No Fixed Abode: The Day That Everybody Bought Extra Cheese

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

I was deep underwater this morning in the line at Jimmy John’s Subs, a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas. Thinking about my son. Last night was his first time on a full-sized racetrack in his 50cc TopKart. I was terrified, but he was masterful, entering turns fearlessly at full throttle and nonchalantly catching slides on the way out. His feedback afterwards was detailed, exact; he remembered corner numbers and physical reference points. The best student I’ve ever had, by far, and to the manner born. No reason to not be ecstatic, although for me the happiest moment was when I told him to call it quits and he deliberately slid to a forty-five-degree-angled halt dime-square on the start/finish line, no longer in danger from light poles and concrete walls.

That was good, but there was this, too: I’d just seen a photo of a woman with whom I’d once had something. Smiling, holding a bouquet of flowers at her very recent wedding. Not sure what to think about that. Married to another handsome devil. Always the case. I’m always the most hideous, deformed creature any of my girlfriends ever dates. The minute I release them from my spell, they settle down with fresh-faced men fifteen years my junior, sensitive fellows with properly progressive leanings, tirelessly and cheerfully reaping from the furrows I’ve drukenly and dispiritedly sown. What this woman and I had wasn’t much. A few nights. A brief, furtive coupling at a racetrack before we both went out and drove press cars. Still. I could have loved her.

I mention all of this so you understand why I did not protest. The woman at the register said, “Do you want cheese?” I replied in the affirmative. She rang up “ADD Cheese $0.75.” Normally, I’d have protested this. The “Slim 5” sandwich comes with cheese. I shouldn’t have to pay for it. But I was lost in thought. I said nothing, and I paid, and I moved on.

There were maybe fifteen people ahead of me. At the end of the sandwich production line, a dashing looking black fellow with a random sprinkling of gold teeth called out the orders.

“Turkey Tom, extra cheese, thank you.”

“Vito, extra cheese.”

“Slim 3.”

“Number Three, add mayo, extra cheese.”

“Number Six, thank you.”

“Big John, extra cheese.”

There was a pattern here. I recognize patterns by default. It’s what I do. I started keeping track. Ten of the twelve orders before mine had ordered extra cheese. When my turn came, I knew what he’d say.

“Slim 5, extra cheese, thank you.” I’m sure that you, the reader, understand what was going on. The woman behind the register was new to the job. She’d seen the “Cheese” button and had deduced that it meant cheese or no cheese. In fact, the button meant extra cheese. So she’d been charging seventy-five cents per order for extra cheese, which was then applied down the line. And the line of downtown workers ahead of me, very few of whom earn under a hundred grand a year, all lost in the seas and dark oceans of their own minds, had simply permitted it to happen. If you make $60 an hour, it’s literally not worth your time to even mention the extra 75 cents.

I realized that I was a small part of an unconscious process. By “unconscious”, I mean not conscious. What is consciousness? If you’ll permit me to boil down 1,300 pages of Douglas Hofstadter books into a single half of a sentence, then we can define consciousness as “the presence of observation.” Anything that happens without observation is unconsciousness. Ants are unconscious. They are simply following a basic set of rules and chemical influences. No ant ever stops to wonder why it is carrying a piece of bread or sugar to the queen ant. The queen ant doesn’t stop to wonder why it is laying eggs. Neither of these creatures recognizes the concept of “I.”

Most of what humans do is unconscious and unobserved. We do not order our hearts to beat and we rarely think about the fact that our hearts are beating. We do not command our stomachs to process food. If you have ever arrived at the end of your morning commute without remembering how you got there — congratulations! — that’s unconscious driving.

I’ve written a bit about the effect of conscious thought on racetrack driving, and you can read it in more depth if you so choose. What I want to do right now, however, is consider the entire Jimmy John’s restaurant as an unconscious system.

The woman who was pressing “Cheese” didn’t truly know why she was doing it. But more important is the eight-person production line of that restaurant. Any one of them could have noticed that the vast majority of orders included extra cheese. Had any of them said, “Wait a minute. Are all of these people really ordering extra cheese? This is unusual,” then the Jimmy John’s, as a unit, would have become conscious. It would have been observing what it was doing. Observation is the fulcrum on which consciousness tilts. There is nothing unusual about a single extra cheese order, but eight in a row is unusual. It takes observation to understand this. It also takes an awareness of time. Patterns exist in time.

Since no individual worker at Jimmy John’s thought to step back and consider the order flow as a whole, across time, consciousness was not achieved. I sat and ate my meal in silence, listening to about 50 customers receive extra cheese. Then I left the unconscious system and returned to my desk to participate in yet another system that is mostly unconscious, believe me. We have a bunch of very smart, very highly compensated people who almost never stop to ask why a particular thing is happening. I do almost all the troubleshooting in the department, because I’m the typa dude who notices the reasons for things. I’m the conscious person there. But not so conscious that I leave my job to pursue my dream, whatever that dream might be. I’ve forgotten the dream. It might have had something to do with a woman. Or a car. Maybe that wasn’t any of it. It has escaped me. I’ve been an ant too long to ever be an eagle.

Did you ever look at the cars around you, at the product stocked by dealers, and wonder how we got here? How we went from the sleek squares of the ’60s to the Baroque coupes of the ’70s to the humble hatches of the ’80s to the camper-top SUV-trucks of the ’90s and finally to the bland box CR-V clones that are sold in identical form by everybody from Kia to Porsche? Do you wonder why you can’t get a Honda Accord with Touring trim and a manual transmission? Why there’s no 300C Hellcat? Why the only available colors are silver and grey?

I’m here to tell you that there is no conscious process. Dealers fall into patterns of ordering certain products. The manufacturers fill those orders with all the conscious thought of the fellows on the Jimmy John’s line as they add extra cheese to all the sandwiches. In 1995, the dealership at which I worked ordered 30 Explorers in Medium Willow Green in the space of three months. Ford didn’t tell us to mix the colors up. They put the cheese on. My boss was under the impression that Medium Willow Green was the only color that sold every time. So he kept hitting the cheese button. He was an idiot.

Product mix is nothing but the combined opinion of a thousand idiots hitting the cheese button. “Corvettes sell best with automatic transmissions” — CHEESE.

“You can’t have a loaded car with the base engine, or a bare-bones car with the big motor” — CHEESE.

“Nobody wants a sedan in bright blue or red” — CHEESE.

Nobody looks up. Nobody asks. Nobody thinks. The whole mechanism is unconscious. And when the extra-cheese sandwiches arrive, they sell, because it’s the only option. That reinforces the extra-cheese mentality.

It’s not a harmless process, this unconscious cheese-lining. It robs us of choice. It puts us in the position of having to buy what we’re offered, knowing that our purchase of that product is also a vote for the status quo. If you buy an automatic-transmission Accord Sport because that’s all they have in stock, you’ve fucked yourself and you’ve also fucked the rest of us, because you just voted for that dealer to stock automatic Sports exclusively.

I’m not going back to Jimmy John’s tomorrow. I can’t eat there two days in a row without the depression swelling up. Come Tuesday or Wednesday, I’m going to go back. If they try to stick me with cheese, I’m going to say something. I will provide that entire restaurant with a conscious moment. You can do the same. Order the car you want. Don’t take no for an answer. It’s not just a conscious action. It’s an unselfish one. You’re voting for choice. Like the choice my old not-quite-a-girlfriend made, when she decided to abandon men like me. Scratch that. Like Jamie Lannister said, there are no men like me. There’s only me. And there is only you. So order what you want. Be yourself, even if all you are is an unhappy middle-aged man standing in line for a $4 sandwich.

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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2 of 187 comments
  • Ajla Nice car.
  • Kwik_Shift_Pro4X Not at all.
  • Verbal Here's a little tale about long-term Tesla ownership.In 2017 my buddy bought a three year-old Model S for $68k, which was the going rate at the time. He kept it garaged and treated it with kid gloves. It looked and ran virtually like new. The only problem he ever had with it was some kind of recurring issue with the driver's door handle. He never had to replace the brakes.A couple months ago, at ten years of age, the original battery finally bricked. Tesla quoted him $17k to do a battery replacement. But! If he replaced the battery, they would give him $11k in trade on a new Tesla!!! You don't have to be a math genius to see that those are crooked numbers.Using aftermarket parts is a non starter. Rebuilt batteries can be sketch. And the cap that goes on the battery is a Tesla-only part.Most people don't have $17k burning a hole in their pocket for a car repair. What are you going to do? Ask your credit union for a $17k loan to put a new battery in your ten year-old car? Good luck with that.A local auto recycler quoted him $1000. The recycler said that if he replaced the battery, the car would have a resale value in the low $20k's. That wouldn't give him enough headroom to make it worth his while. He said there are 150,000 dead Teslas in the national inventory (don't know where he gets this figure). And there's no demand for used Tesla parts, since most Tesla owners seem to treat their cars well. So Teslas with dead batteries have marginal scrap value.Thus, my friend's Tesla, with 80k miles on the clock and in excellent condition, with a dead battery, was scrapped. During his ownership, the car depreciated by around $800 a month.He saved a lot of money by not paying for gas, oil changes, tune ups, and consumables. But in the end, all those saving were erased by huge depreciation.Welcome to long term Tesla ownership, folks.(Cue the wailing and rending of garments from the Tesla fanboyz.)
  • Aja8888 My BIL had one of these years ago. great car!
  • Wjtinfwb Job cuts and EV's... is that a winning strategy? You're locked in to substantial labor expense after the UAW agreement signed a few months ago. And EV's ain't exactly flying off the shelves en masse. Get the new Charger out already, it's been teased more than the Bronco and Supra were combined. Get a real Hybrid option out for the RAM trucks and big Jeeps that consumers will buy. Consider bringing back a Gen 3 Hemi with an aluminum block, direct injection and perhaps a Hybrid option to counter the Toyota debacle and get a jump on GM. Dump the Hornet and build Dodge a version of the Jeep Compass they can actually sell. A Dodge with Alfa bones isn't compelling to either brands fans. Fix the Durango's oil cooler problems to avoid alienating police departments nationwide. Do you want every cop in the US driving an Explorer? Freshen up the Pacifica and get Chrysler a cool sedan or wagon that can create a buzz like the 300 did more than a decade ago. And fix your dealers, they are by a large jackasses. Plenty of opportunity for improvement.