Would You Like a Side of Saliva With That?

Working in a dining hall for the past two years, I’ve noticed on-campus eateries are microcosms of the UCSD social scene.

The frats and sororities travel in color-coordinated packs, gnawing on bacon cheeseburgers. Sports teams — decked in blue-and-gold sweats and windbreakers — usually claim half a dozen adjoined tables for their late-night smoothies and salads. And then there’s a collection of smaller groups — the hipsters, the engineers, the international students — trickling through the hall in twos and threes.

We workers, however, have a relatively unchanged interaction with all species of student: what I like to call an over-the-counter relationship. Of course, a physical counter does exist between us, but I’m referring more to the limitations of our association.

Many times, I have smiled and started to wave at a customer in Price Center before realizing that our conversations have never progressed beyond the realm of what kind of bread they want on their sandwich. At this point, I shove my hands in my pockets and find relief in the fact that they probably don’t recognize me without my uniform. That, or the layer of grease from the fumes of the deep-fryer that covers my face during my shift.

Our relationship is distant even when we are standing five feet apart and I am tending to your cheeseburger. Every hour on the hour, hundreds of freshmen and sophomores are released from the world of biochemistry, and immediately rush to the nearest dining hall. It’s true: Every other underclassman has the same gurgling hunger at the same time, and the line at the grill stretches all the way back to Black’s Beach. But as inconvenient as this rush of business is, at least it spares us the awkward silence that descends when there is no chaos or competition for our attention.

When there’s a line, neither the worker nor the customer feels any responsibility to engage the other. When orders and hamburger buns are flying through the air, everyone is content to just get out of there with a half-decent meal and not a word edgewise.

At slow moments, when you mercifully interrupt my eternal boredom of rearranging cheese and refilling bins of onions by ordering a sandwich, I am initially somewhat (pathetically) excited at the chance to do something other than think about my paper on Marx. Once I have started the order, however, we are both left with nothing to do but stare at each other and listen to the patties sizzle.

As the clock ticks, my blood pressure rises. I can feel your hungry eyes, both on me and your chicken breast. To avoid some insufferable conversation about the fickle San Diego weather, I turn my back and pretend that poking at your food with a spatula somehow speeds up the cooking process.

My eyes frantically search for something to restock or some speck of dust to wipe from the stack of dishes. I turn in pathological circles like a drugged show dog until the end of this uncomfortable interaction comes into sight. When I finally hand over your food, I’m so glad to have survived the awkward encounter that I’m almost relieved to be left in the exclusive company of cheese and onions — at least for the time being.

This is not to say that I don’t find you interesting. I just don’t know what to say to you, and sometimes it’s best to say nothing at all, right? How do you respond when a girl tells you she wants exactly two slices of tomato and three slices of cucumber on her sandwich? I just do as she asks and send her on her way, hoping this is the worst of her obsessive compulsive disorder.

Similarly, I never ask a certain customer why he wears a full business suit to every day of class. I simply submit to the fact that he will one day be a high-ranking CEO who summers in the Hamptons, while my disintegrating jeans will have earned me a cardboard box in North Park.

And, despite my loyalties to my employer, I hold my tongue when I see the guy who tries to stuff an extra egg in his breakfast sandwich every morning without an extra charge. Nope — I assume that when you come into a dining hall, you want a quick bite, not advice, friendship or moral admonishments. So I just shut up and hand over the goods.

But when you do come to the counter with a smile on your face and start our exchange with a “please,” it makes a difference. When you treat me like a fellow student, not just a lackey who serves the daily special, it makes my whole shift a little easier. And who knows, I just might be less inclined to burn your patty.