Breanna pushed the glasses back on her nose as she set down the plate with the pecan waffle. It was early, a cold, rainy Saturday morning at the Waffle House in Montgomery, and she was earning money for graduation fees and her cap and gown to make life a little easier on her mama. Breanna said the ROTC would help her pay for college and then she would figure out how to pay for med school. She wants to be an OB-GYN and work in labor and delivery. She would not only be the first doctor in her family, but the first person to graduate college.
“I am the oldest cousin and I want to show the others that starting now, our family goes to college,” she said. “I have dreamed of being a doctor since I was five years old. My grandma called me Dr. Breanna. She always told me I could do it. This is not going to be easy, but I will make it.”
Breanna is a reminder of the hopes and dreams within each person behind a name tag who says, “May I help you?”
I started listening to the stories of workers at fast food restaurants and grocery stores. Grandmothers trying to make ends meet. A girl who moved to Fairhope, leaving her past behind. A musician struggling to pay the bills and stay off the streets. A mother from Mexico hoping for a better life, and a high school student waiting tables at a Mexican restaurant so she could learn Spanish. A single mother who lost 120 pounds, and a man nicknamed Grandpa who got over the embarrassment of asking friends, “Do you want fries with that?”
Jade, whose green hair matches her name, grew up in Kentucky. At a young age she was the emotional stability for a family constantly in chaos and on the edge of homelessness. It was a time that the family should have been caring for her. Exposed to sexual abuse as the family moved from crack house to crack house, Jade learned to fight to protect herself and to steal food from the Dollar General so her family could eat. Her mother died after a dental procedure and Jade ended up homeless — sometimes sleeping in a frozen field.
“My mom did all she could to take care of me, but she didn’t have many good options,” Jade said. “She taught me to work hard, persevere and push through hard times. I got through college, but I also got hooked on cocaine. I quit when I got scared of turning into the empty shell my mom became. I got clean on August 28, 2016, and moved to Fairhope two months later. I needed a new start to get away from the bad memories and the wrong people.”
Jade works at Section Street Pizza and Ox Kitchen in Fairhope because she loves serving people, just like her mother. “If I am half the server my mother was, I will be doing damn good,” she said. “People got to know me, not the things I had done. Fairhope has done so much good in my life.”
Perseverance also drives Annie, a cashier at Winn-Dixie for four years. She has worked through her own hard times. The tattoo on her right arm says “Let them see my weakness and let them see me overcome it.” The simple letters show as she rings up cat food, steaks, rice, chocolate milk and flowers, and the words encourage her to keep going during times of weakness and depression. After seeing a photograph of herself that she didn’t like, she lost 120 pounds over the last three years. She feels healthier and has more energy for her six-month-old daughter.
“My daughter is so beautiful, and she and my mother deserve the best from me.”
Annie asks each customer about their day or comments on something they purchase. Some smile and talk. Others avoid eye contact and mumble one-word answers, barely acknowledging her. She describes working the register as “emotional labor that is not as easy as it looks.”
“Sometimes people treat me like their therapist and I like to listen,” she said. “Some customers are mean and impatient and others are cheerful and kind. I know people are stressed and have bad days, and I want every person who comes through my line to leave a little better.”
Briana has a smile that lights up her whole face and she uses it to welcome customers to McDonald’s. A drummer and rapper, the money she makes each hour at McDonald’s is not enough to pay the bills and get her career going. She watched people give up their dreams to survive and refuses to let her dreams die..
“You have to have a strong mind to work jobs like this to make a better life for yourself, or you will be on the street selling drugs because it is quicker money. But I learned my lesson and don’t want to be out there,” she said. “At the end of the day, you are working for someone else’s dream while your dream dies. Your future is your future, their future is their future. They are satisfied, you are not. I have learned you have to live for yourself. Don’t give up. Your career is not going to come overnight, but keep working toward it.”
Working behind the counter helps some just get by.
Angela wears a decorated visor during her morning shifts at Chic-Fil-A in Memphis that says, “It’s a great day” and “It’s My Pleasure” written in gold paint pen. She started working the register six years ago after her salon went out of business and she had to make ends meet. Tears came as she explained how much the company and customers mean to her.
“I know my guests’ orders and names and they look for me,” Angela said. “They tell me I bring joy to them, but they bring joy to me. I want to work here as long as I can and make people happy. That is also what I did at my hair salon, and I hope to have one again one day.”
As Tina cleared our table at the same Chic-Fil-A, she advised my 17-year-old son about keeping his room clean. Business slowed for the Certified Nursing Assistant and she prayed for a stress-free, part-time job with “no drama or crazy people” to help pay the bills. She said the Lord brought her to Chic-Fil-A, and she cares for people by refilling cups, taking trays and helping with kids. She hopes to open her own home this year where she can care for the elderly.
“We don’t know what people are going through. It doesn’t matter what color you are, where you come from, or what walk of life you come from, we all have flaws. Nobody is perfect. Let’s just work together.”
Luisa (not her real name), moved to the United States with her ex-husband for a better life for their children, especially her daughter. Raised in a traditional family in Mexico, Luisa has a sixth-grade education and a GED from her country. She moved to the United States with her husband, but went against the Christian beliefs of her family and left an abusive marriage, saving herself and providing a good example to her daughter.
Serving at a restaurant, Louisa learned English from reading subtitles on movies. She wants more from her life than serving food and hopes to open a salon or boutique to help women feel good about themselves.
Terance worked with cars all of his life, skills he learned from his father and uncles. An automotive technician for 10 years, he no longer enjoyed working in the garage, and it showed. He was relieved when the owner let him go because he didn’t have the have the nerve to quit. Needing a job, he saw the McDonald’s sign about hiring and said to himself, “Oh Lord, no.” But the starting pay was $9 an hour and nothing was beneath him.
“It used to embarrass me to see my friends walk in and have to ask them, ‘Do you want fries with that?’ but I got over it quick,” he said. “They call me Grandpa here because they say you can always depend on Grandpa. These jobs help out a lot of people from all facets of life. People on probation or work release. It teaches you to be disciplined and take responsibility for your actions. People care and there is teamwork as they put principals over personalities. I like the human interaction.”
Cat is a senior in high school and started working at Agave Mexican restaurant in Fairhope to learn Spanish. An introvert when she was hired as a hostess two years ago, human interaction brought her out of her shell. She fell in love with the people she seated and the ones she worked with, and became the restaurant’s youngest server.
“I have learned much more from this job than from high school and see people in a whole new way,” she said. “I understand the lives and struggles of the people I work with, and have learned to watch the body language of the customers. If it is a couple, I look at their feet and know if I need to give them a few more minutes.”
She also learned the human error side of serving. “When you ask for extra lemons, extra straws, extra napkins, or don’t forget the extra cilantro and the guac, and, can we have another salsa with two bowls, human error is going to happen every now and then,” she said. “I have seen customers tear servers apart over mistakes. We have to remember that people are going through hard times on both sides of the table. We don’t aim to mess up. We are here to serve you and make your experience better. We aim to make you happy.”
They, the people behind the name tags, are human beings, just like the rest of us. They fail and hit bottom, then they get back up. They break cycles of violence or bad decisions. They start a new family tradition of education, or a new life, or they find their strength serving others.
The people behind the name tags are no different than the people they serve. They are real people, working to make you happy.