I don’t go shopping on Black Friday, not because I’m a virtuous person, but because it’s the one day when I get to wag my finger self-righteously at the concept of responsible consumerism, i.e. things like doing your homework, writing lists, making plans, comparing prices, and making responsible adult decisions, basically all the things I’ve always sucked at which the girls in my middle school class with the color-coded binders were always so good at. But there’s nothing virtuous about my refusal to take part in Black Friday. I was reminded of that yesterday evening when my family was hungry and we didn’t want to eat the leftovers from the Thanksgiving meal we had for lunch. So we went to IHOP, which destroyed its employees’ Thanskgiving holiday because they knew that consumers like me would make it worth their while. Except they didn’t want to pay holiday pay to too many workers, so they gambled by using only a skeleton crew, not expecting the place to get swamped by families bored with their turkey lunches. So we all waited and looked around to see if the other tables were getting their food. They weren’t either. And the Guyton family left IHOP one hour and fifteen minutes after arriving, having received a grand total of two ice water refills and no food.
Capitalism always outsources accountability for its failures to the lowest people on its food-chain: servers, clerks, that tech support guy named “John” from Bangladesh. When about twenty minutes had passed after we put our food order in tonight, I started getting really angry at our server. Even though I had guzzled my straw very loudly, she had swept right past our table without offering a refill. So the next time she came by, I yelled as loudly as I could, “Could I PLEASE have some water?” She grabbed my glass without breaking her stride and came straight back with a full one and immediately turned around and went back into the kitchen.
And then I realized what a jerk I was. Who had she given up her Thanksgiving meal with to scramble around sloshing ice water for angry customers like me? So I decided I was going to give her a twenty percent tip no matter what, because here she was working on Thanksgiving and she was probably exhausted. That would be my statement of Christian grace. But then I thought about the Boundaries book I’ve been reading. What if she really was being lazy and irresponsible? Wouldn’t it be a betrayal of my faithful role as a customer and an act of enabling an unhealthy family system to overtip her in a way that was incommensurate with her performance?
And then it hit me how impossible it is to assign blame in these circumstances with any integrity. There was absolutely no way for me to know whether it was the server’s fault for neglecting us or the cook’s fault for not being able to multitask under a rush of orders or the manager’s fault for understaffing. But so many consumers like me in our capitalist system have no problem taking our frustration out on the server, the clerk, or tech support. I wonder how much rage is simmering constantly under the surface for middle-class people like me who see out of the corner of our eyes that everything is falling apart, and we need some scapegoat to crucify for the thousands of nickle and dime fissures in our world where technology has never broken so easily and obsoleted itself so quickly, where airplane flights are never not overbooked, where restaurants are not only open on supposedly family-oriented holidays but as understaffed as they can possibly get away with so that you get punished for patronizing them.But the problem is that I’m the problem. I behave exactly the way the marketing executives expect me to behave. I will go back to IHOP even though its management screwed over the staff and customers last night by under-staffing its store in Sulphur Springs, Texas, and probably a lot of other places too. I will go back anyway, because my youngest son will want the funny face chocolate chip pancake that IHOP used to market to him.
In the same way, even though Amazon has screwed me over before, I will never stop being their slave. I don’t have time to go looking all over town for gadgets anymore like I had to do in the nineties. So I go on Amazon and click free two-day shipping. It’s so easy. I’m part of a giant tidal wave that can’t be stopped, destroying local businesses all over the world every time I click my mouse. Resistance is futile. And even though I hate chain restaurants, when I’m hungry and it’s a holiday, I will go to whatever place the neon lights are on and there are cars in the parking lot. Even a place as disgustingly generic as IHOP.
I don’t exactly have an epiphany that will tie this all together into a little bow. I know very generally what I need to do. I need to live with intentionality. I need to deliberately support local business. How did I learn to feel so easily overwhelmed and exhausted? Why does it feel like such a daunting task that I don’t even want to try? I want to claim that I’ll try my best, but I know that the only way I successfully boycott Walmart is by going to Target. I can’t boycott both Walmart and Target at the same time. I realize I probably should boycott Amazon, which makes Walmart’s scorched earth decimation of mom and pop general stores look like small potatoes. Scratch that. I should DEFINITELY boycott Amazon. But I won’t. Because then I would have to figure out when to budget the extra hours I would need to run around to brick and mortar stores for my supplies. I’m a complete slave to convenience.
I know that this isn’t enough, but the place I want to start is by not being a jerk to the service industry folks I interact with and to treat them like real human beings. Of course, I imagine every other middle-class consumer has similar good intentions when we’re not in the heat of the moment. What does it even mean to treat someone like a real human being? Is that even possible in a chain restaurant like IHOP?