Land of Plenty

Land of Plenty

‘I’ll have the steak, please. Medium rare please.’

‘Do you want baked potato or fries with that?’

‘Baked potato, please.’ Why can’t I be more authoritative, like Americans? Why do I have to punctuate every request with a ‘please’? Am I really so in thrall to this rather perfunctory waitress that I have to ask her permission for a baked potato?

‘Butter, sour cream or chive?’

‘I’m sorry, what did you say?’ What am I sorry about? I’m the customer here. I’m the king. (Not that imperial status holds much truck in this neck of the woods.)

‘Butter, sour cream or chive?’

‘Butter, please.’

‘Soup or salad?’

‘I wanted the steak’

‘Daaaaad’, my son interjected with that patronising tone of his that signals I’m an embarrassment to the family, and, more specifically, to him. ‘The steak comes with either soup or salad.’ This is the beginning of the end. It’s only a short step from being helped out with a restaurant order by your offspring to being spoon-fed in a bath chair by them. The writing’s already on the wall and I’m only forty-three.

‘Oh, I’m sorry’, I apologised to the waitress (I might as well have prostrated myself at her feet), ‘I’ll have the salad please.’

‘Cesar, Tossed Green, Spicy Pecan Asian, Gorgonzola Showered Iceberg, Wild Mushroom Mixed, Spinach, Tomato & Spinach, Insalate Caprese…’ Jesus Christ, how does she remember all of this? ‘….Carambra, Asian Noodle or Greek?’ Why does life have to be so complicated? All I wanted was a simple steak, but now I seem to be on a completely different trajectory.

‘He’ll have a Tricolore. You do Tricolore, don’t you?’ The waitress nodded.

‘You like Tricolore, dear.’ I smiled weakly at my wife, who, for all I knew, had just briefed the waitress to put me out of my misery with a double dose of arsenic. I was beginning to feel very old, very helpless and very stupid.

I sagged back in my chair, thinking my ordeal was over and the humiliation complete. But I was sadly mistaken. This was not the summit. The waitress was marching on relentlessly towards a much bigger and daunting peak. I had to choose a dressing.

‘Thousand Island, French, Mustard, Blue Cheese, Vinaigrette, Indigo Enchive…’ I was losing the will to live. ‘…Ranch, Louis, Green Goddess, Tahini, Italian, Afghan Black, Moroccan Gold.’ Why couldn’t this woman just leave me alone and go and get my steak? I can never remember which dressing I like and always end up with something unpalatable. Was it too late to ask for a soup instead, I wondered? But, confronted with a vision of the waitress methodically reciting all 57 flavours that Heinz ever made plus one or two others, I decided to stick with a course of least resistance.

In this land of plenty you need to know what you want.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Starbucks. Back home, my compatriots, like me, tend to order nothing more adventurous than a cappuccino. Occasionally, some flamboyant soul might ask for a latte. The range of options posted on the back wall is there mainly for decorative purposes. The promise of choice is an indulgence that the straight-laced Brit might like to contemplate as something he could take up in a wilder moment, while knowing, in fact, that it will never happen.

But on this side of the Atlantic the specificity of a Starbucks order is something to behold.

‘I’ll have a venti quad skinny marble macchiato with room and a ristretto demitasse americano with a shot of toffee nut. Both with legs.’

Any American worth their salt is extremely particular about their coffee order. Some will specify the temperature they want their milk to be, whether it should be one or two degrees above the norm of 70 degrees centigrade, others, like the man in front of me this morning, will ask for one less shot of vanilla in his unleaded vanilla bean latte. Amusingly, I then caught him asking how many shots it comes with, revealing himself to be a ‘one less shot’ guy come what may. It seems as if the choice itself is immaterial, the important thing is for it to sound impressive and to be able to order it assertively. The other day I was asked if I wanted my cappuccino dry or wet.

‘I’m sorry, what did you say?’

‘Would you like it dry or wet?’

‘I did order a grande cappuccino, didn’t I?’

‘Yes, sir’

‘Well, I’ll have it wet then.’ So confident was I that I wanted my coffee liquid and, therefore wet, that I didn’t even feel the need to subjugate myself with a ‘please’.

I could no more order a marble mocha macchiato, let alone drink one, than I can decipher what’s going on in a game of American football. What is it about the psyche of Americans that gives them the confidence to order the most absurd concoctions? Are they, by nature, more demanding, more self-centred and more contrary? And if so, why? Is it because having requested, and got, independence, they now believe the world is their oyster? Are they not plagued with the same self-doubt as their British brethren? Or, is it simply that, having being brought up in a culture of consumerism, they’ve become accustomed to having their fill? We, on the other hand, deep down still suffer the vestiges of rationing and feel it improper to ask for more? We remember what happened to Oliver.

An expedition to the grocery store (supermarket to you and me) over here involves more decisions in ninety minutes than our Anglo-Saxon ancestors had to make in a lifetime. I’m just not genetically programmed to know whether I want my orange juice pulp-free, with some pulp, with extreme levels of pulp, or with so much pulp that you could stand a spoon in it, let alone whether I want a variant that promises extra calcium, one with added vitamins, one made from blood-red oranges or a lite one with no sugar. Life was so much simpler lower down Maslow’s hierarchy. Then you could simply quench your thirst from the nearest river without worrying whether it contained benzene or whether your choice said the right thing about you. (With three thousand different brands of mineral water to choose from I lose sleep over worrying which is the right one for tall shy blokes who have lived on both sides of the Atlantic. I would hate to inadvertently send out a signal that says I’m a short extrovert who has never ventured out of the mid-West.) This self-actualisation lark is tiring, particularly over here where options are a God-given right. (I’ll tell you one thing though, Moses wouldn’t get away with his little stunt in twenty-first century America. ‘What? That’s it? Only ten? Where are the caveats and the lifestyle options? And just two tablets of stone? You’ve gotta be kidding Man. And get yourself a haircut.’

The other day Patty, our Ecuadorian au-pair, asked if I could get her some toothpaste. (I’ve no idea why someone with sparkling teeth should ask someone with enamel stubs to choose her toothpaste, but she did). In a dental hygiene aisle the size of an aircraft hanger, Jay (who, contravening all known precedent, had been persuaded to accompany me on my shopping excursion) summed up our dilemma, as we stood bewildered in front of serried rows of different toothpaste. ‘Whatever we get will make her think that we think she’s got a problem’, he said. Our choice could suggest that she has varying degrees of bad breath, discoloured teeth, gingivitis, unsightly stains, uneven surfaces, super sensitivity, vitamin deficiencies, foul-mouthedness or a whole host of unimaginably horrible defects. One hundred and sixty-eight different variants and I failed to spot a single simple ‘cleans your teeth and makes no judgement on your lifestyle’ option. I had asked her what brand she wanted, but she rather unhelpfully had requested the same as I get. I couldn’t possibly get her the ‘beyond all dental hope for Brits only, with quadruple dose of added whitener’ paste, let alone the ‘puts hairs on your chest’ variant that is my own particular preference.

In Switzerland the following week I found myself yet again buying toothpaste and decidedly under-whelmed by the paltry choice of three alternatives. I wondered how the Swiss could possibly survive in such a two-dimensional world with no apparent solution to bad breath, discoloured teeth, gingivitis and all the dental ails that afflict modern America. Then I noticed that they only had a couple of Orange Juice options and later that evening I was asked nothing more than I how I would like my steak cooked.

It struck me that America needs 168 different toothpastes to solve weird and wonderful dental problems because it has so many different product variants to cause those problems in the first place.

Life is exponentially more complicated here in the in the capital of consumerism.

It’s life cubed.

April 2006

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