Chipotle is a formula. Or, at least, that’s how I often used to treat it and similar establishments. Walk in, punch in the variables, eat the results. Try different variables until you discover what works best, then repeat ad infinitum. Of course, it is also an interaction between two or more people (sometimes as many as three people behind the counter help make my tacos, plus one to ring me up, during busy hours), as well as an easy and quick, fairly cheap and delicious meal. I really like Chipotle. But can the brief journey from requesting to consuming crispy tacos be more than a faceless interaction? From my end I know the variables are more complex than simply which food elements to include. I also have to know how best to request what I want so as to get the best taco-bang for my buck. I’ve devised various set phrases so as to best streamline the taco prep time – for the longer it takes, the less likely they’ll remain crunchy, and I’ve even experimented with different ingredients for this reason.
So the variables are also human. I have come to know what sort of expectations arise for most chipotle servers. It’s fair for them to assume that the person on the other side of the counter is going to order a burrito, because most Chipotle customers do. I used to get annoyed when I would say “vegetarian crispy tacos” and at the sound vege– a tortilla would come out of the plastic container. Sometimes there would be a pause: “tacos, right?” and the tortilla would return whence it came. Every so often I’d have to correct, “No, no, tacos, crispy tacos.” I can’t eat gluten, so the fact that I can eat the (corn tortilla) tacos brings me joy (not an understatement), but the fact that I can’t eat the burritos (without feeling rather awful) is something I get sensitive about – this was especially true when I first found out about my gluten intolerance. Now I’m more accustomed to it, but it still sometimes bugs me to be reminded (as I am many times a day) that I can’t eat many of the things I love. I’ve learned some ways of making the reminders sting a little less, or not at all.
To continue with my example, I now say, “crispy tacos [for here], please,” rather than “vegetarian crispy tacos.” Does it seem an insignificant difference? I can say I want rice and beans and no meat when the time comes, but if I start with “vegetarian” the understandable expectation is that I will follow it with “burrito,” whereas if I start with “crispy tacos [for here], please,” there is less room for confusion, the expectation is thwarted right away. I don’t think it is too grandiose to say this is empathy – and demonstrates the way empathy moves both ways, back and forth between the two people involved. I’m not sure whether it has meant anything in the days or lives of the many people who’ve served me tacos, but my modest understanding of a moment of their experience results, obviously, in an enhancement of my own experience. My vaguely empathic awareness of their expectation and habituation is also an empathic awareness of my sensitivity about the gluten thing, and a kind of gift to the annoyed me of the past, and the pleased me of the near-future. The interaction, despite being a small moment, and despite the frequency of the burrito expectation and the success of my moving it aside, is never exactly the same – I’m a different person each time I walk into a Chipotle, and so is the person I ask for tacos, even when they’re the same person as last time. (As it happens, the reason I say “for here” or “to go” right away is because this determines how the tacos are put together to begin with.)
Nor does this experience go just way in terms of my relating empathically to the various servers who expect me to order a burrito. Besides the times when, especially when I’m the only customer on the line, a serve and I have an actual conversation, albeit a brief one punctuated by types of salsa, there are little decisions different servers have made that have impacted my taco ordering. The chief example of this is the reason I am writing this post. I got tacos with Sarah yesterday and explained my ordering style, and the way it has changed over months of experimenting with the variables. We were talking, in part, about habit. I once read about a man who went out of his way to never do anything the same way, so as to avoid forming habits and allowing himself, mentally and spiritually speaking, to fall asleep into those habits. At the time I read this, I found it impressive. I decided to find little ways of alerting myself to my habits, not so as to fully emulate this man, but so as to take a peek at the supposedly awake space he cultivated for himself. My favorite example: I started putting my belt on differently – some days I’d put it on from the left, other days from the right. Here’s what I learned. Now, almost every day of my life, when I put on my belt, I put it on the same way. But every single time I think about it. I am aware of my putting on the belt, and of my putting it on the way I am habituated to do. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with habits, or that having them implies being asleep. Yes, we can be asleep in them. But we can also be awake to them. The fact is, my little morning habits and rituals make my day begin smoothly and clearly, and they give me a mental space in which to confront the day. This is a nice experience. It feels good, and the reason I move through my apartment the way I do is because each little habitual step and movement feels better and syncs better with the other movements than other ways I’ve tried. If I am aware that I am putting on my belt, and choosing to put it on the same way I’ve chosen every day for the last four years, then what is the need of doing it any differently?
And so, to return to tacos, one day I was at the end of the taco assembly line, asking for cheese, having only recently started eating dairy again, and I was going to ask for guacamole to be put on top of that cheese. That’s the order in which Chipotle moves: rice, beans, meat, salsa, sour cream/cheese, guac, lettuce. But the man behind the counter – a jolly French-speaking man who, as I ate the tacos he had just finished for me, gave boisterous French lessons to each of the people working with him – did not put the cheese on the tacos. He paused and asked me if I wanted guacamole. I reverted back to my unprepared, presumptuous self, and asserted that I wanted cheese. I thought he hadn’t heard me, or had ignored it, or that we were having language difficulties. He nodded his head and asked again – it was clear he was trying to explain something, but I was confused and wanted the damn cheese, and so I said yes to the guac and added again, “and cheese.” He said something like, “Yes, I know, but if you put the guac first it’s better,” and proceeded to do so: guac, then cheese. I could already see, without even taking a bite, that he was correct. When you put the cheese first – the way I had eaten Chipotle tacos since adding dairy back to my diet late last year – it does not form a bond with anything below it, but the guacamole forms a bond with it, and the two, stuck together, promptly fall right off the taco as soon as you lift it. I noted the improvement, thanked the server, paid for my tacos, and then ate them. They were delicious. They stayed together brilliantly. I now, every time I go to Chipotle (several times a week), make sure to order guac and then cheese on top, and I am very happy to say that that man made my life better. The tacos I eat, and the interactions I have on the way to getting them, are better than they were – the tacos cohere better, the interactions are more spontaneous in or through their improved habituation. But I’ve also learned – and get to relearn and remember several times a week – more about how habit and spontaneity mix and mingle in responsible, empathic action. Back in high school I used to think of spontaneity as the ability to allow something to come out from nowhere – but that’s because I was almost never spontaneous in high school. Now I see spontaneity more as a readiness to have expectations thwarted, a readiness to move expectations aside, a readiness to re-orient. Spontaneity is not never doing anything predictable – it’s more like being habituated but awake to the habits, and aware that every habituated act is a choice. We all have habits – morning rituals, patterns of thinking, cycles of feeling. Notice them. Embrace them.