I am a former fast food employee, and I have some confessions to make. We all blame McDonald’s now for fat kids, mad cows, and Morgan Spurlock, but you’ll have to blame me too. I was there.
I worked at McDonald’s from the ages of 15 to 18. I was very good at it. You can tell by all those buttons I earned on my little hat there. You got pins for doing something good, like coming to work on time–or keeping your mouth shut–like after you worked a 14 hour shift without overtime. McDonald’s was (and still is) sketchy. It was worth it for a pin.
Pins were prized possessions. Pins were street cred. With ’em, you were higher in the food chain. Still, the bar was pretty low when the managers were ex-convicts. Anyway, I had a lot of the pins. I’m only somewhat embarrassed by it now, but there are worse things than being a “really good” McDonald’s employee. Like being a Wendy’s employee. I’ll be vindicated in the end, because one day, rare late-90s McDonald’s pins will be worth $1000 each, and I got like thirty of ’em, see? Three words: Nest Egg McMuffin.
I can still remember the first one I ever got–that pumpkin with the arches for eyes. You also got pins for surviving promotions, like George of the Jungle Berry Milkshakes, the return of the McRib, or Beanie Baby Happy Meals. I worked there during the height of Beanie Baby Craze. This is when everyone thought the Beanie Babies were going to be cherished dolls for the ages. The day the Happy Meal came out, McDonald’s had lines out the building. We called it “out the ass”: a line out the ass, because that’s what it was. Adults were buying Happy Meals for themselves, children were being kicked in the shins, and people’s heads were exploding because the hellhole was out of Scoop the Pelicans.
I wanted the job at McDonald’s. It wasn’t something I was forced into getting by my parents. Still I remember turning in the application, not understanding what to fill in for half the questions, and feeling a sense of doom. Did I really want to do this? Would I ever be the same? Being the cleanest teenager to apply for the job that day, I landed it easily. I remember not telling my friends about it. It was not out of embarrassment however–it was that I didn’t want them to copy me by running out to get a job. They were so unoriginal.
I had a job. We went to Chi Chi’s to celebrate, because my family went to Chi Chi’s to celebrate all minor life events. My dad said that “this was it”–now I’d joined everyone else in earning a paycheck, and I’d be doing it for the rest of my life.
I made Big Macs, took your order, asked you to pull up to the window, and poured extra salt on your fries for the beauty of it. Something in the way the salt came out of the canister, mesmerized me. Something in the way it didn’t just pour out. It flowed out like a beautiful river of sodium, under the hot fry lamps.
Let’s take a few things off the table. Number one: we never flipped the burgers. I was not a burger flipper. You pulled a giant machine down on top of the burgers to grill them on both sides at once. It was called The Clamshell. McDonald’s had machines for everything; preparing food was magical and Wonka-like. Ice Cream came from pulling levers, eggs formed from a cup of microwaved liquid, meat came from a cardboard box.
Another thing, and an important one for me is, I never spit in anyone’s food. That’s the stereotype, that these acne-faced kids spit in your food. Let me tell you that I’m smarter than that. So what, you ingest a gob of spit? Nothing happens. You didn’t even know. If I wanted to get an enemy, I did something more clever, more sinister, and more harmful. My weapon was that salt canister. I oversalted people’s fries. I mean, I oversalted them. It was the perfect tactic too–completely invisible. The potatoes absorbed all the salt, hiding my attack. Crappy fries can ruin your meal, your day, and finally, one day all that artery-clogging salt will ruin your life.
The thing about McDonald’s is that there is grease. Once you step behind the counter, it’s like tires with no tread on a rainy day. It’s slicker and your rubber soles slide gently with it. Grease is everywhere–the smell of it, the taste of it, caking the walls, your skin, creeping underneath your fingernails, and into your hair. It’s still there on my denim hat, cooked into it. A McDonald’s job isn’t forever. Nobody ever stays. But the grease never goes. It’s permanent.
McDonald’s was influential on my young mind in many ways. Waking up early, standing on my feet for 8 hours, microwaving chicken patties repetitiously– oh, I was going to need something else for this shit. Some kind of drugs. That’s when I taught myself to enjoy coffee. I thought McDonald’s had the best coffee until my Dad told me it wasn’t. “That coffee’s shit,” he said. So I moved on to Benegal Traders from the Exxon Station.
I learned to save money and bought myself an ’87 Jetta (in 1997). I was so proud of that car that I installed a CD player in it, even though only two of the speakers worked. One day, as I drove to work at McDonald’s, I blew out another one of the speakers blasting my tunes, and then only one worked.
My favorite thing to do at McDonald’s when I wasn’t oversalting the fries, was to make the Filet O’ Fish. I liked squishing the slice of cheese onto the squirt of tartar sauce. I also enjoyed telling friends that I picked food up off the ground and served it to customers. I loved their reactions and declarations that they would never eat at McDonald’s again–though I was completely making it up. Looking back on it now, it doesn’t seem as cool to exaggerate stories of picking food up off the ground.
Everything gets exaggerated. There was this one kid Rob who drank a whole bucket of lard once. He did it for twenty bucks. True story. Except the bucket was actually a sixteen ounce cup, and the lard was just a shot of vegetable oil. And no one paid him. He did it for laughs. There was the time I broke my ass and back and head falling down the stairs to the breakroom, but I miraculously stood right back up. I got burnt from splattered grease a few times too, and I still have the mangled scars to prove it. Children ask me in fear and awe what they are. Everything gets exaggerated.
I ate the Big Mac every single day I worked, until one day I couldn’t possbily eat another in my life, and then I became a vegetarian. Sometimes I still exaggerate stories about why I became a vegetarian–inventing stories of the stuff I’d seen in the grill-area. War stories. But I didn’t see nothing. I really just got sick of that Big Mac. When I came out to my parents as a vegetarian, we were of course eating at Chi Chi’s. I declared I was ordering the bean tacos and I did it dramatically. “I’ll Have The Bean Tacos. And. I’m Never. Eating Meat Again.” My dad laughed and said I’d be craving meat in a few days, but I haven’t eaten red meat since.
McDonald’s was the first time I’d seen the real world–people outside of my family, friends, and school. Other people. People were something new to me; they perplexed me. I didn’t understand these humans, doing things like ordering a Double Quarter Pounder Meal, Super Sized, why sure, they’ll have a pie, and make it a Diet Coke. Really? You’re gonna save 100 calories in corn syrup, but eat 1600 calories in fat?
Of all these things, my favorite memory of McDonald’s is probably the time I got to run a birthday party. Every kid’s dream party was at McDonald’s, and I got to be the dream maker. This happened by accident. McDonald’s had a special Birthday Party Professional come in to run the booked parties, Mary Beth. One Saturday, Mary Beth had the flu, and Little Jimmy’s birthday party was at 2. It was 1:30.
The manager scanned the skeleton crew, a bunch of ugly teenagers, potheads, and morons working. I was the best-looking and most coherent employee left. They chose me. I knew nothing about children’s birthday parties, but already some of Jimmy’s friends were coming in with big, wrapped gifts. I knew I couldn’t let the kid down.
I needed games. I wadded up a tray liner, got a couple of Super Sized cups, and invented a toss-the-wad-in-the-cup, win a Happy Meal toy. I knew this was the worst game ever, but I had to work with I had, which was absolutely nothing, on 10 minutes preparation. The kids played this game competitively. I remember they even tried to cheat. I couldn’t believe I was policing 7 year olds who were cheating to land a wad of paper in a paper cup. Kids are assholes. But I gave them all a prize out of sheer guilt for the crappiness of this game.
The food came out and everyone started eating, so I had some time to solve the next dilemna–the cake. The birthday cakes were stored in the freezer, needing a few hours to thaw out before the party. This of course, had not happened. I stood there sweating, staring at this frozen brick of a sheetcake, with an edible image of Ronald McDonald and Grimace dancing on the top. What to do, what the fuck to do. I tried zap-thawing it in the microwave. The kids were finishing eating. I hit another 20 seconds on the microwave.
Finally, I could stall no longer. I marched that frozen cake out there, and began a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday. I was thrilled when all the kids joined in with me. I was really running this show! I sat the cake down and Little Jimmy blew out the candles. This was it. I pulled out a knife, and with every iota of strength, summoning the will of Horus, I cut through the tundra. Then I served it. To this day, I have no idea how the children ate the cake, but they all did. Every last bite. I take it all back. Kids are not assholes–they are amazing, self-preserving, and determined to have a good time. God bless them.
The parents had wanted no part in the party sitting on the other side of the restaurant. They came back when the party was over, and gave me a twenty dollar tip. My head spun. Twenty dollars, holy crap! I was rich.
But all things come to an end. A few of my friends did end up copycatting me, and also got jobs at McDonalds. I also made a few friends during my time there as well. But like I said, no one ever stays. They got other jobs, and then one day I did too–at a record store. Now that was my dream job. I strutted into McDonald’s one day and did the classiest thing I knew how–I wrote my two weeks’ notice on the back of a tray liner. And then that was it.
That was my first job. I was a former fast food employee, a soldier once…and young.