The Daily Poem

11 February 1996


ASSOCIATED POETS [Champaign] I was having trouble reading M.M. Bakhtin's "Epic and Novel" in the periodicals room of the English library, so I decided to try the opposite approach and read it in the Hardees at Market Place mall. With 10,000 visual auditory and olfactory messages trying to capture my attention, I figured, if I could concentrate on Bakhtin there, I could concentrate anywhere. I ordered an inexpensive meat sandwich and coffee and found a place to sit. For many minutes, nothing disturbed my notetaking on Polyglossia, not even an employee talking about literature (David Foster Wallace's new novel, I think, which has some very good drug scenes in it) to some of his friends seated near me, while, simultaneously, working alone and with remarkable speed, he cleaned nearby tables and emptied the garbage. Eventually, though, my concentration was disrupted by rude customers. In a booth across from me, three men ranging from nondescript to ugly, smoked something that smelled suspiciously like marijuana and uttered loud complaints about the cleanliness of the place. I was slightly astounded. Nobody goes to Hardees for the cleanliness -- nobody even goes to Kennedy's for the cleanliness -- and only an idiot would go to Hardees for the pleasant ambiance. I had gone there for precisely the opposite reasons. You go to Hardees because it is fast and inexpensive. And these guys were sitting around after their meal smoking and annoying people, so they must not have gone there for the speed. And they spoke as though they wielded great financial power, and the short bald one had a cellular phone, so they could perhaps afford to go someplace with better vacuuming. At this point the employee I had overheard earlier asked them to stop smoking. Their first response was to deny that they were in the nonsmoking section. From my unique perspective, I alone could see that a sign reading NONSMOKING SECTION hanging directly over their booth. The employee demonstrated that they were wrong. When they responded by insulting his efforts to clean, and threatening to call an 800 number to complain to the Hardees elite, and claiming to be important business owners in the community -- a force to be reckoned with -- worthy of better treatment than the average Hardees patron -- not the sort of people who would allow their customers to be mistreated so rudely -- I casually became too furious to continue my Marxist text. I noted the cowardice underlying the manner in which, after a disgusting show of resistance, they extinguished their cigarettes anyway. A manager emerged and addressed them politely. They were arrogant and threatening. Security officers arrived. The men left and swore they would have the last word. I marveled silently: the Hardees employee, backed my management, had prevailed against customer, competitor, business owner, and official agent of the upper echelon of the Hardocracy. The service employee prevailed over service. I found myself with a useless textbook in an almost empty nonsmoking section. I had been taking notes on the events for many minutes by then, and still had no idea what local business the customers supposedly own. If I knew that, I could use the tremendous power I wield as a journalist to organize my readers in a giant boycott of that business. I really had no idea. It could be Shelby Motors, it could be Timpones. I wanted to go find the manager and ask him, and explain that, although his authority had been challenged, he had won a tremendous victory for human dignity, and that he had been one of the best History teachers I had ever had as an undergraduate (I learned about the French and Soviet revolutions from him) and I had often felt that I deserved even less than B simply because I didn't go to class enough to take advantage of the enthusiasm he brought to his job doing what I now realize was walking a tightrope of text into a dangerous future as a graduate teaching assistant in the history department of the University of Illinois, and I wanted to tell him that when I was ordering and saw him behind the counter I had felt a strange mixture of fear and despair color the bubble of denial that is radical political thought within academia, and I wanted to ask him how the thin Masters Degree he stood on cracked causing him to plunge into the freezing undertow beneath. But I figured he probably felt bad enough right then anyway. I didn't want to interfere with his work even in order to breathe on the fire of revolution that smoldered unextinguished in his lungs. I'm not that kind of customer. Yet.


Newspoetry at Spineless Books