Fast Food, Living Fast
by Anita NelsonIt's just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand.
-- Muhammad Ali
One ounce of mustard. A handful of chopped lettuce. Three tomatoes. Four pickles. Sprinkle diced onions. Peel a slice of cheese, place it neatly over the bottom bun, slap it atop the patty on the grill, and slide it on top of the veggies. Toast another bun. Light mustard. Chopped lettuce. Three tomatoes. Four pickles? Sprinkle onions. Cheese, slap, boom, slide. Mustard. Lettuce. Tomatoes. Pickles. Onions. Oops, customer said, "No pickles." Peel off pickles and discard. Slap, boom, pow. Mustard. Lettuce. Tomatoes. Pickles. Slap, slide. Mustard, pickles, tomatoes, pickles, onions, slap. Mustard, pickles, tomatoes, onions, mustard, pickles, tomatoes, onions, slap! Slap! Pow! STOP! Okay, pause. Rewind a bit -- nope, a little more... more... more -- okay, you know what? Just go all the way back to the beginning.
... you have no formal training in the fast food industry. In fact, you have no work experience, but that's okay, you think; after all, it's only fast food . Sixteen-year-olds sign up for this all the time, and you've got a nifty high school GPA and are pretty cunning in the street-smart department, if you do say so yourself.
It's your first day on the job. Other than the uniform you bought and the mandatory orientation (during which the training manager effectively wasted an hour reiterating the concept of "Sell! Bam! We're running a business!"), you have no formal training in the fast food industry. In fact, you have no work experience, but that's okay, you think; after all, it's only fast food. Sixteen-year-olds sign up for this all the time, and you've got a nifty high school GPA and are pretty cunning in the street-smart department, if you do say so yourself.
Olivia, the overweight manager, greets you with twinkling eyes - which you will only later identify as the same gleam a lion's eyes make before coming in for the kill - so you accept her kind face with gratitude and get introduced to the crew and kitchen. This is Leslie, and that's the freezer. The meats are kept there. Hi Emily, Barbara, Jacob, and that scrawny kid whose name you don't quite catch. Refrigerator, vegetables. Stock. Lauren, Omar. Office, drive-through station. Eric. It's all one long unassorted list that you long to make sense of, but time is ticking fast, so you skip after Olivia to commit more names and places to non-memory. It can't be that important anyway; you're quitting in three months.
Five minutes later, you're wearing a headset and Lauren has you filling up drinks that drive-through customers order while she answers customers on her headset and at the window, calculates correct change, stuffs fries into cartons, and hands out food orders. Your mind cries: This has got to be the easiest job you've ever done. No wonder it's paid minimum wage. What you don't know is that tomorrow, you'll be the one working the register Lauren has today; tomorrow, there won't be a Lauren doing everything for you. If you knew better, you'd be choking on spit right about now.
Fifteen minutes before your three-hour shift will end, Lauren hands you a mop and bucket, and you look at her with the slightest tinge of disgust. Isn't this her job? Never mind the fact that you'll be doing this tomorrow; that can't be used against you, not when you don't know it yet. And so your face morphs back into a smile and with that complacent nature you've always prided in yourself, you fist the mop and nearly knock the bucket over as you begin to work your way through the greasy, greasy floor.
Fast forward two and a half months. You now know better than to try to beat Jacob's four second record for building hamburgers or to interrupt Annette when she's working at the drive-through station. Omar's just been promoted to team leader, and Lauren will be doing the same in February. Michelle's the new face this week, but she won't last long1, so you don't even bother to befriend her. Olivia sends her over to Anita, who sighs. Again. She's trained four new 'uns this month already; no one has lasted more than two weeks.
Four months in, you work your first graveyard shift. You remember telling the gang you'd never work a night shift -- you need to sleep and do homework and breathe, guys -- but Matthew used that puppy-dog face and really, you just need the money. It's not the most ideal situation; Daniel, the night manager and the only manager whose butt isn't well acquainted with the chair in the back office, has the day off. You don't know how to make fast food breakfast in any form, so the only reason you decided to do this was because -- wait, why'd you decide to do this again?
It's too late to back out now, so you work until 1:00 AM, at which time the substitute night manager tells you to clock out. What? She tells you labor is costly, meaning there have not been enough sales to pay workers and maintain the company's 80% profit 2, so someone has to clock out, and everyone else has already done this, so it's only fair you work off the clock for a while too. You're outnumbered, two lazy bums to one timid you; so you clock out for an hour.
The drunk rush is punctual, arriving right as the second hand reaches the sixty-second mark and the two o' clock hour begins. Fewer workers means more chores for you, especially because managers do no more than criticize your work. You are okay with multi-tasking because it gives you excuses to run away from customers. These vile, nocturnal male customers hit on you, attempt to grope you, try to bribe you for your phone number, and suggest activities they'd like to partake in with you beside them, wink, wink. No wonder girls beg to work in the back on nights. How to escape? The night manager watches the camera, but does nothing.
Half an hour in, you're instructed to clean up some dried blood in the men's bathroom; it's from another customer brawl, this time between two drunk brothers smitten over the same girl. Afterward, you wash dishes, sweep and mop, de-salt the fries machine, and remake fresh iced teas for the morning shift.
Half an hour in, you're instructed to clean up some dried blood in the men's bathroom; it's from another customer brawl, this time between two drunk brothers smitten over the same girl. Afterward, you wash dishes, sweep and mop, de-salt the fries machine, and remake fresh iced teas for the morning shift. Your fellow co-worker scrapes the grill and clocks out. No more. You're quitting. Today.
Six months later, Anthony clocks out just as you clock in. He eagerly does a final count of the money in his register and takes off down the street -- hey! he's supposed to wait for you to count yours! -- while your daydreaming eyes cast a final disapproving glance on his vanishing silhouette. Ding! That headset is going to be the death of you. Before you answer -- let those pesky customers wait -- you show the new trainee the onion rings under the fries in the refrigerator in the back. Finally, you turn up your headset speaker and adopt a professional attitude. "Thank you for choosing Onion Rings. This is Annette; how may I help you?"
Credit: Creative Commons License
The new trainee erupts into nervous laughter, and soon the entire kitchen is spilling tears of joy, and jeez, what's so funny? Olivia calls you into the office, and when you finally greet her twinkling eyes, you cower.
"Do you think working here is a joke?" Yes, mostly because I've never seen you get up once from that chair. Could you put on any more weight? Jeez, I was supposed to quit last winter! You don't actually say any of that, not when you need the job so desperately to pay rent, and especially not when her voice mimics the tone she used to fire Omar. If there's one thing you've learned, however, it's that you can't let the lazy bum boss you around -- especially not after six mystery shoppers3 have awarded you perfect scores - so you stick your nose in the air and trot back to your station. Later, while Jacob is rolling up a couple of green leaves and drawing a lighter to his roll -- you refuse to read into the implications of his actions - he teases you about the "onion ring" slip-up. You smirk.
Ashley drops a patty on the floor, but the company's low on large meat, and she's not willing to be blamed. Swoop! The manager arrives, but the victimized meat already lies tucked between two buns, ready to be wrapped and served, ...
Ashley clocks in late for her morning shift. Again. She should know better than to take advantage of you, especially when you work thirteen-hour shifts minimum a day. No one else cleans during the night shift like you do, so she better start appreciating what she's got. Fast. Stupid team leaders with their stupid authority. You're quitting. Today. It's an oddly familiar sentiment that you haven't acted upon in the past months, and you've no doubt that its more frequent appearances will do little to change the future. Ashley drops a patty on the floor, but the company's low on large meat, and she's not willing to be blamed. Swoop! The manager arrives, but the victimized meat already lies tucked between two buns, ready to be wrapped and served, never to be suspected of touching a floor. The first time it happened, you felt shocked, but now, it seems routine. God made dirt, and dirt don't hurt. You, of course, don't condone Ashley's actions; then again, you're not willing to pay for an accidental slip up, either. Whatever.
Finally. It's been nearly a year. You've lived through the federal raise in minimum wage, even though you're still sore about how it eclipsed that $0.50 raise your boss finally gave you, you've fought off the night rush, you've outlived most employees here, and really, you've survived the fast food industry. Sure, there are scars from numerous oil burns the grill gave for memory's sake and there are the few long-term co-workers you've ultimately become great friends with, but today's the big day. Today, you're turning in your two weeks' notice.
Three months later, sitting in class, you receive a text from Jacob. He's fed up with serving his flesh and blood for no worthwhile return, so that morning, he walked out. Jacob is the last of the co-workers you knew; not even Olivia works there anymore. Despite the horrors you endured while working there, your heart can't help but tug a little, but only a little, to return to fast food life. It's an ever-changing workplace, and you wanted to leave a memory. You should know better. You are nothing but a wave pounding on the sand.Endnotes
1. Scarily enough, at this particular fast food joint, most employees did not last even half a month before quitting or getting fired. Replacements were hired every week to maintain a stable number of workers.
2. Bet you didn't know that one of those measly hamburger meats costs the company a whopping $0.35. A single-meat burger costs outside customers $3.28, so yes, it really is a rip-off.
3. Mystery shoppers evaluate employees while disguised as customers. These evaluations are then submitted to the area manager, who determines which employees to fire. Some of the requirements for a drive-through worker to earn a perfect score include that he thank the customer for visiting, supply exactly two napkins per hamburger, and advertise the current special of the week.