Every American, at some point, should have to work a customer service job. I think it should probably happen before they work anywhere else, or decide too much about themselves or other people. Maybe I‘m just trying to validate my experience by mandating it, because in the summer after my freshman year at Calvin, I worked at the Chipotle Mexican Grill on 28th Street.
I was eighteen. I came to the interview ready to stretch any employable skill I’d gleaned from, I guess, babysitting and lawn mowing. Instead, we talked about movies. Every single person working took turns meeting me. I later learned, when I was part of this speed-date-screen myself, that since pretty much anyone can be taught to do the job, they’re only really looking for likable team players. If a single team member says they’re not feeling it, the interviewee is gone. So getting in felt good, like a dozen swipe-rights at once.
The job felt like a sport: ritualistic, draining, and cooperative. I remember peeling onions into a trashcan long into the night with my favorite coworker, Leah, as she stretched out the story of meeting her husband. I remember the retreat of power-washing dishes in the basin in the back, tucked away from a line out the door, refreshing supplies. I remember standing at the tortilla press at meal “peak,” as twice a day, panic mellowed into a resolve to evenly handle one customer at a time. (The panic returned some nights, with running-in-water-style nightmares of infinite, impatient customers. This was another unifying experience among the team, dubbed “burrito dreams.”)
But more than anything, I remember the dance of frying bucket upon bucket of those addictive chips every morning—salting, lime-juicing, tossing a dish of hot tortilla while the next scoop simmered in the oil basket. Dump, scoop, fry, repeat, the choreography quickening, every morning from 7 a.m. to open. Everyone agreed I made the best chips!
Chipotle’s website asserts “a tradition of mentorship and promoting management from within.” Chipotle crews pride themselves on this: my manager, Moses, had necessarily started at the same position I was in, frying chips every morning and scrubbing the tortilla press with steel wool every night. The fact that he’d immigrated from Nicaragua made his story all the more inspiring to the higher-ups who recounted it to me.
(This equal entry bred camaraderie between crew members, and the advancement prospects bred respect for those who’d ascended to cashiers, grill cooks, and assistant managers. But it also invented a resentment toward any non-restaurant employees, such as the Midwest-regional manager who regularly visited to interview random samples of us with a bureaucratic friendliness and brand-loyal pep. He also hit on the younger women. My comrades made sure to mention that he’d been hired in.)
This ladder was held steady and open for me too. My job was always described in context of a career. The summer passed. I memorized the protocol sheets. I migrated down the line from “Hi, what can I get started for you?” to “You know guac is extra?” In late August, my manager asked if I would like to finally be trained as a cashier. I reminded her of the stubborn departure date I’d begun with just a few months earlier, and we decided it wasn’t worth the investment.
The constant suggestion of Chipotle as a viable career path got propped up against everyone’s understanding that I was a young college student who’d simply landed a summer job. I felt guilty, but not for anything I’d done—I just didn’t want to work while I was going to school. I didn’t have to.
(It’s probably worth mentioning that the next summer, I found myself in a lucrative and promising internship in my professional field. It was, coincidentally, a job that made me miserable.)
Calvin’s core curriculum assures you graduate with an understanding of (and probably, an enlightened disdain for) the myth of the American Dream: when anyone can get anywhere by working hard and being ambiguously good, those who are in a situation no one could possibly want must not work hard and must be not good. This is gross for a million sociological reasons, but just mathematically, not everyone can advance. Undesirable things need to get done. In (my) American subconscious, these jobs are for those without other options: the young and promising, limited for now by inexperience, or the old, limited by their own irresponsibility, of course. In a vacuum-fair vision (forget exploitation, privilege, generational wealth…), it’s not that having a prestigious career is admirable—rather, a prestigious career is a necessary consequence of being admirable.
At the same time, I wonder how dependent, hour by hour, movement by movement, urban society is upon jobs we’ve deemed transitional at best, despicable at worst. (I wonder if this is what we really negotiate about when we negotiate the minimum wage, with economic arguments reverse-engineered to justify what we’ve already decided to believe about what a person has earned, given inherited values, dangerously linked to righteousness.)
And I wonder if this is why some customers feel no embarrassment getting dramatic (or worse) when their burrito rips, be it in the hands of an art school dropout or a mother of four who practiced law in her home country. This is the sneeze guard glass I think every person should have to be on both sides of.
In any case, I’m glad to have been included, at least for a period of expected turnover, in a cohort of people who had each other’s backs. They worked hard to be able to cut each other slack, and stuck together as friends, even some as housemates, even some in relationships, no matter if out of loyalty, sincerity, necessity, obligation… I’m also thankful, in a more shameful sense, that I got to leave when I planned to.
Here’s, at least, a testament to the food: I probably ate an average of two burritos per day that summer and I haven’t gotten sick of my usual. I still love to go. It took until last fall, three years, marked by other jobs I’ve hated and loved, to not recognize anyone working on the line for the first time. I’m not sure if that distance makes me happy or not.
This week marks one year at my current job. It’s the longest I’ve liked working anywhere, and I’m not trying to pass through. I think my official title is a little goofy though: “Creative,” an adjective-made-noun to signal that I’m paid to solve problems and dress things up with design savvy.
But one of my favorite tasks is outside that description: first thing every morning, I make a big pot of coffee for the office. I love the brief dance of scooping beans into the grinder, pouring the water, dumping yesterday’s caked filter and inserting a new one. It’s an unchanging chore and a ritual comfort. It’s a reorientation each morning as duties, abilities, and seasons change, as if I can imagine my future, project-planned week by week, diagrammed as a ladder and magneted to the meat fridge.