Revisited: Big Brother comes to Chick-fil-A

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote extensively of the Jazz Age, its dandies and its flappers, how tender was its night and how great was its Gatsby. Ernest Hemingway routinely chose themes of man facing a challenge, be it against the wild, the evil of his own nature, the guy at the next barstool who stole his gin, or living in a house overrun with six-toed cats. Jack Kerouac’s novels looked at the gritty side of life on the road, and that part off to the side of the road with all the dead animals.

Looking back on my body of work over the last year and a half, it seems I too have a recurring theme: fast-food drive-throughs. As the twenty-first century’s preeminent chronicler of fried foods on the go, I’ve become something of an expert on how to eat even when your immense thighs are stuck beneath the steering wheel. I’ve described the desperate battle between two vehicles trying to outmaneuver each other for the next opening at the pay window. I’ve confessed to mistaking a garbage can for a speaker box, and ordering my combo from a colony of flies. I’ve argued that “two hash browns” doesn’t mean four hash browns, despite the fact that they come two to an order. I’ve been humiliated by having to say words like “biggie” and “horsey sauce.”

Now it’s time to tell another tale in the series. This is about my latest visit to Chick-fil-A, a franchise perhaps best known for employing semi-literate cows to communicate the corporate imperative to “eat mor chikin”. I had to avoid their excellent meals for an extended period recently, following a nasty incident in which I tried to procure a free order of chicken strips by claiming I had a cow-head antenna topper between 3 and 5 p.m. on a Tuesday when in fact I didn’t. (Who knew they’d check?)

Six months later, I assume they’ve had a complete turnover in staff and no one will remember my attempted fraud. I drive up to the remote ordering station behind the restaurant with the intent of making a fairly straightforward purchase. Where there used to be a metal box punched full of tiny holes there was now a full-sized hi-def terminal. A recent technology upgrade had resulted in a two-way video communication system, allowing the order-taker inside to look and smile at me while I gazed back at him in horror.

One of the benefits of using a drive-through is that it minimizes your contact with the faces of the workers, and now here’s one of those mugs staring down at me from two feet above eye level. “Otto” is hovering over me, like that giant-faced character in the famous 1980s Apple ad who’s preaching conformity to the bald mind-slaves until Steve Jobs, wearing only his black turtleneck and high-waisted gym shorts, runs down the aisle and heaves a 40-pound iPhone prototype into the screen, destroying it and liberating the world to consume more poultry.

This attempt at the personal touch unsettles me. As Otto and I discuss the relative merits of different-numbered combos, I’m not sure whether to look at his image on the screen, or at the glass box just above where the camera is housed. I knew clearly what I wanted to order just a few minutes ago, but now that I’ve been transported millennia into the future, I’m completely flummoxed. Do I want two orders of medium waffle fries, or a peace conference with the Borg?

I collect my wits with the help of the motorist behind me offering encouraging toots of their horn. Yes, it’s the waffle fries and a five-piece nuggets.

“You can get a drink with that if you order it as a combo,” Otto suggests. But I don’t need a drink.

“It costs about the same,” he presses. “We’d be practically giving away the drink.”

Maybe I could donate the medium Coke to Haiti. No, I’m sticking with just what I want.

“Also,” I say, ”I completed an online survey for another Chick-fil-A recently, and I have this coupon for a free sandwich I’d like to get.”

As I hold up the thin slip of paper to the camera, I realize the image I’m seeing is reversed. Although Otto’s palindromic name is unaffected, the logo just over his shoulder is backwards. For him to be able to read the authorization code on my receipt, I hold it up to the side-view mirror of my car, redoubling the reflection so it’ll be readable to him. He doesn’t seem to appreciate this inventive effort, and instead simply trusts me. (Where was this guy during the antenna-topper scam?)

My order is complete, and then I hear this:

“I look forward to serving you at the pickup window.”

He looks forward to serving me? This is going to be one of the highlights of his day? I’ve gotten pretty stoic about the hackneyed greetings you typically get while interacting with the mercantile class. They may say “thank you” but what they really mean is “move along.” They may say “have a nice day” but what they really mean is “I thought I told you to get out.” They may ask how many ketchups you want, but what they’re really saying is “thanks for sucking the blood from my lifeless husk.”

As I shifted my car into gear to creep forward to the pickup window, I thought I caught a quick glimpse of how eager Otto and his crew really were.

“He’s coming around to the side now!” I think I hear him excitedly tell his coworkers. “It’s the 2001 grey Honda Civic! Check him out, everybody — he’s absolutely dreamy.”

Whoops of excitement can be heard through the transmitter. Young girls are shrieking with delight, while the guys are high-fiving and chest-bumping. The anticipation is palpable.

“Is it really him? Can it be? Yet another customer in the endless parade of spendthrift losers willing to pay close to five dollars for a simple chicken sandwich? I can’t wait to see him!”

Or maybe the video connection somehow became crossed and I’m watching an episode of “The Price is Right.”

Regardless, I’ll be thinking twice before I return to this particular Chick-fil-A/Chatroulette outlet. I’ll give ‘em credit for wanting to use a high-tech approach to offer a high-touch experience in their customer relations. I know they’re already touching my food, though, and I think that’s quite enough for me.

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