Working in the middle of the night has its excellent moments. Will we miss them when the robots take over?
I hadn’t signed up to work the late shift. The McDonald’s franchise where I found summertime employment originally brought me in as a mid-morning reliever. I had stated my availability as anytime after 10 a.m., so I’d typically be scheduled for the lunch rush and would be heading home just as night crew started to show up around four.
The people who worked the night shift at my store seemed different, distinct somehow. They were cool in a painfully self-aware way, slouching through the side door to clock in, making their way casually to our meager break room, swiping a fresh fry as they passed the greasy hopper, slurping red and purple sodas through chewed-up translucent straws. There seemed to be something reserved in those who worked all night, a quiet energy marking them that could be observed but never emulated.
I was impressed by how managers seemed to defer to these late workers, these sentient cogs in the machine that made our store one of the most profitable in the area. We were located on the outskirts of a university town and we did a lot of business past dark. I suspect that it had something to do with the number of baseball tournaments being played on campus, many of which stretched on late into the humid summer night. That—and the unofficial midnight curfew on most restaurants—made McDonald’s and Taco Bell popular places to eat.
Just as I was hired our store extended its weekend hours. As of my first week of work, we were open until 2 a.m., which meant that my flex employee status made me valuable. I was getting used to the flow of the lunch hour when I was switched. My next shift would start at five the following afternoon.
Within a few hours I realized that the reason the night crew was quieter and more reserved when they first got into work was because they were not yet fully awake. I couldn’t sustain life with a 10 a.m. bedtime forever, but I was young. I had a trainer for my first few nights, another crew member whose seniority was obvious long before I watched her take two orders from two different headsets at the same time. I was encouraged to adapt quickly and to gasp with surprise less often.
“You work at night now. Shit gets weird at night. Stay loose.”
By my fifth evening, I learned that “weird” was an understatement.
Around midnight, a loud crash startled everyone: A car of drunk 20-somethings had plowed into the concrete slab separating the two drive-through lanes. It took two crew members and a manager to help them park, lure them inside with promises of McFlurries and hamburgers, and call a sober friend to get them home.
Shortly afterward, a pair of guys came through and ordered four McChickens and four small fries. I didn’t know their order because they gave it to me, but rather because the shift manager gave me a heads-up just before they rolled to a stop at the speaker and sat in silence for three minutes. When they did eventually order the four sandwiches and four fries and I gave them the total, they expressed the sort of disbelief usually reserved for alien autopsy photos. No matter how many times I tried to convince them that their meal came to $8.47, they could not trust me, and steadfastly refused to take the correct change from a $20. I ended up shoving the money in the bag with their food.
The final customers of the evening, pulling up just minutes before we closed, were an amicable gang of motorcyclists, clad in leather protective gear, outlandish helmets, and with a single $100 bill between all eight of them. To their credit, they did order nearly $100 worth of food. We ended up gifting them about a dozen dollar-menu fries in appreciation of their friendliness, and because otherwise we would have thrown the fries away. The closing crew was then treated to a number of impressive motorcycle tricks for the next hour while we cleaned up the store, including front- and back-tire wheelies, headstands, and bike jumps.
TOO often, working at night means involuntary entry into a class of invisible people. But there is a different set of rules when it’s late, when the kids are in bed and cable networks can swear without penalty. People who work the late shift know that midnight is no time for gray areas: You either go with stark honesty or outlandish lies, the truest version of yourself or the most creative alter ego your brain can devise.
The dark is literally and metaphorically the context in which most people are most comfortable being fully themselves. Certain things are funnier at night, and other things more offensive, and that’s because they are so much themselves.
The late-night drive-through is a convenient symbol of the whole low-wage economy, and while rolling through it customers usually don’t bother with pretense. Who you are comes to the surface in a long line for fries at 11 p.m. Whether it exposes your empathy or your impatience, your cleverness or your intoxication, the drive-through, in the quiet of the night, serves as both backlight and mirror, illuminating and reflecting.
It doesn’t occur to most customers that there may only be two or three people in the store, and that they are tossing their bodies from the front of the store to the back, taking and ringing up orders, putting your food together, and getting it out a window with amazing speed and their best attempt at a cheerful disposition.
Sometime soon, many of these low-value, exhausting jobs will become defunct, succeeded by fleets of mechanical servants. I expect the night shift to be the first chunk of work that disappears when the robots come. And we can all agree that the robots are coming, whether labor costs actually rise or not. Maybe the whole endeavor would be more appealing if orders were going to be taken by Bishop the android, or even animatronic Barack Obama. We’re far more likely to see clunky, semi-functional touch-screens, the kind of ATM technology that banks have yet to perfect.
The replacements certainly won’t be as cool as nocturnal teens.
Tech continues to change what it means to work, and what work means to us. From revolutionary start-up franchise ideas (e.g. the iPad restaurant Eatsa in the Bay Area) to McDonald’s international roll-out of self-serve kiosks, there is an ever-broadening divide between service worker and customer.
As the New Economy supplants the employment we hold in lowest regard with mechanical substitutes, the low social value of fast-food work is only reinforced. We see evidence that this work we shun is more appropriate for tools than people. One wonders what that must suggest to the humans who still do it.
We’re somewhat aware that a person made our sandwich, and that this person is probably more complex than the stereotype of the burger joint underachiever. They could be our neighbor’s over-educated middle daughter, or Bill from the accounting department that your sister’s firm just dissolved. But a new image of the fast-food worker doesn’t make us less contemptuous of the profession.
There’s another picture with which we are even less familiar: a future where our society finds itself post-labor and post-scarcity. In such a world, work might be just a way to break up the day, an occupation instead of a livelihood. The concept of the work ethic would be irrelevant, because we would choose to go to a job, and we would ostensibly choose it because we liked it and wanted to do it.
Once free of work as a measure of character, perhaps there would be room for some comfort in performing labors in the dead of night. In this future, we might find ourselves choosing the graveyard shift as the communally owned 7/11. Without the wage-labor part, perhaps there’d be more pleasure in service.
There’s only so much fun you can have joking around with machines. The service kiosk cannot perceive off-the-cuff humor, depriving ravenous stoners and friendly biker gangs of amusement and free French fries. The ‘bots won’t ever deviate from the regulations, and it’s in those illicit spaces created by bent and broken rules where the most interesting things happen, where work briefly stops being work and can even become fun.
I struggle with the possibility of such a future. I wonder if, without the need for money, I might elect to return to the drive-through. I wonder if I’d carry myself differently, or if I would be able to re-experience that feeling of slight superiority, of knowing that I did something that not everyone can do.
At present, all this feels like a wild, indulgent fantasy. It’s unlikely that a completely unmanned drive-through will be totally replace the current infrastructure of local fast-food chains in the coming months, but a child born today probably won’t work in a midnight drive-through. Whether we want to trade in all the human interactions that happen there is beside the point. We’ll probably sacrifice whatever it takes to get fast food faster.