Here is a previously unpublished bit I wrote about working at Mcdonald’s. I will also be posting on Axe Handle Collective.
McDonalds: God why me?
The most beautiful thing in Tokyo is McDonald’s. The most beautiful thing in Stockholm is McDonald’s. Peking and Moscow don’t have anything beautiful yet.
– Andy Warhol
Like so many young Americans my initiation into the world of work was frying burgers. It was a miserable and demeaning experience. McDonalds – that weird purveyor of all that is most quintessentially rotten and American.
The first day of work the manager, a heavyset guy named Brian, showed me around. He took a lot of smoke breaks and had a corrugated voice.
” Follow me to the break room and we will get you set up with the paper work.” He said.
I felt as though by walking onto the other side of the counter I was joining the world of adults. I was nervous and proud. This feeling did not last long. I was given a bright purple polyester polo shirt. Everybody had matching polyester shirts and pants. For hat’s you could choose between a purple baseball cap and a tennis visor. Brian got to wear a hair net because he was a manager. The managers didn’t have to wear purple t-shirts either. They had to wear short-sleeved button up shirts with a little black tie.
He showed me my locker and the time sheets. We went to the break room in the basement of the McDonald’s to do the paperwork. The break room had a TV that was always on and somehow one show and one show only seemed to be the only thing that was ever on. It was the sitcom starring Rosie O’Donnell and John Goodman. While I filled out the paperwork Brian proudly ate one of his “McCreations”. It involved an intimidating stack of two 1/4 pound patties, bacon, a Mc’rib patty, a breaded chicken filet, four slices of American cheese, and a fistful of pickles all slathered in barbeque sauce.
” I like to test out the possibilities of the different products ya know.” He said.
I nodded and tried not to look aghast.
“Whatsa matter you don’t like bacon?”
I shrugged to express my nonchalant attitude towards bacon. “Bacon’s cool.” I said.
“That’s one of the perks of this job. You can eat as much as you want to.”
“What school you go to?” He asked, He had the dead-nutria looking like eyes of a former bully. I instinctively, sensed that ten or fifteen years back, when he had been in high school he had been a bully. That is simply one of the senses that you hone during high school and the mark of a bully, like the mark of Cain, is everlasting – it leaves a certain look of blindness.
“I went to Barlow.” I told the manager.
“Oh yeah, Cow pie high! You play football there?”
I shook my head, already itching beneath the scratchy polyester uniform. He regarded me with renewed regret and contempt.
“Too bad.” He said. ” I was starter quarterback for the Gresham gophers. Alright Alvarado, let’s start you out on the grill.”
I signed a waiver that I would not divulge any McDonalds secrets – presumably to Burger King. The only secret I ever felt like I learned was about the chicken nuggets. There are only three of them. They are half-assedly camouflaged to look as if they come in a wide assortment of shapes and sizes but in reality there are exactly three shapes. There is a round shape, a more square looking shape and one that looks sort of like Idaho.
I was then shown around the inner sanctum of the McDonalds. The grill is where the new comer to the McDonald’s family starts. Then you work your way up the food chain. With more experience you get moved along up the echelons of work, each level in the hierarchy corresponding to the different stages of preparation in the food product. First comes the meat frying, then the condiments table, then the microwave station where every item is nuked for a few seconds and finally the workers who handle the cash register and have to handle the food the least
” You start out on the grill. Then if you do good at that we might progress you on up the ladder to the condiment table. That takes speed though. You have to have quick hands. Nobody is as fast as me though . . . not yet! But maybe you got what it takes.”
“Alright, see how you do, I’m taking me a smoke break,” The manager hacked. I sat to work frying patties and I continued to fry patties for a whole year.
I stayed there for so long because it was my first real job, I had nothing to compare it too. I didn’t realize what a lousy job it was, I assumed that all jobs were equally mind-deadening, soul-sucking affairs that left you by the end of a shift feeling completely demoralized and greasy.
This McDonald’s was shaped just like the McDonald’s in Tokyo and Stockholm and so on. There was, of course, the counter area burbling with large weird machines – the softie machine, the fry machine, the machine to keep the “apple pies” warm and so on. Behind the counter area there was the production area where we made the “food”. In the back there was a walk in freezer.
There was also a gigantic basement freezer where and once a week a semi-truck would pull up and we would stack crate after crate of fries and meat patties, bags of ketchup, bags of pre-chopped onions, eggs, bags of shake mix.
My dad had encouraged me to get the job to learn the value of a dollar and to build character I suppose. I squandered my earnings on comic books and the job made me feel a sense of worthlessness and shame. I was mortified when my high school sweet heart came in with her family one day to order ice cream cones. I hid behind the bun-toasting machine. We had been so grand together the week before when we had our first kiss, there beneath the klieg lights of the high school football field, during the homecoming game with the bugs of summer arcing above us in the dizzy light beams, I had felt ephemeral, non-corporeal, the moment still stretches eternal into the lovely summer air, and the bright, coolly incandescent lights high overhead were a thousand times more radiant and heavenly than a thousand glimmering stars.
Yet here I was in the greasy sweatshop of reality. Wearing a promotional t-shirt for the new Flintstones movie that came out that summer of 1994.
The grill was just terrible! I am surprised they haven’t developed robots yet that can do the job for cheaper. Although I guess minimum wage is a pretty tough price to beat.
You do it like this – grab a stack of hard frozen “meat patties” slam frozen solid together like a stack of super glued backgammon pieces, and slam them as hard as you can on the counter to crack them, then stack them on the spitting hot grill, Sizzle! and quick- slam down this weird steam press on the top of them – so you never have to flip them, it stays shut for like 4 minutes, meanwhile you do this process with some other patties, and oh yeah you dump some salt on em when it comes up, spatula up the patties and put them on a stinky meat grease dripping little yellow but used to be clear plastic tray that slides out of a strange iron cabinet, a sort of cow flesh incubator thing for safekeeping, while you scrap down the grill with something that very much resembles a car windshield ice-scraper.
That is the part where you are liable to burn your knuckles. Repeat repeat repeat ad nasuem. At work I was always too slow. Spacing out, dreaming about the future or girls or deep space who knows? My hands salted and flipped gray dead punched out circles of frying meat while my mind was far away in some convoluted dream
Still this working the grill was not as terribly boring as working the bun toaster – which was about as entertaining as it sounds. Bun toasting. Once Brian the manager caught me leaning on the hand-washing sink and right as he opened his mouth to say ” If you got time to lean you got time to clean,” I jumped up from it and the porcelain sink fell from the wall shattering into pieces. I was relegated to bun toasting for an entire week.
That was when I learned to sneak extra breaks in the walk in freezer. I would go and hide for minutes at a time to escape the stifling heat and popping grease of working the meat-paddies grill or tedium of bun toasting. I would stand for a few stolen moments, on the clock, letting the sharp dry freezing zero-degrees Fahrenheit air of the walk-in crystallize bits of congealed burger grease from my steaming polyester shirt. I would surreptitiously gulp down one of the little plastic, tinfoil topped cups of grapefruit juice available there in the walk-in freezer. I lingered as long as I could . . .delaying as long as possible until I must recrudesce into the limbo of grease
So, I would sneak off the walk-in freezer. If you stayed there too long you would be caught, usually by someone else who had crept back to the walk in freezer to catch a few breaths of frozen air and quiet (it was dead quiet in the walk in freezer) and this would be a sort of awkward moment. You jumping out of your reverie, and pretending as if you had some business to attend to, there in the freezer, “ doo doo doo, just counting the grape juice containers – make sure they are all . . .oh hi, I didn’t hear you come in.”
And then you would sheepishly trade places. Although I don’t know that anyone else was such a fan of grapefruit juice – but something about it seemed cleansing.
I was a prodigious day dreamer that year. Which is no doubt why I was so terrible at the job and never progressed up the ladder of Big Mac making to manager. Then at the end of the day I would peel the purple shirt off my skin, to escape into to sleep only to find that the dream state which had been my salvation while at work was also the hell that refused to let me leave work behind. As soon as my eyes closed there I was back in amidst the pandemonium of beeping timers. Everything had a timer, the fry vat, the bun toaster, the burger presser, the microwave: each sounding off different klaxons, squawks and bleeps and in my dreams I would nightly struggle with these cacophony machines while I fried dream burger patties for dream customers – imagine being lost in a parking lot of 1,000 cars and every single one of the car alarms is blasting all at once. I finer approximation of evangelical hell I cannot imagine –– redolent with the odor of the grease. In the daytime I collected the minimum wage of $5.50 an hour but in my sleep I was damned to cook for free. That is when I knew there was no escape – that the things we do for money are always with us, we are not free to cordon off a partition of our lives for work, because what we do with the better part of our day becomes us.
Trying to keep my co-workers and me on task slowly had made Brian a bitter man, I believe. He was once the star Quarterback of the local high school and now he was doomed to be the overlord of a gang of acne-ridden teenagers with cracking voices.
Things always seemed to go wrong on his shift. He felt cursed. One time the sewers backed up and raw sewage was floating around on the floor by the bun toaster. Another time I was picking up a box of fries from the basement storage and I forgot to lift with my knees – I felt a cord in my latissimus dorsi stretch and then snap in two, just like a piece of licorice being pulled in half. My back has never recovered.
“I think I threw my back out.”
“Bummer,” Brain said.
“And I think I need to go home and ice it or something.”
“Ah, for fucks sake – me and Jimmy are going to have to unload the whole truck by ourselves! God why me!” Brian wailed.
“God why me?” became the catch phrase employees would use to imitate the manager.
Anytime something went wrong we had to report to the manager and things often went wrong because we had only been programmed to deal with the most mundane and everyday operations.
“ Sir, what should I do – I dropped my hat in the fry vat!”
“Oh God, Jimmy, get it out before we have to replace the grease.”
“Yessir – oh god! My arm! AAAAH the burning! it hurts! “
“Not with your arm you dope! God, why me? I used to have the golden touch.”
“Sir my arm is coated in a crispy golden batter, may I go home?”
Brian the manager would then go out back and puff venomously on a Marlboro red and think of that night, long ago when he had quarterbacked in the homecoming game against Barlow, and there in the last five minutes of the game he had thrown that once in a lifetime, un-fucking-believable hail Mary pass, he can still see it flying up high up above the bleachers, arcing past the moon, and the crowd hangs frozen in the suspense, in that petrified moment between horror and joy wherein lies salvation – and everybody’s jaw drops open and even the other players stop and gaze up into the soaring night sky with their mouths agape and they know it has come to this – this one moment could change everything, and up above the players the bugs wheel in the cold blind light of the football field lights.