins wrote and directed, and he's lucky to have his leading lady, Susan Sarandon, starring, but another Robbins wrote the (weak) score, and another Robbins directed the (annoying and unnecessary) choir, and more people named Robbins than I could count scrolled by in the closing credits. Everyone in the family gets an AFTRA card and maybe residuals. 

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After the movie, I stopped for a fish sammich at Burger King, because I have an appetite for the first time since February, and because a nice reader sent a coupon for a free meal (thanks, Sandy — the next zine's my treat). 

After ordering, I did the thing where you stand waiting for your number to be called. It was a great wait, though.

A cashier said, "28," and a young black woman stepped up to the counter. Without a word, the cashier put a sack of food on the counter in front of her, and the woman asked somewhat brusquely, "Are my fries in here?"

The worker stopped but didn't answer. Instead she pushed the bag a little closer to the customer, then turned away and walked back to her register.

The customer screamed, "Don't you throw my food at me!" Actually, she said, "Doan you chrow mah food ah me," and I was briefly perplexed at the verh 'chrow', but the scene devolved quickly into something so ugly there were not further thoughts of linguistics.

"I didn't throw your food," the cashier yelled just as loudly, twice, and that's true. She'd nudged the sack toward the customer, but certainly hadn't chrown it.

Then came the customer's barrage of "You chrew my food, bitch!" and "Give me a refund!" and "I'll be waiting when you're off work!" It was highly entertaining, and when someone called my number, "31," I got my food and took a seat close enough to enjoy the floor show.

The woman kept screaming, and soon the cashier, in tears, fled to the back room. The manager came up front to quiet or placate the customer, but this was a woman who wouldn't be calmed.

"I want my food replaced," she demanded, "and my money back, and I want you to fire that bitch right now, and then when she leaves I'm gonna kick her ass!" Kicking ass was a recurring theme in all of the woman's ranting.

The entire lunch crowd was mesmerized — fifty blank faces watching, but none of us intervening. What, am I gonna do something? No, I am not.

The woman kept screaming threats and demands and obscenities at the manager, while I finished my fine fishwich, and as I nibbled the last few fries he finally gave up and walked away, asking another employee to call 9-1-1. 

As he manager walked toward the back room, the customer followed him, lifting the gateway through the counter, walking back behind the cash registers. There's no sign that says "Employees only," but it's universally understood, except by that furious customer.

The manager stopped and looked at her and sorta cringed, his body bending a little, like he was actually afraid. His face was flushed, and he seemed unsure what to do. Maybe no customer had ever lifted and walked through the gateway before.

A big male employee — also black (in fact, everyone's black in this story, except me and the manager) — came out from the kitchen, put his arms up passively, and softly nudged the furious woman back toward the lobby.

The manager, in fine management mode, only stood and watched, slightly shaking. By the time the big guy had cajoled the woman, still belligerent, back to the customer area, this farce had been going on for ten minutes, maybe longer, but burgers were still being ordered and fried and fed to the audience.

The cashier from the top of the story came back. She'd obviously been crying, but the manager told her to go back to her station, so she stepped to her register and said, "Can I help you?" to the next hungry loser in line.

The angry woman was still in the lobby, though, still ranting, and she came toward the cashier, leaned across the counter, and popped her in the face. She wasn't hurt — it was a weenie punch — but the cashier started bawling again, and ran away.

The manager came up, finally out of his funk, I thought — OK, he's going to throw her out. It's about time, and this ought to be fun. I sipped on my Diet Coke, chewing the ice.

But he didn't throw her out, didn't even ask her to leave. He gave her back her money, as she'd been screaming-demanding, and handed her a fresh sack of replacement food, which she'd also demanded.

What a frickin' putz. What a fine manager. And of course, the woman continued hollering, demanding again that "You gotta fire that bitch!" and promising she'd be waiting to kick the cashier's ass when she left.

Then the police showed up, and the woman was suddenly quiet for the first time since the cashier had nudged her sack of food toward her.

The manager and the woman both talked to the two policemen, but the cashier said, "I don't talk to cops," and disappeared into the back room to cry some more.

Nobody was arrested, and the crazed customer went home with her sack of replacement food plus her refunded money. Heck, she might've still had her original sack of food, too — I'm not sure what happened to it. 

Here's my review: The fishwich was lukewarm, the lettuce was wilted, and the fries were hot but too salty. The customer was out of her mind. Someone who takes surly service at a fast-food dive so personally, is someone who's looking for an excuse to be furious.

The cashier shouldn't have chrown the food. It was rude, but also it was nothing by the standards of American rudeness. And the cashier won me over when she refused to talk to the police.

The manager was awful. At no time did he offer any support, encouragement, or defense for his employee. He ordered her to return to a physically dangerous situation, leading directly to her assault. That bossman has a fine career ahead of him in Corporate America.

And the police? They were mellow peacemakers, exactly what wasn't called for. Witnesses told them about the woman's behavior, that she'd punched the cashier, and about her ten minutes of repeated threats. That woman must've promised fifty times to kick the cashier's ass, including twice as the policemen watched, before she saw them. But they let a violent, threatening, and inarguably crazy woman walk away without so much as scolding her.

Now, I suppose some support-your-local-police ninny will write to tell me that I'd condemn the cops no matter what they did, but that's bull. Usually I criticize cops for their usual crimes — rousting the homeless, routine brutality and racism, enforcing stupid laws against victimless crimes, and their general attitude of omnipotence, etc — but this was a situation where you could argue that society needs police. That woman should've been arrested, but the "protect and serve" cops didn't even give her a talking-to.

"Have a nice day," one of them said to her, as she walked out the door.

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Well, gosh, I enjoyed the afternoon's double feature — Dead Man Walking and Incident at Burger King — so much that I decided to catch another double feature back in Berkeley. Wednesdays are noir nights at the UC, so I stopped at home to pack snacks in my backpack, and walked to the 7:00 show. 

Touch of Evil (1958) is a sweaty film directed by Orson Welles, who plays a sweaty, pompous, pushy, and prejudiced police chief investigating a murder at the US/Mexican border. Welles is great. Welles is always great.

Charlton Heston wears a pasted-on mustache and presto, he's supposed to be Mexican. It was a different time, yeah, but it's always clumsy when old movies try to address racial issues, with white actors playing the oppressed minorities. Ah, well. If you can get past that, Heston is actually pretty good in the role.

Marlene Dietrich runs the local whorehouse, Zsa Zsa Gabor plays a floozy, Dennis Weaver has a kooky bit as the hotel manager, and it adds up to a movie well worth seeing. It's a drama with a point, reflected in one of its better lines: "A policeman's job is only easy in a police state." Remember that, next time you're counting the cops at Dunkin' Donuts.

The Crimson Kimono (1959) also addresses racial issues, not as successfully, but at least it has James Shigeta as a Japanese-American. Charlton Heston must've been unavailable. 

Shigeta and his partner and friend, a white cop, investigate a murder where the clues lead to LA's Little Tokyo. Screwball characters say things like, "Love does much, but bourbon does everything," and it's watchable, but the mystery is obvious, almost silly, and the romantic angle is shot through the heart by cardboard acting from everyone who isn't Shigeta. 

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Then I came home feeling pretty good, not sick at all. Am I all better? It's about frickin' time.

From Pathetic Life #22
Tuesday & Wednesday,
March 12-13, 1996

This is an entry retyped from an on-paper zine I wrote many years ago, called Pathetic Life. The opinions stated were my opinions then, but might not be my opinions now. Also, I said and did some disgusting things, so parental guidance is advised.


  1. Uh, Doug, every Burger King customer should know that they don't fry their hamburgers, they FLAME BROIL them! I expect greater expertise of fast food methods from you, sir.

    The awful person who got her money back reminds me of so many poor black women I observed growing up. When I was young, I was appalled, but as I've grown older and seen more of the world, it's just that these poor black women have few chances to take out their frustrations with the world and get over on others. Rich white guys may or may not take advantage of situations like this but probably don't because they know they get to screw everyone over in much bigger and profound ways all the time. Just look at all the fun Kavanaugh, Gorsuch, Alito, Roberts and Thomas have been having recently screwing over every woman in the country. All with the help of that Christian Stepford Wife Comey Barrrett in tow. -- Arden

    1. Well, I knew better, even then. Worked at BK for a while in the mid-1980s.

      "Flame-broiled" is an advertising line, of course. They push the raw meat on a chain conveyor belt over heating elements, and the grease tends to burst into flames as it drips off the patties. Not sure I'd call that "flame broiled" with a straight face, but it's also definitely not fried. The woman didn't seem to be versed on such fine points, though.

      Your assessment of the racial dynamics seems brilliant and exactly right.


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