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Oh, You Work Here Now?

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I have felt looked down upon many times in the various customer service jobs I have held over the years. I've often felt the need -- especially when unexpectedly reencountering former classmates -- to explain that my work at the mall/gym/concession stand was only temporary and that I was in fact studying/writing/traveling in my spare time, therefore proving that I had not fallen off the proverbial higher education bandwagon and still counted as an achieving member of society.

Looking back, I feel a bit ashamed of these hurried justifications of my social value. So, to cast a more insightful light on the world of mops and punch clocks, here are some of best, weirdest and thought-provoking experiences I've had while working in the service industry.

The Hydrogen Bomb

Well … technically, it was carbon dioxide.

When you go to a snack bar or fast food restaurant, you don't often think about how they make the soda (or pop, if you will). And why would you? When you buy soda at the store, it's already in bottles or cans. There's no assembly required. But at restaurants and snack bars, it works a bit differently. These drinks are assembled right when you order it. Carbon dioxide, water and soda syrup mix together as your cup is filled at the soda fountain, and most days it's a pretty effective system. However, if one of the three elements is missing -- say, carbon dioxide -- the machine stops working.

Fortunately, most kitchen instruments are fairly easily repaired and don't require an engineering degree, and I thought trying my hand replacing the carbon dioxide canister on the soda fountain would fall under that not-too-complicated category. Unfortunately, simple tasks become much more difficult when the instructions are in Japanese.

A coworker and I were in this situation during the lunch rush at the pool-side concession stand where I worked a few years back. We scrambled to the back room and got to work replacing the empty canister with a new one. However, having never before replaced one of these scuba-sized tanks and being illiterate in Japanese, we failed to wedge an apparently very important washer between the intake tube and the tank. This error prevented the carbon dioxide from reaching its intended destination, and instead resulted in something pretty similar to a Roadrunner vs. Wile E. Coyote routine.

Within seconds of turning on the soda fountain, the CO 2 canister decided to make its great escape, propelling itself with the leaking gas all around the back room. Screaming, my coworker and I jumped up and tackled the tank to the ground. Hearts pounding, we sealed the leak and reattached the tank to the soda machine with the metal washer in place. Afterward, we dissolved into hysterical laughter.

The canister fiasco, or The Hydrogen Bomb, as we called it, soon became one of our favorite personal jokes. Even today, I can't look at a soda fountain without smiling and tipping a mental hat to the workers who make that job look simple.

The Teen Philosopher

Working at the pool-side concession stand by my house was one of my favorite summer jobs. The work was gratifying and the people were extremely nice. On busy days at the pool, I was so busy assembling nachos and counting change that I hardly had a moment to think, which was nice in its own way. But on slow days, I could sit and read between visits from hungry customers.

One summer, I was preparing materials for a class on Heroism that I was helping lead as a T.A. for one of my professors. At the time, I had a narrow understanding of heroism that didn't extend much beyond the exploits of Grecian demigods, masked vigilantes, and rescuers of cats from trees. At school, I had a top notch library along with brilliant peers and educators as resources. At the concession stand, however, there were days when the most intellectual conversation I'd have was with the microwave.

Seemingly at a loss for human resources, I sought answers in the pages of books: The Odyssey , King Arthur , Harry Potter , anything I could get my hands on. One afternoon, I was sitting behind the lunch counter with my nose buried in The Lord of the Rings when a young voice chimed, "Which one are you reading?" Startled, I looked up and saw my teenage coworker trying to get a closer look at the cover of my book.

"Uh, the first one," I said.

A smile broke out on her face. "That's my favorite," she said.

At first I was surprised; I had previously pegged her as ditzy and not someone not likely to read The Lord of the Rings at all, much less have a favorite volume. I was never happier to be wrong, because her knowledge and enthusiasm presented me with an exciting opportunity. Returning her smile, I asked, "Who do you picture when you think of a hero?"

After a thoughtful moment's pause, she answered, "The people who went back during the Boston Marathon."

Reading the confusion on my face, she clarified, "You know, the runners from the Boston Marathon; the ones who were about to finish the race but turned around when they heard explosions to go help the people who got hurt. They could've kept running and won the race, but they chose to go back help the people they were racing against instead. They're real heroes."

Her answer rendered me speechless, not only because it proved that I had totally misjudged her character and intellect, but also because her perspective on heroism was positively inspiring. In addition to teaching me not to "judge a book by its cover," she opened my eyes to the incredible potential of every person, and she will always be my hero for that.

So the next time you stop by your local supermarket or go for a run at the gym, take a moment to consider the person behind the register. Don't assume that their uniform reflects anything but the jobs they are doing at that moment. They deserve respect for the hard work they do, and if you listen, you might learn something.


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