HAVE IT YOUR WAY
The Bathroom Prisoner Who Waged War on Burger King for Reneging on a Lifetime Supply of Whoppers
New York Times Magazine contributor Chris Colin gorges himself on the weird world of ‘burger law’ in the latest tour of Pop-Up magazine.
Ten days before Christmas, a man named Curtis Boomer walked into a Burger King. A FedEx worker, Boomer had been to the Portland, Oregon, franchise location many times before. He was a regular. But this visit was not, strictly speaking, regular—mostly because, before Boomer even sat down to his Whopper Jr. with heavy mustard and fries, he found himself locked in the facility’s windowless bathroom for a better part of the afternoon, as employees snickered outside. Over the course of nearly two hours, Boomer quietly hyperventilated to the smell of old urine, before slicing his hand on a fly swatter in an attempt to escape.
Once liberated from his rancid prison, Boomer complained to corporate. In response, Burger King promised him a lifetime supply of Whoppers. The subtly harrowing story made the news—as did its second development barely two weeks later, when Boomer, going to cash in on his earnings, learned that Burger King had reneged on its promise. He’d have to pay $4.19 with the rest of the plebs. The whole thing seemed to prove that old proverb: there’s no such thing as a free whopper for three meals a day, every day, until you mete out the wretched remainder of your earth-bound existence.
The news item caught the eye of New York Times Magazine contributor Chris Colin, one of a dozen journalists, artists, and comedians currently touring with the latest issue of Pop-Up Magazine, a collection of live articles coming to Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C., this weekend and next. Somewhere in the odd-news internet, Colin read up on Boomer. Here was this guy, semi-traumatized in a Burger King bathroom, and then denied his right to at least two decades worth of flame-grilled four-ounce beef patties, squished between a sesame seed bun and topped with mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato, pickles, and ketchup. Colin wanted to hear more. “I had this feeling that there was more to it than that,” Colin told The Daily Beast. “It was one of those little stories that speaks to something larger about the human condition.”
Boomer wanted what he was owed. So he hired a Portland-area expert to help him get it: a consumer law litigator named Michael Fuller. Fuller had made a name for himself in the small, but savory world of burger law. He had filed class-action lawsuits against Sonic Drive-In and Burgerville for massive data breaches. More recently, he served McDonald’s with a suit when a kid was allegedly sexual harassed on a playscape. Fuller and his partner jokingly call themselves the “Burger Bros.” On New Year’s Day, Boomer called Fuller while he was out to brunch with his family and told him his story. Within six hours, the burger bro had filed a complaint—an extremely official legal document, almost like something out of an Adult Swim sketch, but, mostly, totally serious.
After the filing, Colin flew to Oregon, spent some time with Boomer, and even locked himself in the bathroom to get a sense for what the FedEx worker’s cursed hours felt like. While he was in there, he started reflecting on the story and the reasons he was drawn to it. Sitting on the floor of the unwashed water closet, the reporter realized he was intrigued by the case, but almost more so by the man who filed it.
Beyond burger law, Fuller has branded himself as the “Underdog Lawyer,” a kind of one-man safety net between working people and the tentacles of corporations hell-bent on keeping their wallets in a stranglehold. “His ultimate vision is, basically, to take down all of the evil parts of capitalism,” Colin said. “But doing it by one tiny, little micro-injustice at a time.”
The attorney’s niche isn’t personal injury law, where a customer might slip on a banana peel and sue the company for millions. Instead, it falls in the realm of tiny breaches of consumer rights. When Dairy Queen didn’t honor its own free Blizzard promotion, screwing one Oregonian out of an ice cream, Fuller filed a suit. When a few people noticed they were getting charged 5-cent deposits on bottles that should have been exempt from fees, Fuller took the case. It’s not so much about winning millions in damages as it is addressing a justice system where small wrongs are overlooked.
“He cares about these things because he feels like they disproportionately target poor people,” Colin said. “The way poverty is compounded in this country—you just get nickel-and-dimed all the time. There’s no recourse. There’s certainly no recourse if you are talking about a dollar here, a dollar there—and that constant feeling of having no recourse is insulting.”
So Colin dug into the case and the microworld of the Underlog lawyer. Sparing spoilers: hijinks ensue. But it’s a story about a very specific kind of justice, about the world of “really tiny, tiny, tiny” offenses. “There are mechanisms for big injustices. We have a legal system for that,” Colin said. “This story is about when stupid, little things go wrong, what do you do?”
In a way, it’s also a parable about journalism, about shedding a light on the unseen, occasionally silly, or seemingly-minor injustices that make up daily life. It’s about the ethos undergirding Pop Up’s performances: collecting stories from the frontlines of the quotidian—be it an Uber ride in Benghazi, the erosion of an architectural landmark in São Paulo, the lives of domestic workers in Hong Kong, or the science of what happens when we sleep. Whether those stories succeed is for the audience to say.
You can check out Pop-Up Magazine May 17 in Los Angeles, May 29 in New York City, and May 31 in Washington, D.C.