So I decided to do some volunteer work today, to celebrate Memorial Day and to earn some really nice freebies, but mostly because it seemed like a good thing to do. When I say "volunteer," you're probably picturing puppies and invalids and veterans and flowers, but this was a totally different animal. This was Corporate America's new take on volunteer work. Here's the deal:

I show up at Paramount Studio's Kings Island at 10 a.m., dressed in a white polo, khaki shorts, and white tennis shoes. I attend a brief orientation, fill out a time card, and punch in. Then I sign away my pay to the charitable organization of my choice, along with at least nine other people working for the same organization, in exchange for several day passes to the park. I was doing it for an enlisted personnel charity for my office, but the groups show up from everywhere.

It seems that theme parks don't have much need for military intelligence, so we took the next best thing: foodservice. We all had restaurant experience, and being military, we know how to clean and polish things we've never seen before (here's a hint: "...until it shines, soldier!"). I have personally worked almost 7 seasons behind the scenes in a tourist restaurant. I walked on the job with typical military swagger, but the right note of humility, and tell my 15-year-old manager, "I've worked deep fryers, a grill twice as big as that one, I've been a dishdog, and I can learn line cook as fast as you can send me orders. Where do you want me?"

" the register. Thanks."

I thought I was in intelligence. I thought my college degree prepared me intellectually for any cognitive challenge that you could throw my way. I'm quite good with people. But I've never worked a cash register. Ever.

On my fifth customer, I had to learn to void out an order. By my sixth or seventh, we were knee deep in the lunch rush, and I had voided out three more mistakes. Within an hour, I had gotten stuff under control, and then


"I'd like the double-bacon cheddar combo meal, no onions, with the sports quart refill (here's my cup), and can I get cheese on my fries? Oh, and I have this coupon."

That's like, seventeen keystrokes, in order. Like, for real, dude. And there is no void key, clear key, or no sale--once you make a mistake, you have to go through a ten keystroke sequence to void the order, pop the register open and closed, and start over. The "no onions" is a red herring--there is no "no onions" button, since you don't reduce or increase the price to leave off a standard item. After about seven iterations, I finally settled on an intriguing strategy: since I'm a volunteer, my register doesn't have to come out even when the manager counts it, and the manager isn't accountable (I suspect this is why the manager was so eager to station me out front). So, I charged them for the sandwich and figured the coupon and the upgrades would cancel. Karma and stuff, or some junk. Whatever.

I would get the lady who can do math (and the sales tax!) in her head. I mean, I do it, too. But if it's off by less than fifty cents either way, hey, fuck it. This lady tells me that I did the tax wrong (I didn't do the tax at all--the 'puter added it in), and that she owes at least an extra thirty cents. I looked up at her, at the growing line behind her, smiled in a moment of what may have been mistaken as insanity, and said cheerfully, "Sorry, I don't work here," and gave her the change I had tallied.

It was so liberating!!

Lady asks for directions to The Outer Limits?

"Sorry, I don't work here."
Are you sure you charged me enough?
"Sorry, I don't work here."
Do you know where the napkins are?
"Yeah--red bin near the ketchup."
I was hoping you could get me some from behind the counter.
"I have no idea where other napkins are kept."
You don't know where there are any napkins?
"Sorry, I don't work here."

My respect for McDonald's employees and their other fast food brethren increased tenfold today. They deal with a huge cross-section of the American public on a daily basis, and we are a bunch of inconsiderate, selfish, greedy rat bastards, and your tolerance for us puts you somewhere between the Buddha and Mother Teresa on the good karma scale. All the same--if you ever run into a loathsome son of a bitch who you just can't please, or if you're having a bad day, or if you just feel a little non-linear and want to inject a little entropy into the universe, remember:

Smile broadly, make eye contact, and say, "Sorry... I don't work here."