Tuesday, March 30, 2010

McDonald's, 1 (Jobs v. Life)

Life is what happens when you're not working.-- Me.
Jobs v. Life is an ongoing attempt to explore my life through the jobs I've had. Read it from the beginning here.

I read somewhere that 70% of people had their first jobs at McDonald's. That's a statistic, true or not, that's always stuck with me about my time at McDonald's, the first "real" job I had in my life.

Another thing that stuck with me from McDonald's is
"Time to lean, time to clean." That's a saying I was introduced to right off the bat, when I was working the french fries-area -- at McDonald's they stick you on the most dangerous/least-skill-requiring job the moment you start.

"Time to lean, time to clean" was a mantra when I worked at McDonald's, and it occurred to me the other day just what an impact that saying had on me as I was cooking crepes for dinner on Sunday night. I made the first batch of crepes and poured two onto the griddle. I then had a few minutes to wait until they could be removed and cream-cheesed. In that few minutes, I wiped
down the counter, packed up the eggs and put them away, and started making my bag lunch for the next day.

Then I realized, as I did that, that I always do that: Almost everytime I'm cooking lunch or dinner, I do something else during the Time to lean phase. I load the dishwasher, or unload it, or clean out the 'fridge, or organize the cabinet full of four different kinds of Pop Tarts.

Time to lean, time to clean. I am not an energetic person. I'm not motivated, not like that. Most of my life has been spent trying to minimize the amount of labor expected of me.

And yet, for the past 25 years, I've put into practice one of the first things I was taught at McDonald's: Time to lean, time to clean. I've applied it not just when making crepes on a Sunday night at home, but in law school, when I'd do my laundry: I'd take my laundry over to the washers and driers at my apartment complex, and bring my homework with me, the cleaning being doing homework as my clothes swirled and tumbled. I put away my laundry last night while watching TV, turning leaning into cleaning again.

People think that McDonald's has conquered the world because (I bet) everyone
everywhere has at this point eaten at least one McDonald's hamburger, but that's not how they took over; they took over because McDonald's -- whatever percentage of people once worked there -- has insinuated itself into our minds, causing people to react the way McDonald's wants them to even without realizing it. I was a terrible McDonald's employee (I've been a terrible employee at most jobs I've had), or if not terrible, certainly not very good, and yet I absorbed a great deal of McDonald's-isms and apply them in my life to this day.

I certainly didn't expect the job to have that kind of lasting impact on me when I first applied for it. I applied for the job because I had to get a job. I'd turned 16, and at 16, the rule in our house was to get a job, a real job, not a paper-route job.

(The distinction between real work and paper-route work was one my Dad made an
d one that I absorbed, much like time to lean, time to clean. For the remainder of my life, from 16 on, I would associate paper routes with avoiding real work, a notion that did not cause much trouble for me until adults began taking over paper routes and doing them for work, at which point I realized that I looked down on those adults who did that, assuming that they weren't doing real work, even though in general I try to believe that any work is real work if you're actually doing it, that no way of earning money is dishonorable. That conflict in my mind grew more acute when, during and after my parents divorce, my mom helped make ends meet by herself doing a paper route, driving the papers around with my sister or my little brother helping. I didn't want to think that my mom was not doing real work, but I couldn't help associating paper routes with not real work.)

(That conflict in my mind would then end, years later, when my dissolute older brother Bill woul
d take a job delivering papers. Anything Bill does for a living adamantly does not qualify as real work. Bill deciding to support his family via delivering papers not only clarified for me that paper routes are not real work, but also came full circle in a poetic way that life otherwise rarely displays: Bill's first job was the paper route -- a job he used to earn money while avoiding any responsibility or work -- and the last job I knew about him having was a paper route. I assume that Bill took the paper route "job" recently for the same reasons he took it at 12, and that assumption confirmed a lot, in my mind, about paper routes, and about Bill, and about my family, in general. It also seemed a good place to stop caring about most of those things, and so I did that.)

The rule that 16-and-up requires a real job is one that I impose in our own house, too: at 16, each of the kids had to get a job, too. Oldest was the first to be required to comply with my imposition of the rule, and she got a job... at McDonald's, a McDonald's only a mile or so from our house. That, too, seems poetic in a way that both life, and McDonald's, otherwise rarely displays.

(This was poetic, too: Oldest was, also, a terrible McDonald's employee.)

When it was time for me to get a real job, I didn't know where to go or how to begin. Living in Hartland, and specifically in Hartridge -- a subdivision outside the town of Hartrid
ge, and a subdivision now best known in this area of Wisconsin for being the location of former Packer Mark Chmura's hot tub hijinks -- left me with few opportunities for nearby jobs. Hartridge was, and is, a subdivision that sits about a mile from "downtown" Hartland -- "downtown" Hartland in those days being some insurance offices, some banks, Wolf's Cobblestone Inn (the location of choice for many a prom and homecoming dinner), a couple of gas stations, and maybe Jackson's Department Store.

I can't remember, now, if back in 1985 when I turned 16, Jackson's Department Store, which sat on the main thoroughfare throug
h "downtown" Hartland -- Capitol Drive -- was still in business. I recall that it sat on Capitol Drive right next to the Bark River, more or less, and next to Phillip's Drug Store and two doors away from the gas station where I would end up working in a few years - but I don't know when Jackson's Department Store stopped being a going concern and began being some other type of business or empty building. All I really remember is that it was called "Jackson's," that it had, on the main floor, clothing and a candy counter, and that on Saturdays when I was younger my brother Matt and I would ride our bikes to Jackson's, "in town," and spend a dollar each to buy some candy to take home in little white bags, candy we'd save for that night when we would camp out in our family room, sleeping in sleeping bags in front of the TV and trying to stay up late to watch Don Kirschner's Rock Concerts.

All of which has nothing to do with McDonald's.

There weren't many places, then, to work in Hartland. There were no places to work in Hartridge, our subdivision. Hartland had places like Corrao's Music Store, and Skateworld, and Red Owl, and Piggly Wiggly, but those didn't seem like places to work, or at least I never really considered working at them.

Further out from Hartland were the other cities around us: Pewaukee, to the East. Chenequa and Nashotah to the North, and Delafield to the South, down Highway 83 to the Interstate. And down Highway 83 to the Interstate there was, back then, a little commercial center that featured a McDonald's, a Burger King, a tiny strip mall, and the "Happy Barn," the "Happy Barn" being a big barn that had been converted into a store (I think an antique shop, or maybe a bait shop, or both) and which had a big smiley face on it:

(The Happy Barn doesn't exist anymore. The barn itself is still there, but it's no longer smiling and has been renamed the Amish Barn.)

That little commercial center sat at the intersection of Highway 83 and I-94, about five miles from our house, and somehow, I decided on applying for a job at the McDonald's there, doing so even though I typically didn't have access to one of the cars my parents had (we had two, but I rarely had use of either of them) and so I'd have to bike the five miles (up pretty steep hills) or get rides whenever I worked.

Despite the distance, I applied there, filling out an application and getting an interview almost immediately by the manager. The interview took place in the booth closest to the counter, during a slow period in the day. I'd gotten the application at that time, and turned it in, following the other rule that my dad had, that rule being Always turn in the job application directly to the manager.

That's a rule I follow, too, to this day -- although I haven't applied for a job in years, and when I did apply for this job, there wasn't an application and I couldn't find the manager if I'd wanted to; I replied to a "blind box" ad because I was desperate to find a job that would pay me actual money, as opposed to the job I had, that of being self-employed and making no money.

I try to get the kids to follow that rule, too, sometimes with mixed results. Recently, The Boy wanted to apply for a job at a bakery where one of his friends worked. We were going to have him drop off the application on the way to other errands, on a Saturday. As he got into the car, I mentioned to him that he should always try to turn in the application during a time when the manager is there, so that he can hand the application to the manager and meet in person, right away.

"That way," I told The Boy, "The manager gets to know you right away and puts a face to the application, so when he reviews it, he'll remember seeing you and have a positive impression." I was echoing what my dad had told me, two-and-a-half decades ago: dress up to turn in the application, and hand it right to a manager. I tell all the kids that, too, although they don't always listen: Oldest once wore a halter top and short shorts, with the nose ring she had then, to turn in an application for a job at a nursing home. "I don't know why they didn't hire me," she complained, and then got mad when I said it might just have had something to do with the fact that she had applied for the job dressed like one of Christina Aguilera's backup dancers.

On the Saturday we were going to turn in the application, The Boy agreed to follow that rule and didn't turn it in, saying he'd wait until Monday and then take it. When we got home from our other errands, The Boy went off with friends and I went in, where Sweetie asked if we'd dropped off the application.

"No," I said. "I told him he should wait until the manager is in and hand it directly to him and he said he'd do that."

"Did he tell you," Sweetie asked me, "That his friend works there and she said specifically to come turn it in today?"

"No," I said. "He didn't mention that at all."

Later, when I asked The Boy about it, he had no explanation for why he'd failed to tell me about the friend who already worked there and how she'd said Saturday would be best to turn in the application. "You were all insisting that I turn it in Monday," he said.

As of now, The Boy has never turned in that application, at all.

I turned in my application to McDonald's, handing it to the manager, and getting my interview right away, sitting in the booth trying to answer the few questions he asked me, questions like "Why do you want to work at McDonald's?"

I had no real answer to that. I wanted to say I'm supposed to get a job, and this is really the only place I can think of. I said something like that, that it seemed like a good place to work and that, and I got hired.

"You start next week. Call me to get your schedule later this week," he said. "We'll start you on the fry vats."

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