Tuesday, September 4, 2012

dinner in a diner, nothing could be finer

I went out this evening to pick up some sandwiches for dinner for my wife and me. I hopped into my car and set off to the nearest Wawa. Wawa for those not blessed by its convenience, is a chain of quick-service markets that put 7-11s to shame without breaking a sweat. From its humble 1964 beginnings just outside of Philadelphia, Wawa has encroached the borders of six states with over 600 locations (some mere yards from each other in southern New Jersey). Originally a retail outlet for its namesake dairy, Wawa has become the first daily stop for coffee for thousands of commuters. Over the years, Wawa has expanded their food menu and refined their ordering system, focusing on quality, speed and simplicity. Wawa does a booming sandwich business, much to the chagrin of some long-time popular local shops. Most recently, Wawa has introduced a touch-screen menu that features actual photos of each possible ingredient available for your customized sandwich. Selecting a sandwich with a personality that reflects your own tastes has never been easier.

Unless you're old.

Old people and technology are as volatile a mix as nitro and glycerin. They long for the days of pre-television, pre-radio, pre-automobile, pre-refrigeration and pre-cave paintings — a time they refer to, with misty eyes, as "the good old days". As new technology becomes obsolete with every passing day, old people get madder and madder at.... at.... hell, I'm not sure who they're getting mad at. In defense of those members of society of an advanced age, there certainly has been an intimidating abundance of scientific achievements and improvements to everyday objects and they've come at such a pace that it's almost impossible to keep up. But instead of embracing these changes-for-the-better with an eagerness to understand, they are rejected with a sneer and a dismissive "In my day...".

I parked and entered the Wawa, making my way the to busy deli counter and sandwich preparation area. Several young men and women hurriedly assembled sandwiches, carefully checking and rechecking the ingredient lists from a master computer terminal. Shredded lettuce flew, mayonnaise slopped across bread, lunch meat was meticulously measured to quality-control standards  —  all under choreographed precision . I tapped the  first touch-screen terminal and began selecting the components of my first sandwich. An older man — bald, liver-spotted, wearing a misshapen and mis-buttoned cardigan — stood before a similar terminal at the far end of the counter. He looked baffled.

"Are you serving grilled cheese tonight?," he asked apron-clad Chelsea, as she busily applied mustard to the inside of a long roll.

Her concentration momentarily broken, Chelsea looked up. "Um, we call it a 'toasted cheese sandwich', sir. You can order it from the touch-screen."

"What?, " the old man barked, a scowl spreading across his wizened face. He tried to peer over the glass counter, deliriously expecting to catch a glimpse of a paper-hatted short order cook, greased spatula in his fist, speeding to fill orders of "Adam and Eve on a raft" and "Shit on a shingle", as spat out by a teased-hair and doily-adorned waitress named Bubbles. Sorry, Methuselah. In your 1940 dreams.  There ain't no grill in a Wawa, just an oven generating enough heat to toast bread.

Chelsea continued. "On the order screen," she said, "Under 'sandwiches.'"

The old man incredibly produced a cellphone and began yelling at the party on the other end. "You want a grilled cheese? A GRILLED CHEESE? CHEESE! CHEEEEEEESE!!!! Yeah. Yeah. Okay." He slid the phone into a pocket of his ill-fitting trousers and turned back to the order screen. "Where do I find grilled cheese again?," he yelled out, still believing that he had Chelsea's undivided attention.

"Under the sandwich heading, sir.," Chelsea politely replied. Now, she was distributing thinly-sliced turkey to surfaces of wheat bread in the manner of a Las Vegas blackjack dealer.

Completing my order, I went off to another part of the store to gather drinks, chips and perhaps, ice cream (okay, I knew I was getting ice cream). When I returned, one of Chelsea's comrades had Sandwich One of my order perched on the customer-accessible, glass-top counter while he worked on Sandwich Two. (Wawa has a system in place in which each order is assigned a unique number. That number, which corresponds to one printed on the customer's receipt, is announced when your order is complete.) The old man grabbed my sandwich and angrily asked the young counterman, "Is this mine?"

"You have a tuna salad?, " the counter guy asked.

The old man dropped my sandwich back onto the glass, not acknowledging nor replying to the question. Chelsea, now beginning the old man's order, checked his selections and, as she layered sliced cheese onto twin slices of bread, asked "Did you want the whole sandwich toasted, because you just checked 'Toast Bread Only'?"

"Yeah." the man answered, "Grilled."

I collected my order and hastily headed out the doors with my stuffed grocery bags. I knew how this scenario was going to play out and I didn't want to bear witness to the wrath of the elderly.

Old people — they want what they want, but they have no idea what it is.

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