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first person

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Illustration by Marley Allen-Ash

I’d heard that saying – “If you want to know what kind of person someone is, watch how they treat service workers” – but you never realize how true a quote can be until it applies to you.

In 2021, I started working as a Guest Experience Leader at McDonald’s. I was like a puppy during my shifts: saying hi to everybody, wagging my ponytail behind me as I fetched various items for customers.

I used to find that people went out of their way to avoid small talk. Now they do the opposite – and the pandemic has done something to people’s filters.

My introduction to this bluntness came quickly. One Sunday, at 8:30 a.m., I was, as usual, greeting customers as they entered the restaurant, checking for masks, nothing out of the ordinary. A man walked in. His clothes were crinkled, hair unwashed, wild eyes protruded from his face. Not a good kind of wild – a dangerous kind. The kind that made me regret standing in the open space of the restaurant lobby. He, of course, was not wearing a mask. It took a while for me to summon the courage to approach him.

“Sir, could you put a mask on please?” He whipped around, snarling, swore multiple times, and told me to, “Go back to your [expletive] country! You -”

I didn’t care to listen to the rest. He turned around, slamming the door behind him as he left. I, on the other hand, professional smile glued on tight, walked behind the counter, grabbed my water bottle and took a nice long swig of my imaginary vodka. I still had seven hours left in my shift.

What stood out to me wasn’t the aggression or unjustified anger at a 17-year-old girl just trying to make enough money to spend on the art store’s newest treasures. It was the assumption that I didn’t belong in this country, a notion I’d never faced before in the working world. I was born and raised in this country. While my family’s background is extensive, it isn’t anyone’s business to know where our roots have been planted. And yet, many customers seem determined to find out where in the world I am from because certainly, the answer couldn’t be Canada.

A tall, elderly white man who declared himself Irish, towered over me and asked, as did a beautiful black woman in her 20s with tiny white beads braided in her hair. Two young men asked if I was Polish and when I said, “No,” proceeded to speak what I can only assume was Polish while grinning at me. A stout man with a motorcycle, wearing a biker jacket crossed the entire parking lot just to ask me: “What are you?”

I’ve taken to responding with, “What do you think I am?” It’s interesting to see what they come up with. Most go with Chinese or “another kind of Asian” because of my eyes that “don’t quite match my hair or face, but can’t be fully Chinese because they just aren’t small enough.” I’ve been mistaken for Filipino, Japanese, Hispanic – never just Canadian. I never understood the audacity. Personally, when I go to a fast-food restaurant I’m trying to get in and out as quickly as possible. Interrogating the employees is not on my to-do list.

It’s not all nasty. Sometimes customers use pretty words in exchange for fries: All the “sweeties,” “honeys” and “sweethearts” people tag onto requests and demands they thrust upon me. As if I’ll be more inclined to help them if assigned a term of endearment.

I suppose I was a lucky kid, not noticing the stares or catcalls of men out on the street. Still, it’s hard to ignore the painfully obvious. For the most part, the men who flirted with me at work were polite and genuine in their intentions and backed off pretty quickly when I said no and even quicker when I said I was underage. I get it. Looks can be deceiving. These men didn’t know I was a child. They assumed I was a college student. I know, because they told me. The problem didn’t lie with these men. It lay with the men who, after this revelation, remained undeterred. Or worse – got excited. One such customer who became a recurring problem was an elderly man dressed in a blue velvet suit. He came into the restaurant one day and I chatted with him while he waited for his order – as was my job. He looked at me head to toe, smiled and told me that I must be good for business. He then leaned in and asked if I’d be interested in working for him: $25/hr, he promised, for just a few hours of work a day for his “computer company.” When I told him I wasn’t good with computers, he smiled and reassured me that all I needed to do is “send in a couple of videos of myself per week.” When I asked what kind of videos, he gave me a bunch of adjectives and no real answer. He swiftly grabbed his fries, handed me a business card and walked out of the restaurant.

The gleam in that man’s eyes as he examined me was unsettling. He began coming in weekly, pestering me as to why I hadn’t contacted him about his job offer, handing me more and more business cards. Eventually, it took me hiding behind the counter whenever he’d come in for him to finally take the hint and leave me alone. I threw out all but one of the business cards. I kept it because… well I’m not exactly sure. I suppose I kept it as an insurance policy in case he actually tried anything and I needed to file a police report. Thankfully, the blue-suited man never came back.

When I talk about experiences at my workplace, I’m often asked by a friend, “Serra, why do you stay there?” Despite everything, I enjoy what I do. I like making people smile, making five minutes of their day better. I like the rush that comes during rush hour and the calm that follows. I like the camaraderie I have with my co-workers. Most of all, I like the way my job reflects the world. There are all different types of people on this planet, just as there are many different types of fish in a pond. Not everyone is a piranha.

Serra Hamilton lives in Toronto.

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