by Mike Sack
A few issues back, the Times Literary Supplement published a review of a book called American Niceness: A Cultural History. It came out in the states last year from Harvard University Press. Meghan O'Gieblyn wrote an interesting review of it for the New Yorker last September. The book's stated thesis--"Americans have largely considered themselves to be a fundamentally nice and decent people, from the supposedly amicable meeting of Puritans and Native Americans at Plymouth Rock to the early days of American imperialism"--and the TLS and O'Gieblyn reviews reminded me of something; a feeling so common that I often lose track of it.
It lends itself easiest to retail interactions, but it can occur in any human interaction. That feeling when you say, "How ya doing," to the person behind the counter and they let the salutation bounce off their eyes and respond, "What can I get for you?" It crops up when you offer condolences to an acquaintance at their loved one's funeral, or if you've ever tried to engage a stranger in their native tongue, foreign to you. It even lurks in the backs of minds when great friends or lovers or family members are sharing intimacies. It is the feeling that you and the reality you inhabit have been laminated, tagged, and shelved as Phony.
Probably the most iconic US fiction or even literature on phoniness is Catcher in the Rye, but when you begin to look for it, you start to see the thread of authenticity as theme run through a lot of literature, way before Jean-Paul Sartre was writing about bad faith, all the way back to Odysseus and his cunning, lying maneuvers. For a real primer on the history of authenticity in Western philosophical literature, see Stanford. This is not a dissertation. I am unqualified for that. It is an attempt to understand a moment much, much larger than myself. I find that I need books for that. My experience helps a little, too. The understanding will never be complete. I have no real conclusions by the end of this writing.
I've worked in retail and service jobs on and off for over fifteen years. When I think about the time I spent with cooks and servers, bartenders and baristas, stock room clerks and sales associates, we all seem like so many Holden Caulfields. There's a required phoniness, a putting on of a face, to working in service, so it makes sense; it's annoying. The gap that often splits front and back of house employees is always partially about disparity of income, but it is also about the relative merit of work done for that income. For most cooks, it's worth missing out on doubling or tripling their income if they can avoid pandering to a public that can misbehave with impunity. Some cooks will argue the case of their labor being skilled, but I would argue that deftly appeasing and pleasing an unpredictable public is every bit as skillful as wielding a knife and timing dishes under pressure. A customer's behavior may be a roll of the dice, but the interaction itself is predetermined by social norms. I think this is what makes it a mind-fuck for a lot of people--the deck is stacked against the employee. The customer is always right. Rougier peers of mine have speculated this imbalance to be the result of late stage capitalism. Whatever the cause or causes, the stacked deck remains the prevailing mentality of most retail management practices, at least among larger companies. There is sometimes, however, more leeway with small businesses. Even the resentment against having to be nice to customers can be capitalized upon.
The Wiener's Circle sits on a bend in North Clark Street in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago. Across the street are a 7-11 and Bank of America ATM. Bars, restaurants, boutiques, and shops abound. Convenience is king. All at once, the Circle is relic, homage, and fantasy world for its customers. The menu is simple, featuring the standard Chicago dog fare, and hasn't changed much at all in thirty-five years. It is often attended and known for the graphic and intense exchanges between employees and customers. Take a look for yourself. They had a reality show going for a while. The Conan show did a segment in 2012 where they sent actor Jack McBrayer to be verbally assaulted by the staff and then return with Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog for a sloppy but hilarious rendition of a dirty dozens stand-off. The reality show was cancelled after a couple seasons, but the Wiener's Circle remains, as does its employee ethos.
It was a cold and quiet Thursday night when I walked in to the Wiener's Circle. I was the only customer and the woman behind the counter was not the notorious Poochie Jackson, but a woman who, I would learn, has worked there on and off for seventeen years. She said, "How you doing, boo, whatcha want?" There was no sass. While I swallowed the polish I ordered, I asked her if she liked it better here than other places she worked. She said, "Oh, yeah. If I'm having a bad day, I can take it out on you, baby. I couldn't do that any other place." I asked her what the sign outside meant, the one pictured in the header of this page you're reading. I can be a little slow on the uptake. She said, "Honey, I'm high as hell right now, I can't remember for the life of me. Let me call the manager." And she did, she made the call right then and there. While she was letting it ring, I rummaged my numb skull and then said, "Ooooooh, it's Trump's penis!" She ended the call mid ring and said, "Yes!" We made small talk for a while and I left, having had a very normal and pleasant experience. Granted, it wasn't after bar hours and there was no crowd, but that is how I preferred it.
People have come to expect vulgarity and explosive arguing on late nights at the Wiener's Circle. For me, if I worked there, it would be just as exhausting as having to play nice in the standard service position. Is it real even when Poochie doesn't feel like playing Poochie? The appeal of a place like the Wiener's Circle-- and there are several hot dog stands like it in Chicago, though not near as many as there used to be--is that the employees clearly have the freedom to act as they please, be it loud, sassy, chatty, quiet, polite, or vulgar. They can be themselves.
We are in a time practically obsessed with authenticity. We are in the time of reality shows, fake news, cultural appropriation, genealogical treasure hunts and DNA tests, legit, that is so real, fake-ass bitches, wokeness, performative wokeness, nothing to hide, putting on a face, fake-ass motherfuckers, fake it til you make it, just be yourself.
I myself prefer the simpler, older version of authenticity, synonymous with sincerity. The one that places value on action aligning with word. Show up on time, that sort of thing. It's much easier for me to understand. As for the concept of authenticity, there is no better place for me to explore it than in fiction.
I never liked Catcher in the Rye, maybe because I first read it in my late twenties. Nonetheless, Holden Caulfield is a pain in my ass and my reading ear. I like Salinger's Glass family stuff much better. Buddy Glass's narration of Glass family history in Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction is as real to me as the money I paid for that polish. You can have yourself a go at what we might call brother-personality-appropriation around p. 157 where Buddy lays out a letter from his brother Seymour for us. Or put your nose in the papers of Franny and Zooey, particularly the end of the Zooey novella. It's where the resentments, sentimental memories, maddening unsolicited advice, and questioning of genuineness and purpose between the two youngest siblings of the Glass family all come together. It's where Zooey makes fun of Franny's Jesus prayer, talks about his envy for her Jesus prayer, begs her to keep reciting her Jesus prayer. It's where he talks about Seymour's Fat Lady and everyone's Fat Lady, where you feel Salinger turned Glass reaching out and tapping you on the shoulder. Maybe not, though. Maybe you find the italicized emphasis too annoying to feel anything in a Salinger story. But I know every reader has that kind of supernatural connective moment with at least one book. That is the magic of fiction. It has no real proper analog I'm aware of.
When Little, Brown printed, bound, and published the manuscripts of Raise High and Seymour in one volume in 1963, it came with a dedication from Salinger. It read,
If there is an amateur reader still left in the world--or anybody who just reads and runs--I ask him or her, with untellable affection and gratitude, to split the dedication of this book four ways with my wife and children.
The reader appeared to be nearing extinction to J.D. Salinger fifty-five years ago, as the reader appears to be near-dead today in the crucible of technological explosion and twenty-four hour news cycles. But we are here, and some of us are running. We are here like he wouldn't believe.
Mike Sack is a co-founder of Eye 94 with Jeremy Kitchen and Alyssa Stone. He currently makes his living in Chicago as a cook.