Saturday, July 09, 2005

A teaspoon of sewage

A friend of mine once related what I believe is an old adage: If you add a teaspoon of sewage to a tankerful of wine, you wind up with sewage, but if you add a teaspoon of wine to a tankerful of sewage, you still have sewage.

Another way to make the same point: if you have a lavish, seven-course meal served by uniformed servants featuring sumptuous foods presented on silver platters and during the dessert course you discover a dead rat in the souffle, odds are that what will stick in your mind about that dinner is the dead rat.

Our visit to Sesame Place this past Thursday confirmed what I recalled from two previous visits: Sesame Place would be a great family destination if it weren't for the people.

Sesame Place is located in Langhorne, PA, about 30 miles north of Philadelphia. Many of the people visiting there, and most of the people working there, are from the Greater Philadelphia region.* This means that generally speaking they are surly, rude, arrogant, and hostile. (Say what you like about Disney, but the Evil Empire screens its minions well before they are allowed to interact with people at Disneyworld. And Hersheypark has a naturally friendly atmosphere brought on in part by its bucolic location and in part by the psychoactive chocolate gas that is pumped into the air by the chocolate factory.)

I won't condemn every person I ran into at Sesame Place. The visitors seemed to be a little bit better behaved than the first time I was down there back in 2000, when an angry parent shouted up to a child who was climbing through a multi-level obstacle course "You come down from there RIGHT NOW or I'll break your goddamn arm!" This time around the problem was mostly with the staff - primarily with the staff in a single location.

There are several places to eat in Sesame Place. We chose the Food Factory specifically because it featured pizza, and my friend's daughter likes pizza. When we got in there we found that the menu was limited to about five items, including Cheese Pizza with Fries, Pepperoni Pizza with Fries, and Chicken Sandwiches. There were a few beverages offered, including a variety of soft drinks and coffee.

My friend ordered first, talking to Apparently Helpful Employee #1. He stood behind the food lines and leaned earnestly at any customers who might have questions, but always responded with an incomprehension that led us to wonder if he spoke English, or was even completely sane. The first part of the conversation went like this:

"Could I get the cheese pizza, please?"
"Cheese pizza. Can I get it?"
"Huh? Cheese...wha?"
"The cheese pizza. Do you have it?"
"We're all out."
"Okay. Do you have...never mind. I can see the pepperoni pizza from here. Can I get a coffee?"
"Coffee. I want a coffee."
"We don't have any coffee."

At this point my friend decided to cut her losses, grab whatever food she could, and head for the checkout. I was up next. I grabbed a chicken sandwich, and looked at Obviously Unhelpful Employee #1.

"Can I get a regular fries, please?"
"Regular fries. Please."
"Yah." He wandered off and got them. It was all the work I would witness him do. I then turned to Likely Unhelpful Employee #2, who was filling cups of soda and queuing them up in anticipation of a rush of patrons that was not materializing.

"Can I have a Diet Coke, please?"
"No, Diet."
"No, DIET."
"Regular?" he said, pointing to a filled paper cup of fruit punch.
"Oh, size, is that what you are asking me? Size? Yes. Regular Diet Coke."

I got my soda and turned, bewildered, to the checkout. (Before I did, I witnessed this coffee-related exchange: A woman behind me, probably a Philadelphian, asked for coffee and got the same wall of incomprehension as my friend. She apparently worked out that "We don't have any coffee" meant "We just poured out the last bit from the pot, and now it's empty." She said to Uncomprehending Employee #1 "Could you make some more coffee for me?" To which he responded, "Wha...?" She then replied, a bit louder, "Could one of you people put on another pot of coffee for me?" Before the mentally-ill non-English-speaking Employee #1 could again express puzzlement, Slightly More Helpful Employee #2 said "I'll make another pot.")

Anyway. As I turned to the checkout, the woman at the register was shouting "Next customer! Next!" I really didn't see a need for this, since I was obviously the only other person ready to check out, and I had only just gotten finished dealing with her fellow employees. It wasn't until I sat down with my friend and her daughter that I found out what had preceded this: When my friend checked out, her total came to some ridiculous number of dollars and six cents. (My chicken sandwich, Regular fries, and Regular Diet Coke came to nearly $13, which is about three times what it would have cost in any other restaurant, and about ten times the value of the food and food preparation.) She pulled out the bills to pay the whole dollar amount of the total, and then reached into her pocket for the change. As she handed the coins to the cashier, the cashier abruptly pushed them back and spat "I don't want it." Now that it was my friend's turn to have a moment of incomprehension, the only further response she got from the cashier was a shouted "Next customer! Next!"

(Our attempt to complain to someone who looked like a manager was met by yet another round of I-don't-understand-what-you're-saying incomprehension. I don't know what was wrong with these people, but they all seemed to be working at the Food Factory.)

I can't condemn all the park employees. We ate at another place there, where the food was just as overpriced but the staff was friendlier. But the folks at the Food Factory were our teaspoon of sewage, our dead rat in the souffle. If you do go to Sesame Place, avoid that particular dining establishment. Better yet, save your money and just go hungry.

*In college a bunch of us discovered that an inordinately large number of Freshmen claimed to be from "just outside Philadelphia", a region that we eventually worked out covered the entire southeastern quarter of Pennsylvania, all of South Jersey, and most of Delaware. We labeled anyone making this claim as "JOPs", a term which had the connotation that these people were ashamed of their small-town roots and had decided to make up for this perceived inadequacy by trying to latch onto a big-city identity.

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