I was in the car ordering at In-N-Out.

“Hey, Boss, what can I get for you?” asked the man taking orders who was nattily dressed in his white shirt and white hat, standing in the drive-through line with his electronic order pad and headset.

He looked like he should be waving in planes at LAX and, as capable as most In-N-Out employees are, I’m sure he could.

In-N-Out employees look like they are straight out of Central Casting. "Please send me the most cheerful, polite and well-spoken people you have."

Tall, short, thick, thin, black, white, brown, with braces or without, and young or not as young as they used to be. It doesn’t matter because they all seem to fit the mold.

This In-N-Out, like most, was busy and the line was 20 cars deep. Your first thought is "Will this take forever?" but it usually doesn’t. Twenty minutes later, food in lap, extra packets of salt in the bag, and fries generously overflowing the carton, once again you are marveling at the poetry of stone-cold American efficiency.

We smiled at each other. He’d called me “Boss.” It had been awhile since somebody had called me that.

“Boss” had had a run. Back then, everybody called everybody Boss. In gas stations, clothing stores and on street corners by men looking for an extra dollar.

“Boss” was hard to get a fix on. Had it been a compliment or was it a piece of encoded criticism meaning, “If you want to be a real boss, you might have to step up your game.”

This time at the In-N-Out, “Boss” seemed different. It lacked the irony. It seemed friendly and more akin to an invitation.

“May I please have a cheeseburger with onions and fries?” I said, because that’s what this boss usually orders.

“Hey, Boss, it doesn’t look like you’re going to need anything to drink with that order,” he said, noticing I had two half-filled water bottles on the passenger seat as well as a thermos of coffee in the drink holder between the seats.

I thanked him. I thought about him. I admired him.

He was standing on the pavement among a line of cars. Standing in the sun breathing what he was breathing. Standing, breathing and dispensing wisdom and not charging a dime for it.

Wisdom that went something like this: Bosses keep the faith. Bosses get up in the morning and greet every day with as much humor and gratitude as they can muster. Bosses climb mountains not knowing whether they’re ever going to reach the top and if they do, that the journey will deliver what they hope it has promised.

If a man like that calls you “Boss,” it’s a compliment, an invitation and a challenge. The rest is up to us.

Then I was at the takeout window receiving my order. The Boss had remembered everything, including the napkins and extra packets of salt.

It wasn’t surprising because that’s what bosses do.

Herb Benham is a columnist for the Bakersfield Californian and can be reached at hbenham@bakersfield.com or (661) 395-7279.

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