Immigrant Bengalis

What may be the best snack with my evening coffee? You bet - a ‘Small Fry’! Whether French or not, curly or straight, Russet or Idaho potato – I do not care. Deep-fried and lightly battered with herbs - the hot, crispy fries with a dash of salt and pepper will salivate me. Why only me? Every mortal craves for ‘French Fries’ but they blame others and say, “only Paul eats it”. They forget the old Chinese adage “You blame with one finger but three point at you”! They feel guilty and lie!

Ye, Ye - I know! ‘Fast Food’, an American obsession, causes coronary and other diseases. Japan, known for its old-fashioned ‘Mom and Pop’ stores serving homemade meals and snacks, was relatively healthier. When the American chains pervaded Japan with hamburgers and fries some 60 years back, such diseases beset the Japanese! However, I cannot ignore my dietary foible.

On weekend evenings, I frequent the popular fast-food Franchises. The Pandemic does not allow you inside; you use drive-ins. Vaccinated or not, you follow the mask mandate at the three half-closed windows where you Order, Pay and finally Collect/Pickup your treats. The ‘fries and coffee’ is now my second nature. I savor it!

To avoid monotony, I alternate between two such eateries in the town, one on a Highway exit and other on the Main Street. The young staff of different ethnicities speak English and/or Spanish. They wear jeans and shirts or brand uniforms and are 16 to 25 in age. I enjoy watching these hard-working folks get trained and be disciplined to do their 8-hr shift duties. Many share their earnings with families abroad; some use a part of it as pocket money. They typically rent a one-room apartment for a group of four or five and make the State minimum wage of $10 – 12/ hr. I have developed a kinship with them.

The Franchises pay for tuition. High school graduates can become branch managers in 5-7 years and earn better salaries, bonus, etc. The system is mutually beneficial - the Franchisor uses cheap labor (mostly migrants from Central America with or without visas, or local Blacks /Browns; White Americans avoid such menial work!) for higher profits, and the workers earn a living. With consistently good performance, diligent managers can advance to senior corporate positions in a few years and earn higher salaries and benefits like paid vacation and medical care. Thus, they attain a respectable social status! This system befits the ‘American Dream’ and Western Capitalism.

Anyway, here on a Friday evening at 6, I am in the ‘drive-in’ lane of my favorite Franchise on the Highway. There are 10-12 cars in front of me. I estimate 30-35 minutes to reach the ‘Order’ stand and another 5-6 minutes to ‘Pay’ before picking the meal at the ‘Pick-up’ window. Should I wait for 45 minutes? I, a retired ‘Senior Citizen’, decide to stay on; observing the cars in front and their idiosyncrasies, and more importantly, watching the hardworking young staff serve the hungry customers, can be worthwhile!

Somebody breaks the silence and shouts ‘Hurry up man, you are too slow’!

“We are understaffed, be patient please”, comes the reply.

“That’s your problem, call the Manager- we are hungry!”

“It’s the Pandemic, dear – we will be with you soon” – the Manager replies.

The line moves on and I hear “I asked for a Kid’s Meal with ice-cream and a large coke – why are you charging me $7.50”?

The young boy said “Sorry Ma’am, my mistake. It is $4.90” – move to the Pickup please”! “Next”?

“Yes, get me a double cheese-burger and a large coke”.

“Do you want cheese in it, please”?

“I asked for a double cheeseburger, didn’t I? What does it mean?”

“OK, you got it, $3.82. Next?”

“Oh, please give me a sec. I will be back right away!” A quiet pause! “May I help you now?”

Interesting! I muse - points, counterpoints – heated or cool! Suddenly I am at the Order stand!

“How can I help you?”

“A Small Fry and a Senior coffee with 3 creams and 2 Splenda on the side, please!

“What did you say? A small fry and what”?

“Senior coffee”.

“What coffee”?

“Senior coffee”!

“I don’t understand your English”- she said loudly! “Please move on and see me at the window”- loud again!

I pull forward and she opens the window. “What coffee?”

“Senior coffee!”


I tell her. “I said Senior Coffee 3 times. What is your problem?”

“I don’t understand you” – again very loud!

I spell S-E-N-I-O-R and then she looks at her menu screen - “OK, I got it. Small fry and senior coffee, $3.70”.

I asked if she was yelling at me.

“That is how I talk - loud. Please check your English”.

I thought for a second - may be my accent was different like an immigrant’s when she said.” I came to the US from Honduras 5 yrs. ago and finished my 12th grade”.

“That’s great! Will you go to college now”?

“No, I need money, but may be later. Move to the Pick-up.”  

I wait and murmur - “I live here, have worked for 40 years, and did my Master’s, but nobody ever asked me to check my English or accent”.

She cuts me short- “Please pay and move to pick up your food. Next?”

I move to Pick Up when an elderly woman says “Sir, please give me 3 minutes, I will make you a fresh pot; you may wait at the front reserved spot. I will bring your meal shortly”.

I take the reserved spot and the word Honduras suddenly flashes through my mind. Honduras, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru in Central America - the home of the rich Maya, Aztec, and Inca Civilizations of yesteryear, like my India! I breathe, yes Honduras, and then nonchalantly look at the receipt - it reads “Large Coffee”, not “Senior Coffee” and charges me $3.70 instead of $2.72. I think of complaining to the Manager about the hassle and overcharge, and the arrogant Honduran girl. I step out just when the elderly woman brings me the food and money. She apologizes politely for the delay and overcharge. I thank her, do not wait, and whisk away.  

On my way home sipping coffee, I wonder why some people behave the way they do. Is it something genetic, hereditary, behavioral, circumstantial, or is it the physical appearance /body language that incites hostility or meanness in a person? That may be quite a mystery for Sigmund Freud or Margaret Mead to solve but I will not lose my sleep over that!

Three days later, on a Monday evening, I am at the same place. A short line, couple of cars, quiet! I pick up my crunchy hot Fries and freshly brewed Senior Coffee in 5 minutes. I pull to the reserved spot to bite on the mouth-watering Fries when a young girl rushes to my car. Somber faced, she beckons me to roll down the window and tremulously says, “Sir, I’m Gina - please forgive me. The other day I was very rude to you”. I cleaned my spectacles and looked at the girl- yes, the same Honduran girl - brown, skinny, and breathing fast. She continues “You know that evening I came straight from my school, hungry, and worked non-stop for 12 hours to cover two windows. It was over-crowded. I was exhausted and could not eat. Yes, I was loud and peevish, too. Please, please forgive me, Sir. Will you?” I do not say a word for seconds, nod and watch her running back smiling. No, I do not need any Freud or Mead. I surely know why!

I drive home, start my Laptop, google the Franchise HO - HR Dept. for Comments. I put in Gina’s name and when she works, and grade her 8.5/10 for overall performance. I also add that she deserves a promotion and I and my friends will visit the Franchise!

(Posted April 1, 2022)

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An Evening Snack and More!
Utpal Sengupta