The day after a championship victory (or even just a “big win” in the play-offs) is always one of the most anxious you can have, as a sports fan. For weeks—for months, for an entire season!—you’ve been building toward a single game, waiting, biting your nails, saying your prayers, preparing yourself with a stockpile of pessimism should your team lose the big game…and then suddenly you win. The weight is lifted! All the naysayers, the sports writers, the commentators, the shit-talkers from other cities and other schools who write on your message boards (“You’ll never win! You’re always going to be a second-rate team!”) or post trash on your myspace and facebook pages…they’ve all been silenced. And what an amazing feeling. Victory. The goal that you’ve ached for.
But then there’s the next morning, and all the elation is rendered irrelevant. The victory no longer matters because all the world is already preparing for the next game, or the next series, or the next season. So listen,
And so, far from reveling in your victory over the Lakers, or the Oklahoma Sooners, or the Cardinals, or Penguins, all your energy is consumed on the next season…tension and anxiety build…you’ve got to start praying and fasting all over again…your team must prove everyone wrong two years in a row or you’ll never hear the end of it! Oh, such pressure! Such horrible horrible pressure. And now you curse your team for having won the game at all. Why last year, when you could win it next year and you’d still have the victory to look forward to?
Such was my mindstate after my victory at Burger King, securing my third refill of Diet Coke in a single day, despite stiff opposition from an owner who believed strongly in a two-drink limit.
Sure, I got my third drink that Thursday afternoon…but the summer wasn’t over. All the other UCF eateries were still closed, and clearly the Burger King staff knew my face (and my name, since I wore a nametag during orientations). They would not forget the affront.
So I tread lightly in the days following my victory.
“Diet Coke, please,” I whispered at the Burger King counter.
“Hmm,” the owner said, staring at me through spectacles that seemed to frost when I approached. He obliged with a maximum of crotchetiness.
“Thank you,” I said, and perhaps I even bowed slightly and looked at the floor as I spoke, as if he were not simply a vendor and a clerk, but instead some sort of sensei who I had defeated accidentally in a sparring match, and now feared could deliver a royal ass-kicking should I boast about my win. Perhaps I even feared that he would take the Diet Coke back after I’d paid, or that he would refuse me service and state matter-of-factly, like the Seinfeld Soup Nazi, “No Coke for you!”
These were anxious days.
“Diet Coke, please,” I whispered on another afternoon.
“Big orientation today?” the owner asked, venom still in his voice. But he was asking me a question, right? Maybe he was trying to thaw the ice between us, revert back to the good old days when I could swing past Burger King and grab a soda without fear of reproach?
“Well, yeah, there’s a lot of students here today, so—”
“Next in line!” he yelled.
“—and, um,” I said, but he was taking someone else’s order already, wasn’t even paying acknowledging my presence. He’d asked the question only so he could interrupt me.
And I stood around for another moment, Diet Coke in hand, wondering if this was what I had become…some poor dock worker during the Great Depression, groveling for whatever scraps the privileged would allow me, thanking the factory owner for the back-breaking, soul-crushing, pittance-paying labor he might offer. And I was paying him for this abuse, too.
A couple days later, and more of the same:
“Diet Coke, please,” I whispered.
“How’s the weather out there?” the owner asked.
“Oh, you know, it’s a little hot—”
“Next in line!” he yelled.
And again, I stood around for a few moments, disbelieving that my life had been reduced to this. Twenty-seven years old, a man with Diet Coke in my blood, and suddenly I was not simply another member of the masses, but also a target. My three-refills-in-one-day accomplishment had now marked me as “the guy to watch.”
“Sorry,” someone said behind the Burger King counter.
“Huh?” I asked.
“Sorry, but I don’t think he’s listening to you anymore.” It was one of the other clerks, the younger one with the glasses who’d broken down weeks before to give me my third refill. He shrugged and shook his head, motioning with his eyes at his boss, who was already taking someone else’s order.
“Yeah, I guess he’s not,” I said.
“Whatever,” the young guy said. “He’s a little…you know.”
And while he didn’t complete his sentence with any adjectives, only sighed as if the thought didn’t need completion, I appreciated the sentiment nonetheless. In fact, it was the only thing that kept my Diet Coke addiction (and free-fill confidence) going for the next week: otherwise, I felt humiliated. It was as if my Super Bowl-winning team had followed up their championship performance with a 3-win season. Failure is easy to take, I suppose, if you’re accustomed to it…once you taste victory, though, any failure seems suddenly unacceptable, below you, and decimates you emotionally.
Days later, I returned to Burger King for my morning Diet Coke, and to my immense pleasure, the owner did not appear to be working. It was just the young guy.
“One of your co-workers came by this morning,” he said as he filled up my Diet Coke.
“My co-workers?” I asked. “How do you know?”
“Wearing the same shirt as you.”
“Oh,” I said. As Summer Advisors, we always had to wear alternating blue and red shirts to work, perhaps (we joked) so that students and family members might mistake us for Best Buy or Target employees and ask us about the best deals on HDTVs. After you wear a uniform for awhile, you sort of forget that you’re wearing it.
“I told her that there’s this guy who always comes by at the same time everyday. Gets two refills. Always Diet Coke. We had a big conversation about you.”
“She ordered a Diet Coke, too,” the young guy said. “She said you drink a lot more, thought. You, like, always talk about it.”
“Well, I mean, there’s a few of us. We’re sort of a Diet Coke cult.”
“She said she had to have a King Size. You told her to come to Burger King, to get King Size.”
“Yeah, you’re the largest plastic cup on campus. I tell everyone.”
“I guess I never really thought about that,” he said, and handed me my Diet Coke.
“It’s a good selling point,” I said.
I had my debit card out, ready to pay, but the young guy waved it off. “No charge today,” he said.
“Nope. Have a great day.”
“Well,” I said, and tipped my drink to him. “Thanks.”
And I’m not exactly certain why he made the choice to give me the drink for free. If he thought that I’d been promoting Burger King to all of my colleagues, sending droves of business his way? Or if he was just embarrassed that his boss kept behaving with such unabashed douche-baggery. Or if he was simply rewarding me—a faithful customer, despite all abuse—with the one thing that would keep my spirits high for another couple months, no matter what. I’m not sure why I got the free drink, but I certainly did not refuse it, and—now having secured another small victory, and having heard definitively that the entire Burger King staff knew my exact refill schedule—I certainly did not hesitate to go back to Burger King twice more that day for my refills. I couldn’t disappoint, after all.
And since that day, I’m now the one who starts conversations with the owner (“Been pretty busy up in here today?”) and then abruptly walks away when he begins to answer. And since that day, also, several new campus eateries have opened up, all of them within line of sight from Burger King…and occasionally, when the owner is working, I make it a point to get my Diet Coke elsewhere, and walk past his cash register sipping and smiling.
Yes, yes. Refills are a dicey business, and the results of testing clerks and soda fountains alike for a brand-new free beverage are not always pretty. Sometimes, they test a man’s resolve. Sometimes, they test a man’s very spirit. But in an age of economic uncertainty when consumers have been exploited and manipulated for so many years, the free refill is like a great equalizer. For that brief, carbonated moment, it provides the same joy as yelling “Scoreboard!” to an opposing fan after a big win. If it is becoming the worst of times for the banks and lenders and big businesses of America, the free refill is the best of times for a consistently cheated American public, one last assertion that we will always drink our soda (By the ton! No stopping us!) no matter the risk, no matter the peril.