No Free Bread at Pluto’s

So you’re at the local taqueria, moving down the line of glass-protected steam tables of beans, rice, meat, sour cream, guacamole, cheddar cheese, and a few other ingredients Mexicans probably never intended be combined. You hear the monotone questions and register the blank stare and moving lips of the person asking. You think for a moment that she really couldn’t care whether you wanted refried beans or black, whether your order is for here or to go, or even whether you just dropped dead from the weight of one of the brick burritos barely contained in two layers of quilted aluminum foil. You’ve been here a hundred times in the last year, and you have yet to be acknowledged as a regular, not even with a simple hello or You want the chicken taco again? The guy behind you is insisting on speaking in heavily-accented Spanish and you wonder whether he learned his Spanish in school or in the Peace Corps; he does have that slightly hipster look and swagger of someone raised in an upper middle-class liberal family, perhaps the product of a private school upbringing.

Your order is a one of the more expensive items, a combo plate with seafood and steak. The menu mounted up on the wall doesn’t specify all the items included in the plate, so you feel a bit awkward responding to the questions: You want sour cream? You want cheese? You want guacamole? You want tortillas? Your mind runs through several competing thoughts at once before you answer. Yes, of course I want them, but are they going to charge me extra? If it’s extra, I don’t want it, but if it’s included, of course I want it. But no matter what you think, you will not do the one thing you should–you won’t ask if there’s an extra charge for the items. How would you even ask? Is it free? No, that sounds tacky. And you might be able to get away with it once, but the same question every time? Is it free? Is it free? Is it free? No, no matter how cheap you were, you just couldn’t do it. Is it included? No, that sounds somehow childlike. Does it come with it? No, you’ve asked this before, and got no answer; the initial query was simply repeated: You want guacamole? Does it come with it? (pause) You want guacamole? You stare straight ahead thinking that the staff and the other customers are watching you, waiting to see how you will react. You think wasn’t this feeling supposed to go away after high school? I thought for sure when I was an adult, I wouldn’t have to put up with this. Feeling awkward, you figure you’ll get what you want and find out at the cash register whether it was included or not. And then you’ll either kick yourself for not getting everything that was included or kick yourself for spending $15 on a meal at a taqueria.

We Americans are shy about asking about prices, especially when others are standing around us. We think that others may look at us and judge us or think that we are boorishly tight-fisted. Of course, I’m speaking for myself, but I know there are quite a few others like me. Yes, I know there are some mistrustful skinflints in America for I myself have been asked the very question I now complain we can’t ask. In my college days when I made my way by working nights in various restaurants and bars, I heard quite a few people ask Is there an extra charge for that? as if they’d been coached before they came to the big city to stand up for their rights. Don’t let them city slickers take advantage of you, you just ask up front how much it is. I’ve been there, and I know how it is. In those situations, I would try to word my questions carefully, for example, Did you want to add chicken to your salad? I honestly didn’t want to deceive anybody.

But many of us are not like this. I really can speak only about a group of Americans I believe I understand and represent. I know from experience that it’s quite normal and even expected to negotiate prices in certain situations in some other cultures. And of course in the United States, we are expected to negotiate large sales, such as the purchase of a house or car, but typically not the smaller sales. Heck, try getting a discount on a computer part at a large big-box retailer these days. Ain’t gonna happen.

So why can’t we just ask about the price of something? People ask me almost every day about prices, and quite directly. I’m quite used to it. In fact, I think it’s a good idea for people to ask about prices–it’s their right to do so and their right to know, and a business shouldn’t try to hide anything. Why can’t we have a simpler way of asking for a discount or for ensuring that we’re going to pay what we expect? Brazilian Portuguese has some wonderfully useful and inoffensive expressions (which I hope to write about as I recall them), one of which being tudo que tem direito, which translated means everything that I have a right to. Granted, every time I heard this phrase, the person seemed to utter it in a loud, laughing manner, as if to help mask or endure a rush of embarrassment, but it’s helpful in this sort of situation–You want x, y, and z? If it’s already included, you bet I want it!

I just recently discovered that our local upscale cafeteria, Pluto’s, makes a cool quarter every time a customer responds in the affirmative to the question Did you want a piece of bread with your salad? Pluto’s runs a tight ship, and they seem honest. I haven’t checked, but I assume that somewhere on the Pluto’s punch card the price of a slice of bread is listed. But I suppose to Pluto’s upper management, bread must fall into that gray area between freebies and chargeables. Butter’s free; bread’s not.

I’m not going to start asking if something’s included on my next outing to an unknown taqueria. I’m too embarrassed. Even if there’s nobody around, I wouldn’t ask. I’ll wait for the verdict at the register and rationalize it somehow. Or if I’m lucky enough to get an itemized receipt, I’ll check, but mostly out of curiosity.

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