¿como se dice “awkward”?

2 August 2006 at 18:36 (café, ethics, language)

I’ve been a “manager” at a café near my house for a little under a month now. After my extensive managerial training, which concluded with the advice, “don’t try too hard,” I still felt a little overwhelmed at the idea of actually being in charge of something. This is a part-time job, after all. The whole idea of it is to not try too hard, to not let it infringe on the rest of my life too much. Did I really want more responsibility there? But everyone involved assured me that it was a lot more money ($3 more per hour) for a little bit more responsibility, so I took the job.Until last week, it delivered on its promise of “not much more responsibility.” Then, all of a sudden, we needed sprouts.

I should also mention that the guys who work in the kitchen are all Latino and speak little to no English, and I speak little to no Spanish. So I get in one day last week, and Frederico, the guy who makes the sandwiches, tells me that apparently we’re low on sprouts for the sandwich station. This scenario was not covered in my extensive management training, and I tell him this in broken Spanglish, which seems to bother him. I mention it to my co-manager, Carl (who was working that night, but was not the manager), and he’s not sure what to do, either.

But I decide it’s time to make a decision, so I open the cash register, take out some money, go to the corner store, and buy some sprouts. Mission Accomplished, right? Except Frederico is apparently still mad at me about it, because he won’t talk to me or even acknowledge me for the rest of the night, even when I inquire “¿Qual es tú problema?” which I’m told is the polite way to ask what someone’s problem is.

Prior to the sprout incident, Frederico and I were as close as two people who can only barely communicate can be. I used to make him juice, and he used to make me sandwiches. It was nice. But who knows what’s going on in his head? Maybe he just resents that he’s been working here for ten years, while I’ve been there less than six months, and somehow, I’m his boss. Maybe sprouts have some kind of symbolic value to him. But even if I knew how to ask him, in his own language, why he’s so angry, I probably wouldn’t understand his reply. He doesn’t talk to me at all for the next week.

I try to make nice, offering him juice or coffee when there’s some extra. I ask him “¿Como estas?” when I get to work every day. But I get nothing in response, until the other night, when I notice him pouring himself a clandestine beer at work. I jokingly chastise him for this, because, I mean, what’s one beer? It’s not like he’s a surgeon or something. The guy’s just making sandwiches. So when he asks me if I saw anything, I play along and say that it’s fine. This seems to make him happy, and that makes me happy, and I think that maybe all that sprout ugliness is behind us.

It’s only when he starts dropping knives and plates that I start to think he might have been drinking before I got there, and that maybe this newfound gregariousness is a result of that, rather than his actually forgiving me. José, who also works in the kitchen, and speaks even less English, is also there, and keeps producing Corona bottles from out of nowhere, which I keep seeing, in various states of fullness, throughout the store. At first, they’re actually kind of discreet about it. But as the (thankfully, not very busy) night wears on, the bottles become start popping up everywhere.

Carl and I are starting to feel very weird about the situation, because neither of us really feels endowed with the authority to make them stop. These guys kind of have a will of their own; the delivery guy will often refuse to take a delivery just because he feels like it, which usually puts me in a difficult situation. I know that they don’t respect my “authority,” and I also know that I sacrificed what little authority I had when I gave them the go ahead to drink that first (or possibly third, based on what they told us later) beer.

Then it gets personal. Frederico starts telling Carl that when he, Carl, is the boss, he’s the boss. But when I’m the boss, there is no boss. Carl and I both laugh nervously. It’s just the beer talking. Heh. But he isn’t finished. Frederico goes on to explain why he feels this way.

“I respect you,” he says to Carl. “You’re a nice person. You aren’t mean. Him?”—he indicates me—“I have no respect.”

“Why don’t you respect him?” Carl asks, nervously eyeing me. I’m doing my best to let his drunk-talk roll off my back.

“Because last week, I tell him to get me sprouts, and he don’t do it.” In vino veritas So, because I didn’t hop to it when he told me to get sprouts, suddenly he has no respect for me. My respectability must have been pretty shaky to begin with. I don’t know why, but hearing him admit this just makes me angry. I guess I sort of believed I had done something else much worse and hadn’t realized it. But he really had stopped talking to me because of sprouts.

“You don’t tell me what to do, Frederico,” I shout, which I think surprises everyone, including me. “I tell you what to do. And I don’t care if you like me, but you better do what I say, because I am the boss!” I don’t even know if he understands most of this; I’m pretty sure he gets the gist.

Carl, who seems a little freaked out, goes outside for a cigarette, and while he’s out there, I see Frederico pouring himself another beer.

“No más cervesa,” I say, as he takes another sip. “No más.” I walk over and take the cup from his hand, and pour it into the sink. “No más,” I reiterate. Suddenly, his mood isn’t so jolly. I guess drunkenness, stage two, has arrived: full-on belligerence.

“You pay for my beer,” says Frederico.

“No,” I tell him flatly. “Take it up with the owner.” I’m pretty belligerent myself by this point. I turn around to answer the phone, and when I look back, he’s taken off his apron.

“Bye,” he says, and walks out. I check the clock in the now-empty café. We still have 45 minutes left before we close, not to mention a sink-full of dishes, which Frederico usually does at the end of the night. Shit.

I call the owner and tell him the story. He’s out to dinner with his wife, but shows up a few minutes later to make the rest of the sandwiches for the night. He doesn’t seem nearly as pissed as I expect him to be. I guess that’s part of running a business.

He tells me Frederico is not welcome back, which I guess makes sense. It’s just too bad that he’s losing his job over sprouts. The owner keeps reminding me that this was Frederico’s decision, that he was the one who walked out, but I know that I’m at least partly responsible. Even if Frederico didn’t feel that I was in charge, I was in charge.

I find out later that José is also going to be fired. According to Carl, he’s been in the country for about a year, on his own, and has been sending all his money back to his wife and two kids in Mexico. And even though he probably should have been taking his job a bit more seriously, especially since his family’s livelihood was riding on it, I can’t help feeling like all of this could have been avoided if any one of us could speak the other’s language.

(All names have been changed to protect the innocent.)

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