The Asshole Effect: Chaos Theory, Behavioral Science and Restaurants
We buy all our fruit and vegetables at a produce store in the neighbourhood where we used to live. I’m sure it has a proper name, like ‘Fields of Green’ or something, but we call it ‘the veg store’, as in: “as long as you’re going out, can you pick up some tomatoes at the veg store” or “we need to stop at the veg store on the way home so I can get some apples to make a pie for dessert”. Even after moving south, into a new neighbourhood with its own produce shop, we continue to frequent ‘our’ veg store. It’s tiny, maybe twelve feet wide and thirty feet long, spilling out onto the sidewalk except on the coldest winter days. There is an awning outside, which is a McGyvered concoction of canvas tied at the corners to broom handles which are sunk into concrete-filled buckets. Long, fraying strips of weathered canvas dangle from above, swatted aside by pedestrians and patrons. The awning drips when it rains and only serves to contain the wasps in the summer, so I think its sole purpose is to provide a little shade to tender summer berries.
Stocked to overflowing inside, from floor to ceiling on the sides and the back, with a long four-sided island in the middle, the veg shop forms a cramped but abundant U. There is a counter and cash register sharing the front of the shop with a plate glass window and a door that remains open 12 months of the year. Every available surface, whether vertical or horizontal, is crammed – there is even stuff hanging from the ceiling. But there is nothing extraneous; there are no coolers of juice, cartons of milk or eggs, jars of jam or honey, coffee beans, or countertop fidget-spinner displays. If the word weren’t so over- and inappropriately used nowadays, I would say the veg store is curated.
The veg store is always crammed with customers, and we are a mixed bag: kids from the local high school, neighbourhood moms with strollers, middle-aged couples, Bay Street warriors heading home, pensioners. Maybe they live nearby or, like us, make the trek from farther afield. But we all have something in common: the desire for great quality and selection at a great price. The many regular patrons know to collect a plastic carrier (or two) outside and then follow the U-shaped path through the shop, starting with the cut flowers and ending with the fresh herbs. One must always start at the beginning, on the left, and move clockwise through the store, even if all one needs is a cabbage located at the very end of the U on the right, which one could otherwise conveniently grab by going counter clockwise. But you must resist the urge to upset the natural order. If you are small and agile, and really anxious to get at that cabbage, you might be able to slip around someone contemplating the cucumbers on the left of the shop, but you will likely be stuck behind the slow-moving, older gentleman and his bulky, two-wheeled market cart at the back. And never mind where you are in your travels through the shop, at some point one of the employees will squeeze past you with a tiny grocery cart full of baby watermelons, or a length of plywood held aloft and brimming over with cartons of blueberries. The employees are insistent and completely unabashed as they brush against your breast or behind, without notice or apology. At the veg store, as in all things, you must go with the flow, literally and metaphorically. The veg store is terribly Zen. It’s a life lesson.
Occasionally I purchase tomatoes at the grocery store, even though grocery store tomatoes are more expensive and not as good, but only if I’m in a rush and one-stop shopping is convenient. On those rare occasions when I am in the mood for an apple AND a theatrical spectacle, I’ve selected a biblically beautiful, perfectly spheroidal, evenly ruby-coloured, outrageously expensive heirloom apple from an installation art pyramid at an upscale greengrocer, and then watched as an apron-cladded, model-seeming lovely replaces my apple with another perfect specimen. Brava! Most often though, my apples – as well as my turnips, zucchinis, flowers, and lemons – come from the veg store.
TV programs about celebrity chefs often contain a scene of the famous subject hand-selecting produce at the food terminal, or a farmers market, or even a farm itself. These hagiographic scenes are usually filmed in the roseate glow of early morning, as if the chef were up at the rooster’s crow to collect warm eggs and pluck dewy plums. I call bullshit. When the last diner leaves your restaurant at midnight and you still have two hours of cleaning and prep to do for the next day, there is no way on God’s green earth that Chef is up and at ‘em at dawn for a jaunt to the farmer’s market. Look closely at the hands of the chive-chopping so-called chef on your TV screen. This is how you tell the dilettante from the real deal: has all the hair been singed off his knuckles? are her nails short and clean? are his hands flecked with burns, cuts, and scars? is she wearing jewelry? Working chefs don’t have smooth, unblemished skin or hairy hands. They don’t wear statement rings on their pinkly polished fingers. Real chefs are labourers, with scabrous, muscular hands that look like they spent the day laying brick or paving roads.
My husband, however, with his hairless hardscrabble hands, does buy much of the produce for our restaurant at the veg store, which is conveniently on his route from home, to gym, to work. Of course, the 50 lb bags of potatoes, carrots, and onions are delivered by a supplier, and specialty produce like lemongrass is often purchased from specialty stores, but my husband stops at the veg store daily. Here he loads up with whatever will safely dangle from his bicycle handlebars and is fresh, local and seasonal: asparagus, rhubarb, peas, beans, eggplant, broccoli, tomatoes, pears, peaches, apples, squash, melons, cherries, strawberries, and so on. And sometimes our home garden supplies basil, rosemary, thyme, chives or nasturtium blossoms.
In any event, as hard a chef works – particularly a chef who, like my husband, is also a restaurateur – no one works harder than the lady at the veg store. She is there every day, all day. I don’t think she has ever taken a holiday, a sick day, a lunch hour, or even a bathroom break. I don’t know when it opens or closes, but the veg store is always there when I need it. Christmas Eve. New Year’s Day. Early in the morning. Late at night. The veg store lady has no life. At least, the veg store IS her life. Who knows what kind of car she drives, or what her house is like, but she obviously lives at the veg store. And I don’t mean that metaphorically. Her work ethic is heroic. Her commitment is legendary. I am in awe of her. Which is why I am still unravelled by an incident that took place at the veg store a couple of days ago.
I line up to pay for my blueberries, corn on the cob, and arugula. It is late morning and I am in no rush. I am not working today and there is nowhere I need to be. The sun is splintery bright; it’s a steamy and glorious September day, and all is right with the world. Three people ahead of me in the line is a guy complaining about an apple. He is telling the veg store lady that an apple purchased yesterday has a bruise and he wants to return it for a refund. Veg store lady tries to explain that she doesn’t do refunds. Who knows how long ago the apple was purchased? Who knows what the complaining guy did to the apple himself? Complaining guy says, “I paid for a whole apple, not an apple I can only eat a portion of.” (And I think to myself, “unless you eat the core and the seeds, you ALWAYS pay for an apple that you don’t entirely consume”, but I don’t get involved. Besides, I doubt the ‘splitting hairs’ strategy has ever won an argument.)
Her English isn’t fluent, and her accent is thick and almost impenetrable: when the veg store lady says “you wa ba?”, only her regulars know that this means “would you like a bag?” So I understand completely, and at a molecular level, when veg store lady says to complaining guy something like: “you want perfect, go to Whole Foods. I sell cheap.” Complaining guy is not satisfied, and insists on a refund. Veg store lady says “no”. OK, so there is nowhere I need to be, but I kind of don’t want to be here, listening to this. Complaining guy is seriously harshing my buzz. Veg store lady is getting visibly upset; she’s smiling in a way that I recognize, the way that says publicly “I’m trying to be reasonable here”, but privately says “seriously? SERIOUSLY? You want a refund for an APPLE? Are you KIDDING ME? ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND? DON’T YOU HAVE ANYTHING BETTER TO DO!” But complaining guy is not deterred, even as the rest of us in the line begin to impatiently huff, or tap our toes or, in my case, blurt loudly “c’mon buddy”. Finally, instead of strangling complaining guy, something we would no doubt all cheer at this point, veg store lady gives complaining guy 50c to shut up and go away.
I was not a good math student in high school and dropped it as soon as was permitted. My failure to even attempt an understanding of math at that time, my failure to be aware of math’s importance, is one of the greatest regrets of my life. I wish I understood chaos theory, but all I can sort of wrap my head around is the “butterfly effect”: the idea that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings on one side of the world contributes to a tornado on the other side world, even weeks later. This is not a philosophical or otherwise abstract construct; it’s legit and it really is math – chaos theory in fact. But chaos theory is math that has applications outside of obvious math-ish realms like economics and physics (other subjects I wish I’d paid more attention to in high school). Chaos theory is relevant to seemingly unmath-ish things like traffic control and weather prediction. The application of chaos theory to behavioural science for example, and to the restaurant environment in particular, is what I like to call “the asshole effect”.
Don’t be that guy. Complaining, unreasonable guy. Impossible to please guy. Unpleasant, inconsiderate, mean guy. Don’t be the person who ruins it for everyone. Don’t be the instigator, the one whose bad attitude ripples and expands in ever-increasing concentric circles. Don’t be responsible for negatively affecting everyone else’s mood, which then affects the mood of everyone they then encounter. And so on. And so on. FOREVER. Please don’t be that person who is responsible for the asshole effect.
I sympathized with veg store lady. As a restaurateur, I know what it is like to deal with a (possibly) legitimate but (ultimately) stupid complaint. I know what it’s like to have to bite your tongue, and smile, and be obliging and obsequious. It’s embarrassing and soul crushing. It quite literally hurts my heart. Sometimes, it’s all I can do not to cry with rage and frustration (although I sometimes do). Veg store lady is still flushed and jittery when it’s my turn to pay for my groceries. I don’t want the asshole effect to affect me, or her, or anyone else. I want to stop the asshole effect right here, right now. I reached for veg store lady’s hand. I told her, as soothingly as I could, “it’s alright. That guy was a jerk. Don’t let it ruin your day. The sun is shining. Deep breath. Let it go.” She looked at me and held my hand for a moment. And then she smiled and sighed and said, “you wa ba?”