Average Joe was travelling through a lonely stretch of interstate turnpike. A trucker by trade and a hard worker, he stopped off at a favorite exit. It was a lonesome place housing a singular McDonald’s and no other services. One way off and one way back on again…meaning you had to cross over the interstate by bridge to get to the restaurant, nestled against a steep, wooded ridge.
“Pretty good racket for the fellow who decided to set up shop way out here,” he thought as he settle his brain for a few quite minutes with a bagel and coffee. But within moments he heard and felt a loud boom.
Confused and concerned, customers turned their attention to the nearby interstate bridge, now sprinkled with debris and shrouded in dust and smoke. Apparently a mobile home, being transported at some great speed was too tall for the overpass, had struck the bridge and rocked the entire area. The customers’ angle made it impossible to see exactly what had happened; they couldn’t make out the details of the wreck below.
After the initial amazement, a few responsive individuals placed emergency calls. Some were annoyed to have no signal; others got a busy tone…indicating that many folks were trying to report the problem.
It took a few minutes before folks began to realize that the store was now cut off from the rainy interstate, leaving everyone inside stranded for at least a little while. For the most part, they were fine with that...shit happens.
But the minutes became hours and the stranded travelers got antsy. And when people get nervous, they eat.
It seemed the accident outside had taken down the phone lines so credit card transactions couldn't be processed. Handwritten 'cash only' signs went up.
And sadly, dinnertime rolled around before it became apparent that the authorities had closed down the bridge, too damaged in the wreck for safe passage. All the customers were trapped at the store with no place to go for what could have been hours, they thought.
Frustrated, Average Joe complained to the manager that many of the folks in the store don't have the 'cash only' required to eat and the smell of fries is overwhelming.
“I typically run everything through my card, and I bet most of the folks here are in the same situation.”
The manager said he’d make a deal. His employees needed to be relieved as they were stuck too, only at work. He'd give the man training so he could take orders and earn enough to buy a meal for himself or his family or whomever.
Average Joe happily agreed and soon found himself behind the counter with a name tag. The restaurant, full of folks with a similar plight and seeing Average Joe's happy solution, yields several more folks to make similar deals with the manager. A few of the employees complain about losing overtime, but they soon settle down and make a little camp in the covered smoking zone out back.
Average Joe soon tired of standing around. It seemed that most of the folks in the store had already spent their loose cash and, not knowing how much longer they'd be stranded, had decided to wait and see how the disaster progressed. Some folks left the store to camp out in their cars, listening to the radio for news, napping...digging up change from the cushions...breaking out some sandwich cookies they'd been saving for little road trip emergencies.
But, pretty hungry now, Average Joe asked the manager if he can grab a burger, some fries and a Coke since they're not busy.
The manager quickly tallied up Joe’s pay, deducted taxes by hand, and paid the trucker a few dollars in wages from the till. Joe pays for his lunch, takes a break and enjoys the fruits of his labor. “What a crazy day,” he thinks.
Before Joe could get back on his feet and behind the register, the manager said, “I’m going to shut everything down for the night. It’s 9:pm and it doesn’t make sense to run everything 24/7 with this ‘situation’ going on.” Folks had figured out already that they needed to tuck in; they could sleep in their cars...the restrooms still worked.
It's proved to be a long night. Road crews were brought in to fix the pavement, but a crane was needed to pull the bridge back into place. The local news from a nearby city said that traffic on the interstate was completely shut down because of the impasse and there was difficulty getting the crane to the site because of all the cars blocking the lanes. “Hours more, maybe even morning,” they said “before the snafu is cleared.”
Folks settled down as best they could. Kids complained but generally adapted pretty well to the mess. During short reprieves from the torrential rain, Frisbees were tossed and dogs were walked. Some older men gathered around the edge of the parking lot to point and look at the slow-going rescue and to speculate about what should be done first.
The problems at the store really began about five the next morning...early risers finding bathrooms as prime real estate for ablutions and such. Making-do with the confined spaces, foul odors, limited resources; some folks shared their moist towelettes and ignored some of the ugly comments made by others who just seemed to want to bitch about the situation.
In the dining room, people lined up for McBreakfast...the bedraggled crew, slow and unhappy about a night’s car-sleep, but working. Still cash only...the manager allowed folks to pay IOU-style until the credit card and ATM could be brought online.
Then came the power outage. Road crews had to shut it down since the main line ran through the broken bridge. The workers can't safely make the repairs with a huge live wire.
The manager made an announcement that since the power was out that they need to go ahead and move the remaining breakfast. He hung a sign on the walk-in freezer that nobody was allowed to open that door...he needed to preserve the food that was in there.
Without power, the breakfast foods already prepared quickly become cold. A few sandwiches were left in the chutes...as customers elected to wait it out rather than pay for sub-par food.
When lunchtime rolled around, folks started to prod the manager. "Hey what are you doing about lunch?"
He responded, "I don't know what we can do really. I mean we've got all these external problems that I can't do anything about. But here's what I'll do...we're going to do a cold lunch...we'll take the buns and Canadian bacon some cheese from the cooler, make sandwiches, and we'll give everybody one for a quarter. No need to panic." He grinned, assuring everybody that things would be just fine.
“It’s not like we can get a Big Mac,” chided a portly teenager.
“No,” the manager said unphased, “I’ve had to remake the menu to fit the times.” He smiled again reassuringly then disappeared into the back.
The gamey crew along with the new-hires, followed the manager's lead and prepped in the dim light. Families and individuals filled the store's seats as news of the lunch deal spread. They shared their little agonies about the situation and wondered aloud about the ridiculous situation.
“I mean, it’s like there’s no escape,” complained the portly teenager, aggravated that his game system battery had died.
“Someone has to plunge the men's toilet again!” joked a biker as he lumbered from the dreaded restroom area sporting wet hair and arms.
The manager and crew brought the sandwiches out, stacked on trays. They fanned out and distributed, as told, one sandwich per customer… collecting quarters for each sandwich. “Free water is coming...just hang in there.”
“Someone's searching for the cheap cups,” Average Joe-turned-server remarked.
The Porsche dad told his server, "I'll take two!" and offered two quarters.
"Sorry, we only have enough for one per person," the server responded.
The Porsche dad says, "Yeah, but I have the money."
"I'm sorry, sir...Maybe later, if there's some left over." The server moved on after collecting one quarter for each of Porsche dad's family.
The next table had the opposite problem. "Look, my family and I spent all the cash we had in here yesterday. I even have given IOU's to your manager over there. There are four of us and a baby...can't I just owe you a dollar and a quarter?"
"I can't do that, but I think you can join the crew and be a server too."
A few minutes later nearly half of the customers had become servers...in fact there were as many members of the crew as there were customers remaining.
"This works out well," explains the manager. "There are jobs for everyone that needs one."
Road work dragged on as monsoon weather moved in and slowed down the Department of Transportation’s ability to fix the bridge. “A new span has been ordered in pieces and is slowly making its way up the interstate. The road has been closed for miles and many travelers have bailed out, leaving cars in the roadway and picking their way up the embankments to find services,” reported the radio.
But when dinnertime rolled around on Day 2, things were really going to hell. While the water was still running, there were no more cups to be had. Most folks had discarded them...only a few old folks who nursed their drinks all day and then save the cups are lucky enough to use the water fountain for anything more than a tepid sip.
The crew had given up their service guise and were hanging out like everyone else. Garbage went unemptied; floors unswept; tables unwiped.
Huddled from the weather and bored to tears, the roomful of customers and a few crew asked the manager what he was planning to do about dinner when he stepped out of his office.
"Here's the problem. We've got food, but it's in the walk-in freezer...which I've locked to keep in the cold. That is only going to last a little while. Problem is, without power, we really don't have any way to cook for you. We've run out of cups, as you know, and there's no more bread..."
The crowd murmurs with surprise. "Why?" asks a teenager.
"Well, because I have to feed the crew too. After we sold you the sandwiches at lunch, I had to make good for all these workers, so they got the bread in the back. We get a daily delivery for bread; so until a truck can get through…"
Porsche dad interrupted acerbicly, "Did they get to have more than one sandwich?"
At first the manager hesitated to respond, then proudly stated, "This is the hardest working bunch of folks there ever was. They deserve to be rewarded for their hard work. They are the ones we count on and I’m looking out for them.”
"Yeah, but I had money."
"Your money's no good here. This is a special situation," the manager explained in disdain, sensing he must retain control of the situation.
Porsche dad said, "Okay, well then I guess we all want jobs for the next meal." Some hoots of agreement piped up from the stale-smelling room.
"Fine, fine. But know this. I did not cause this situation. It was completely out of my control." He shifted his weight to the other leg and opened his arms apologetically. "Now look...we can't really use the raw meat, but there are several cases of apple pie that will be alright to eat."
The manager’s explanation was interrupted by noise outside. Strange voices and movement were coming from the vestibule. Migrating across the parking lot a stream were the dirty evacuees.
"We've come off the interstate. Our bus has been stuck out there since yesterday," a man with a hat said.
"Come in out of the rain," invited the manager. "Everybody come in!"
"How many are there?" asked a small girl standing in a booth, face pressed against the glass.
"I don't know," said hat-man, "maybe 40 of us and then I think there are a bunch of people from cars too."
"Come on in and squeeze into a seat somewhere," and turning to the crowded restaurant the manager said, "make room everybody."
Of course the same situation occurred at apple-pie-dinner as it had at lunch. There were many folks who didn't have money, but it seemed only fair to promise them food if they helped serve. Some were too young or too old or too infirm to work and their IOU's would just go into the basket like everyone else's who didn't have coin enough.
"Look folks, I'm not trying to be an asshole," said the manager, "but I'm not running a charity. I need to get all these IOU's cleared up before we do the apple pies. When the truck comes later this week, I’ll need money to pay them for the food.”
"He's got lots of money," said a green-eyed man, pointing to Porsche dad.
"Yeah? So?" responded Porsche dad defensively, eyebrows raised.
The manager said, "That'll work. How much have you got?"
Porsche exclaimed defensively, "None of your business!"
The manager cajoled, "C'mon. Everyone here has contributed what they can. You have lots of money; I can get this food paid for...for everyone… if what they're telling me is true." A small roar from the crowd included encouragement mixed with jeering for the sportscar-driving man. "Hand it over," the manager grinned.
Clapping all around rose from the crowd. “That’s right, do your good deed…feed us!”
Porsche dad reluctantly produced a few bills...then a few more, and returned his wallet to his back pocket. The crowd seemed satisfied.
"That's it," says the manager counting, "a couple of hundred will feed everybody."
There were too few seats to accommodate the now-endless stream of refugees coming from the highway. A few, after having used the facilities, decided they might be better off back in their car...and left. The majority though stayed. The manager put some to work in the bathrooms, on the floors, serving others water and boxed cookies for a dime. But when the food ran out around 8 that night, the mood changed.
"It doesn't matter how much money you've got," the manager said angrily to Porsche dad, "I can't make food appear out of thin air."
The crowd was getting rowdy. Hungry, tired, dirty and no place else to go...small factions from the road, from the parking lot, folks who had been stranded at the store first...all began to form. Fear set in as they began to realize that this was the new reality.
The store was out of food. Money was no good. An enterprising soul was selling toilet paper at $5 a square and laughingly calling it conservation. Most retreated to their cars and locked the doors...and even the store's crew bailed out. The restaurant had nothing more to offer. Their jobs were intact but they couldn't provide services at any price because the store didn't actually create food just serviced it.
When the manager announced that the next step would be to get everyone to bring in everything out of their cars and put it in a big pile inside the store (so it could be shared by everyone who needed something) cars began to disappear. Folks drove out of the parking lot and down a small dirt service road. They knew it was a dead end, but they felt they could manage on their own. The hardiest planned a foot escape over the mountain. They produced guns from their trucks and explained how to field dress a deer to their new survivalist followers.
Frustrated by the lack of progress on the road disaster, the next day, the manager unlocked the freezer and announced that since there appeared to be no end in sight and because no power was restored and because no more food was coming, folks could take what they needed.
But what had been a fairly calm and orderly crowd devolved immediately into an angry, hungry mob who destroyed the store searching for food. When they found nothing edible, they smashed windows and doors...destroying the one thing that was left, a shelter from the monsoon outside.
Then they all left. All the howling people went back to wait out the road work or to hope and pray that aid would come from somewhere else. The promise of the golden arches, once shining brightly, a beacon of hope, had become a rancid wreck...a symbol of despair and embarrassment. It would need to be razed and a new building would have to be made...but not until the interstate cleared.
When the rescue chopper came, the manager was still there, busy in his locked office, tallying up the good karma he’d earned making sure that folks had affordable food and shelter. His personal stash of canned soup and bottled water and Snickers, several weeks worth, continued to sustain him and would have for some time to come.