Not-so-hidden agendas

Today’s NY Times gives us a j-school lesson in overcooked feature writing marked by barely hidden agendas and grating condescension (not unlike another story in the same spot in The Times that tried to make us sympathetic with a two-bit thief, which I lamented the other day). Today, Charlie LeDuff visits a Burger King in Dallas to try to urge sympathy for a woman who has a bad job but who also admits, way down in the story, that she “wishes she would have worked harder in school. Not gotten pregnant at 13. Again at 14.” Let’s dissect this one:

Off a bleak and empty interchange midway through the Dallas sprawl stands a Burger King. It’s past midnight, the rain sizzles on the parking lot blacktop like frying bacon. A young woman is working the lobster shift at the drive-through window. She is overweight and wears pink lipstick.

“Nothing special,” she says of herself. “Nothing much.”

Gloria Castillo is 22, married, a mother of two, a Latina from the rough side of Dallas. She is on the low side of making it.

The night is busy, and a mustache of perspiration breaks across her lip. She is alone with the fry cook.

Note the heavy atmospherics: rain sizzling like bacon (really?). Note the many ways to say that the subject is overweight and sweaty. He’s sympathetic to her yet also looks down at her. We bring you the great unwashed.

The customers are rude tonight, drunk and bellicose. One guy doesn’t want to pay for his food, figuring it ought to be free. If he had wanted to rob the place, Ms. Castillo says with a tight smile, it would have been easy enough; the window doesn’t lock here like it does at the McDonald’s.

And a literate thief reading the New York Times appreciates the tip.

From the car window, the whole fast-food experience is a numbing routine. Pull up. Order from the billboard. Idle. Pay. Drive away. Fast food has become a $120 billion motorized American experience.

No news there. It’s a big industry with lots of jobs, many numbing.

But consider the life inside that window on Loop 12 in West Dallas. There is a woman with children and no health insurance, undereducated, a foot soldier in the army of the working poor.

The reporter paints her as a victim, don’t you think? And he tells us to be sympathetic to her plight. She has a crappy job. He doesn’t yet tell us that she made the choices I listed above. She’s a victim here. Of what, I’m not clear. The atmosphere continues:

The fry cook sneezes on the meat patties. Cigarettes go half smoked. Cameras spy on the employees. Customers throw their fries and soft drinks sometimes because they think it’s funny.

So far, he has told us how to rob the place and why it ought to get health-department citations. More like this to come.

“I hate this job,” Ms. Castillo says with a smile. “I hate it.” It is her third drive-through job. First it was Whataburger. Then McDonald’s. Now here. It is becoming a career.

“Burger King pays better,” she says. Even so, she has taken a second job: “It’s a bar. There’s a lot of white guys in there. I go and clean the restrooms. There’s three restrooms I clean for $150, and I do it in one hour and 30 minutes. One hour and a half.”

Well, the job’s not pleasant, but $100 an hour beats bagging burgers.

Ms. Castillo is the daughter of an illegal immigrant who came to America from Honduras by bus 22 years ago, with Ms. Castillo gestating inside her. Her mother lives on a disability check now, and Ms. Castillo is the American who sees herself competing with illegal labor, labor that drives down her wage, she says.

“I never worked with white people,” she says while putting a cup of soda and ice together. “Everywhere I go and apply, it’s always Mexicans, black or Chinese.”

She surmises that the entire morning staff at her Burger King is illegal. “I can tell you everyone who works here in the morning works fake papers. No English. Nobody in the morning knows English.

“Somebody takes the order and then we tell them in Spanish.”

Ernesto Hernandez, her manager, says that he does not know if he employs people who work with false Social Security numbers and that it is not his job to know if the numbers are real. “Call corporate,” he says in a thick accent. “They have that information.”

Corporate did not return calls.

So now add that to the favors the reporter has done for this Burger King and its employees: He practically dares the INS to come and collect the day-shift employees and he doesn’t ask them whether they are illegals.

Whatever the truth of the matter, there’s a lot of ethnic friction behind the drive-through glass, Ms. Castillo says: “There’s a lot of hate.”

She hands the soda and a sack of 10 tacos to a guy in a Chevy who looks stoned. He doesn’t count his change. He drives away with one hand on the wheel, one in the sack of tacos.

A sign on the window says: “Burgers for breakfast beginning at 8 a.m.”

Hate is a strong word. Then LeDuff shifts from that to the mundane and uninformative observations of the feature writer. What does it mean that the guy doesn’t count his change or that burgers are sold at 8 a.m.? It’s a classic feature-writer’s trick: Empty the notebook of such details and act as if they mean something, even if they don’t.

LeDuff next proceeds to outline the difficulties of Castillo’s day — her pay, her schedule with her kids and husband, her efforts to go to school now, her habit of buying the kids fatty McDonald’s food: life. He concludes:

Around 2 a.m. work begins to slow down. This is the unpredictable hour. It could be filled with only the fry cook’s music, or it could be the hour that gunmen rob the place and lock them in the freezer. It’s happened before, she says. It happens dozens of times a month at fast food restaurants across the country.

Tonight, it’s music. Gloria Castillo stares out the open window, allowing the wet air to blow inside. “I got dreams,” she says. “I’m a human being.”

She looks at the crummy little house across the parking lot with peeling paint. “That would be good too, a little house. I don’t want much.”

And just what are we supposed to take from this story? Are we supposed to feel guilty for her fate? Why? What are we supposed to do about this person with the crappy job and bad choices and hate for the immigrants who compete for those crappy jobs? Who says she doesn’t have dreams and isn’t a human being? We didn’t. But it’s practically assumed that we did. Why is this story in the national section of the national paper?