Coffee, class and culture: Airport consumption patterns as a measure of globalization and status hierarchy

I am sitting on a tiny plane in seat 2A, a prime piece of real estate. I have just transferred from a red eye five hour fully sold out flight from Oakland where I also enjoyed an aisle seat. “Enjoyed” as it is used here is employed in the way one would say that she had a good pelvic exam. I don’t think I slept at all. I ached to sleep but a desire is never as satisfying as the real event, no matter what St. Augustine wrote about this issue, although lust is a nice run up to the real thing.

Dulles Airport, where we landed, has its own culture. I almost ran off the long flight, banging my feet on the jetport to wake up my legs to the task of carrying me into the concourse. It is just before 6 a.m.

In concourse D, few concessions are open. These include the Great American Bagel, Burger King, and for some unaccountable reason, Borders Books. Every individual staffing the fast food counters was a person of color. All the check out people were people of color.  All the baggage haulers were persons of color. I was being overly race conscious here, I guess, but it was startling. A bunch of weary travelers had lined up at Burger King begging the lady servers for breakfast. At the bagel place, they were struggling with a power outage and because of that couldn’t sell anything because their cash registers were off-line. A few of us offered cash way in excess of the cost of a plain, unsliced, untoasted, un-crème-cheesed bagel but the staff refused saying they’d get fired if they processed a transaction like that. So, we all moved on.

A clique of weary travelers made our way to the Burger King, the only show in town. The Burger King staff, maybe they are known as nourishment interfacing agents or convenience food expediters, spoke several languages, which I think is a beautiful thing in our diverse welcoming society. We monolingual Americans were being served by a variety of individuals with command of a multiplicity of tongues and dialects. This is the way we liberals think about migration. We believe it is all to the good or will be some day, if not this morning or later today. However, one problem here was that the food preparers were all Hispanic, I think. I was not certain of the country of origin. The check out lady was from Southern Asia, maybe Pakistan or Bangladesh. The lady taking the order was from Eastern Europe, I think, maybe Poland. I thought how lovely this was that those striving for freedom and life in a democratic state could find themselves joined together in common cause behind a counter at Burger King. I don’t remember many details from my history about the war between Hispaniola and the Indian sub-continent, but if the interaction between the food staff and the check out lady was any measure, there is a reservoir of very bad feelings from this conflict. The Hispanic women making the breakfast sandwiches could not get the Pakistani lady to understand what they were saying to her, no matter how loud they shouted, no matter how many of them spoke together, and no matter how many swear words they borrowed from English to try to make their point. The point in question can be boiled down to a simple one, “Does a breakfast sandwich contain meat just because the wrapper says it does?” And this moves us directly to the subsidiary issue, a simple episode that reveals class conflict, globalization, the hegemony of the West, the failure of our educational system and the need for universal training in sociology.

I joined the ordering queue at Burger King at approximately 6:15 a.m. I was fourth in line. In a matter of minutes, the line had grown to twenty and it appeared that without a miracle, the staff at Burger King would fail to serve any customer at all this morning and certainly, not the requisite share of billions. Almost every one of us in line was white. There was a black woman in line just ahead of me and she fared no better in getting her food from the staff. The customers in line were displaying typical consumer behavior in twenty-first century America. Although we know that behind the counter stands a gigantic corporate entity whose only interest is to make money in this transaction, to convince you to pay everal dollars for food that costs a lot less to prepare, we present ourselves to these corporate monoliths like children before a doting mother. Actually, this is only true of some of these transactions in the commercial feeding industry.

The upper and middle upper classes constitute a special category. Starbucks has created the model here transforming what had been a simple cup of coffee to a drinking experience that conveys and celebrate class distinctions. The upper class aesthete delivers his order with instructions detailed enough to execute D-Day. What I saw this early morning was what happens when the Starbucks crowd finds itself at Burger King, or in other words, what occurs when the upper class takes its consumer behavior and preferences to a typically lower income setting. The first man in line had evidently never been to Burger King or any equivalent fast food joint. He looked at the menu and considered it not like the Ten Commandments, which it is—written in stone, the word made food–but instead like an opening for further discussion. He wanted scrambled eggs and whole-wheat toast. He wanted a latte. He wanted to know if everything was fresh. He wanted soy milk. The ladies behind the counter gave him that sort of big arching eyebrow look that black women deliver most effectively. “What, are you kiddin’ me?” Translated: “You must be insane to ask me that because if I had the time, I would give you a piece of my mind or the end of my fist.” The first man exhausting his welcome asked if they had anything wrapped, like a Devil Dog or something. The second man tried something simpler. He was asking the staff to put together a croissant breakfast sandwich without meat. The woman who took his order nodded and titled her head indicating that like the rest of the cattle, he should move along to pick up his sandwich. I ordered the same thing. We traveled down the line and found instead two English Muffins with sausage. I took mine and moved to the checkout. The second guy decided to rectify the situation. He cut in front of someone and reordered. The same lady nodded and he picked up the new sandwich, which now had ham and was on an English muffin. Partially victorious, he moved to the checkout where another backup was in the making. I had also ordered coffee but that wasn’t ready yet so a bunch of us were waiting around like drug addicts looking for a new dealer. One man actually had the shakes and we had to calm him down. The line continued to grow. The man behind me ordered five sandwiches, all different and specialized.   The lady nodded and pointed him down the line. These customers eventually reached the check out lady who was either praying or swearing to herself. The sandwiches were piling up in the chute. The check out lady would ring the purchases up coming up with widely different prices. I thought this was all supposed to be automated but there were big breakdowns this morning.

It was clear that things were not going to work out this morning at Burger King. The servers should have adopted the stance of my working class mother which is,

Listen, you little brats. This is what I have made you for breakfast. Either eat it now or go to your room. I don’t have all day to cook this and that for you and fussy brother, missy. This is not some fancy restaurant and I am not your slave!

That would have set us straight.

If I had had more time, I would have suggested to the line of customers that we take whatever the cooks made us and paid whatever the Pakistani lady charged us and then gathered our food at the nearest gate. We would disassemble all the food and then remake the sandwiches to our liking. This would have led to a happier outcome and also would have tapped into another bit of my mother’s sage advice, which is, “God’s sake, make your own damn sandwich!”

As I watched the customers, they were slow to learn the drill. They insisted on tailoring their orders. “What kind of tea do you have?” one nice lady asked.

The eyebrow look again, glancing up at the menu,

“Lady, we have hot tea. Hot tea in a cup.”

The lady smiled apologetically, understanding that she had asked the wrong question.

“Oh, no, I’m sorry,” smiling her liberal educated smile, “I meant do you have any green tea? Or maybe something herbal?”

The counter lady didn’t have time for this.

Listen, lady, I don’t know what color the tea is. It looks rusty to me. I don’t nothin’ about herbal.

Well, OK, then. Could I have a cup of hot tea with a two ice cubes in it?

Thinking that today is the day that she has heard everything from these crazy customers, she makes a show of putting ice in hot water, making certain the other ladies see this!

 Now, you want ice in here in this hot tea, right?

She glances at all the customers to demonstrate clearly to them that they are in the company of a bunch of fools and idiots.

So, in a brief few minutes, at this Burger King, we have a glimpse into the class dynamics in fast food. Unsophisticated people may see the scene as bad service but that is a wrong interpretation. What this is is class conflict. A sociologist can see the big things simmering here–the significant differences in the privileges and customs of class, even in something as prevalent as fast food. My mother won’t go to Starbucks. “They ask you too many damned questions there,” she complains. “They makes you feel stupid.” The ladies behind the BUGER KING counter must feel the same way, confronted on these occasions by the upper classes who are demanding accommodations they are unknown in the world of the fast food shoveler. It takes certain denseness on the part of the privileged to expect this. Sort of an ugly American thing going on.

A minute before class warfare broke out, the feeling of the crowd changed.   Word was spreading that Starbucks was open for business in the adjacent concourse. A businessman stopped his order in mid-sentence to abandon his place at the top of the Burger King queue. Others followed in hungry pursuit. The scene was reminiscent of footage of the American exit from Cambodia. That loyal Starbucks clientele was rescued. They could go home to a place where they spoke the language, where their every desire for foam, and cream and shots, for sprinkles, and would be respected and fulfilled.

It is good to go home, even if that is Starbucks. My sociological understanding also suggests that Burger King and Starbucks are stand-ins for different parenting styles in our culture. Starbucks, the indulgent parent who seeks to give his child as much variety as possible and allows him to make his own choices. The psychologists say that this style of parenting leads to great success since the children learn decision making skills early on in their careers. The other style of parenting, the Burger King approach  more the subject of criticism by the scientists is where the parents make the choices and preach obedience, a bending of the child’s will to a larger authority.

I am not certain the Freud would agree with this analysis but I am quite certain the marketing geniuses know that this is the way fast food culture plays out and that they are betting market share on it.



About professorenos

I am a professor of sociology and coordinate service-learning and social entrepreneurship work on my campus at Bryant University. This blog brings together academic and creative work.
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