Saturday, June 25, 2011

McDonald's, 5 (Jobs v. Life)

Here's the previous installment in this series.

It's been nearly four months since I last wrote a Jobs v. Life, but that alone would not have made me put in another entry in what originally was more of a regular feature here. Instead, what prompted me to write this latest installment -- the thrilling story of how I came to be fired from my first "real" job ever, at McDonald's -- was a combination of factors that boils down to this:

1. Sweetie and Mr Bunches are both asleep, taking naps this afternoon.
2. Mr F is largely minding himself on his swing.
3. I am listening to Florence + The Machine's only good song, Kiss With A Fist, and it's making me feel energetic, and
4. Last night, on the "Knit Top" date I took Sweetie on, we walked through the Memorial Union on campus, enjoying what I liked to call a "college night out only with money," and while she ate her ice cream cone I noticed a flier for a memoir-writing class one could take that would answer some questions many budding memoirists have, questions the flier said included "What if I can't remember anything?" and "What if what I write makes someone I know angry?"

I don't care about either of those questions, really. I just started thinking how this blog is both sort of an instant memoir and also a real memoir in the sense that I not only write about things I'm doing now (or more or less now) but also about things that happened a long time ago, and then I started thinking about how I'd not written one of the memoir-ish entries in a long time, and then I listened to Kiss With A Fist a second time, and now I can tell you the

Strange But True Story About How I Got Fired From My Job At McDonald's For Lying And Calling In Sick (But It Was Mostly My Dad's Fault For Not Covering For Me)(And Also It's Not Really Strange.)

As I've noted many times, I'm not what you'd call a really good worker. I mean, I am, now, but now I get paid a really kind of amazing amount of money to do what I do, and also what I do is largely something that only a few other people in my state do, period, so it's pretty easy to be really good at what you do when there's so little competition.

But back then, when I was 16, I was not a good worker, at all, not even by the standards that apply to 16-year-olds, which I'm sure are pretty minimal standards. I don't know; I don't employ any 16-year-olds, and the last time there were 16-year-olds in our house was when The Boy was 16 nearly 4 years ago, and by the time The Boy was 16, I'd more or less given up on imposing standards at all, and had settled for just hoping that he'd not make things worse deliberately, a phase of my parenting that was marked by my decision to simply shut the door to his room rather than make him clean it up -- a decision in turn which has led to his room still not being cleaned up, nearly six months after he moved out of the house, and honestly I'm at a loss for how I can make him clean his room now, when I haven't imposed that particular rule in a half-decade, and he has his own apartment, an apartment I've never been to and which I likely will not go to, ever, because I've seen what's left of his room and can't imagine how much worse it will be when there is nobody around to make The Boy do even the simplest chores.

I can't imagine how bad his apartment is, in that my imagination fails me -- but I can, in the lizard part of my brain where elemental fear is processed, know that his apartment is so unkempt and dirty, it must be so terrible, that I never want to go there.

But I digress. Being related to someone who left behind a room that smells, powerfully, of onions, for some mystifying reason, will do that to me.

As a 16 year old McDonald's employee, I hit my high point when I had progressed to the "grill" station, being the guy in charge of standing over 10-30 frozen meat patties as they cooked for predetermined times, flipping them when a light told me to flip them, putting them on the buns that also cooked for a predetermined time, and then putting the toppings on in predetermined amounts, in the order I had been trained to do it. McDonald's then did not refer to the grill station as "cooks," and that's likely because there was no cooking involved. The crew chief, up near where the food was kept under heat lamps, would yell "10 ham, 10 cheese" and I would take out 20 frozen patties, place them on the grill and hit a button. I would then put 20 buns into the toaster.

When a beep went off, I would sear the burgers, pressing them with what looked like a large metal mushroom with a flat top; holding it by what would be the mushroom stem, I'd press the flat-top onto the meat for a few seconds, hearing it sizzle.

Then the buns were ready, and I'd take them out and put them on a metal table by the condiments. First ketchup, then mustard, each in a dispenser that required no judgment: I'd press a tab, and the exact right amount of ketchup and mustard would be spritzed onto the buns. (If, back then, you got too much mustard or ketchup on your burger, it was done deliberately, an act of sabotage. Or boredom. Or not laziness.)

Then a beeper would go off, and I would turn and flip all the burgers. I'd take a pinch of diced onions and sprinkle a few onto each burger. That step was the only step that required any judgment whatsoever, allowed for any discretion: There was no dispenser for onions, no predetermined amount to place on the patties. I was the Lord of the Onions: I could put only 1 or 2 on your burger, or a handful. I could lump them in the center or spread them around. The decision was entirely mine.

That is not a lot of job fulfillment.

The timer would beep again and the burgers were scooped up, slid onto the buns, and the bottoms of the buns were placed on them. (All McDonald burgers, then, began their life upside down, rounded buns supporting the rest of the sandwich; they were not righted until the crew chief wrapped them and slid them under the heat lamp.)

That's what I would do, 3 hours at a time, 15-20 hours a week. Shifts back then were rarely more than 3 or 4 hours; sometimes on the weekend people would work a double, 6 or 8 hours. Almost everyone who worked at my McDonald's -- on Highway 83 in Delafield -- was a teenager, high school kids supervised by people who seemed like grownups but who I now realize were probably 25, maybe 30.

In between cooking, we cleaned. We were not supposed to stand around. We mopped and wiped down and stocked up and on one memorable Saturday, I spent three hours --


-- putting labels on the McDLT boxes. Remember those? They were a 1980s innovation in sandwichry: The cold side stayed cold and the hot side stayed hot, and the specially prepared styrofoam boxes made sure of that:

Those boxes didn't originally come with the logos preprinted on them; when the McDLT hit Highway 83, the boxes were plain white and there were rolls of stickers that had to be placed on them, and that was my job, one Saturday afternoon in what I remember as summer, but it may not have been, because when I think back on being 15 and 16, I remember it pretty much as always being summer, which of course can't be true because I've lived in Wisconsin all my life, and Wisconsin has very little summer, period, in any given year. But there you go: Even though nowadays I suffer through 10 months of cold weather and a June in which the temperature Thursday night was 59 degrees, my memory has made it so that when I was a kid, the weather was beautiful. I bet, when I'm 70, I'll look back on this summer, the 59-degree-Thursday-summer, and remember it as being Hawaii-esque.

As you would guess, the job of "McDLT Sticker-Onner" does not fall on someone the manager holds in high esteem, although I only now realized that; back then, I just thought "Excellent. I do not have to work the grill, or the fry station."

I didn't want to work the grill, because that was work and also when you worked grill you stood by the crew chief, and the crew chief was usually Terry, a portly red-haired guy with almost-Marty-Feldman-esque eyes who was really nice but who also really took Time to lean, time to clean seriously and would have us be cleaning in between steps of cooking burgers, which is really just ridiculous because, sure, if I'm not cooking burgers, yeah, I've got time to clean, but when I'm cooking burgers, when they're on the grill, I'm clearly already doing something, even if all I'm doing is waiting for the next beep to tell me what to do next, so what Terry was really saying was do two things at once, which is obviously not something I want to do.

I didn't want to work fries because that's for new people or losers, and I wasn't new, and there's a pecking order, even at McDonald's, and getting stuck on fries when you're not new is like being demoted, with people looking at you and smirking and saying "Got stuck working fries, huh?" if they're people like my friend Brian Drifka, or if they're the girl I thought was hot, like Jenny Strieter, looking at you with sad eyes that seem to say "Working on fries? That's another reason I'll never go out with you."

She never did go out with me, either, but it's really her loss. Plus, Sweetie is hotter than Jenny Strieter ever could have been.

So that Saturday, which was not the Saturday I got fired (I got fired on a Friday, technically speaking), I got put on "McDLT Stickering" duty, and that was fine with me because it kept me away from Terry but did not (theoretically) create further impediments to my impressing Jenny Strieter, and also because pretty much everything you do at McDonald's is mindless repetitive labor but this mindless repetitive labor did not involve grease burns, so it was not a bad job. I stood near the back of the grill area...

... you may wonder why I stood, when there is no need to stand if you are putting stickers on a box. I wondered it, too, and was going to sit on the boxes of McDLT containers and stickers while I did it, but as soon as I sat down, leaning, really, to begin stickering, the manager appeared and said "Let's not be sitting around" and moved through the grill area briskly, and so I had to stand and sticker the boxes, because sitting is not very McDonald's, I guess.

... and began putting stickers on the boxes, which was not as easy as it sounds.

(I should point out that the stickering, too, had nothing to do with my getting fired. This is all just a sidebar, really, and if you're aware of how long this post has been, you're probably starting to think Man, he's not going to get to the firing part, and that's probably right. Let's put our heads down and muscle through, though.)

The stickers were supposed to be as straight as possible; remember, this is a class act McDonald's was running here. Not just anyone was going to be buying a sandwich with the lettuce still cold and crispy while the burger was warm and juicy. These were going to be hoi polloi, as far as McDonald's was concerned, and the manager instructed me to keep the stickers as straight and centered as possible.

He really did -- giving me four examples. Before I'd begun, he'd taken me and shown me the boxes and the stickers and told me what he needed me to do (and I hadn't even realized, then, just how expendable I was, that I could be given a job like this to do) and he'd then taken the stickers and put them on the box to show me, taking the cold side sticker off its roll and putting it on, carefully (and yet still quickly) and making sure it was centered, and then taking the hot side sticker off its roll and doing the same.

"See?" he asked me (and I didn't realize what his opinion of me was, that he thought I needed instructing on sticking labels to a box), and as he asked me, he did a second one. "See how it goes?" he said again.

"Yep," I said, and I did, but he did a third one to make sure.

"Just like this," he said, holding it up in case I hadn't been able to clearly see the first two. He held it long enough that I eventually took it, and looked at it.

"Okay," I said, as he did a fourth and then patted my shoulder. "Go to it," he said, and set the last one he'd done in front of me, like an example, which it probably was. Looking back on that episode, which I remember clear as day, it's pretty obvious to me that he thought this was a mentally taxing job for me. (Or maybe he thought it was physically taxing; I was pretty fat, then, which was probably far more of a reason Jenny Strieter said I was "just a friend" than the fries thing.)

So I began stickering the boxes.

I should explain something that probably is abundantly obvious to anyone who knows me and/or reads this blog: I get bored pretty easily, and also I don't necessarily think things should be done the way things are done.

Here's an example: My job, when I was a kid, was mowing the lawn, and lawns were a big deal in our neighborhood. Your lawn was your calling card to the world, or at least the world you cared about, which meant "your neighbors." My parents, and most people in our subdivision, cared for their lawns incessantly: they mowed and raked and sprayed and did something called thatching; I'm not sure what thatching is, but it required a special machine that you rented from the True Value Hardware store up by Skateworld and it took all day and all the kids and it was kind of like raking, only harder, and nobody but Dad and sometimes Bill got to use the thatcher, which looked like a lawnmower but wasn't.

One of the worst things you could do was mess up our lawn; we weren't, for example, supposed to walk across the front lawn. (There were lots of spaces my parents had that were not to be used, at all: our front yard was not for walking on or playing; our living room certainly was not for living in. The dining room table was dined on one time per year, on New Year's Eve, and even then it was hidden under leathery covers that were stored, 364 days a year, under my parents' bed and hauled out only on that night, to cover the table lest we wreck it by using it as a table. We could look at that table, or we could eat on it, but we could not do both at the same time.)(And we weren't really supposed to look at the table, either.)

My parents' rules about mowing the lawn were this: mow back and forth, in straight lines, until you are done. That was very important: straight lines. Back and forth. Lines parallel to the road.

But that was not just important; it was also boring. So I'd jazz it up a little, make mowing the lawn more fun for me.

One week, I mowed diagonally, starting in the corner near the Barquists' house and zigzagging my way up to the garden where the Poisonous Rhubarb bush grew. Another week, I mowed vertically, up and down the small slope of the backyard, instead of across and back. Each of those times, my dad looked out at my work and did not say anything, silently regretting that he'd raised a kid who could so heedlessly destroy all that thatching with a non-parallel mowing job.

The final straw was the week I mowed in a spiral: I stared up the right hand side of the yard, the Barquists' side, and the went across the back by the fence, and then down the left-hand side that bordered the Wizners' yard, and then across the back of our house. On Lap 2, I slid inside a little and repeated that, each loop getting smaller and smaller until I was in the middle of our yard, by the birch tree that had been second base in Whiffle Ball games when we were younger. I kept at it even when the final loops were just feet across and I could have been done; I was a perfectionist in that regard and did not cut corners.

When I was done, there was a spiral pattern in our yard, one that could be clearly seen and which I thought looked great. I was up in my room, reading comic books and occasionally looking out at the yard (which from the second story clearly sported a rectangular-ish spiral) when my dad got home from work.

"Briane," he called, and I went downstairs. He was standing at the bay window in our family room and looking out at the birch tree.

"What?" I asked him.

There was a pause. Then he said "Just... mow the lawn in straight lines, please."

In retrospect, that's probably one of the many reasons he hung me out to dry and got me fired from McDonald's, something that did because I would not have been fired if he'd just covered for me.

When I was stickering the McDLT boxes, then, I got bored doing them all perfect-y (which I was not, in fact, doing and not, in fact, even trying to do) and started getting creative with them.

As creative as you can with two stickers and a styrofoam box. Some stickers I offset a little, putting the left sticker way to the left and the right way to the left. Or I put them both way left, or both way right. I took chances and put a few upside down, so that you'd have to read "Cold Side" and then spin the box around to read "Hot Side" or whatever they said. Some of them, I put slanted or cross-wise.

I didn't do that on all of them; just enough to keep me entertained.

As entertained as you can be with two stickers and a styrofoam box.

My artistry didn't go undiscovered. Every so often, I had to take a stack of boxes to Terry so that he could package the McDLTs, and he found one that had the stickers put on crosswise, corners not matching up with corners of the box, and he brought it back to me.

"Messed this one up," he said, and showed it to me. "Careful," he added, and threw it away.

I'm not sure, as I look back on it, whether he was being funny, or tactful, or if he thought I really might not have realized how badly I'd screwed that one up.

A few minutes later, he brought back two of them. "These are no good," he said. "Be more careful. We don't want to waste these."

He may not have wanted to waste them, but the use of the we was misguided. I didn't care. I did, though, have two more hours of this ahead of me and continued, occasionally, doing what I thought of as creative stickering, until the manager himself came back to me with a couple of examples, examples that I only now realize that Terry must have stockpiled as proof, to take them to the manager to show what, exactly was going on, making a case against me while I unwittingly continued stickering away.

"You can't do them like this," he said. "It's wasteful." There was no pretending that maybe it had been a mistake; I wondered if the couple he was showing me were the only ones that Terry had given him or if, in the office, there was a box of them, to be saved until my next review and used to deny me even the nickel raise I'd gotten the last time.

"Okay," I said. I didn't apologize. I just kept on stickering and watching the clock, and a few times I deliberately displaced the stickers but not so much that you'd think I was doing it on purpose. That wasn't creativity anymore. It was rebellion. I'd show them, by putting stickers a few millimeters off center or just slightly crooked. I'd bring this corporation to its knees, one shoddy sticker at a time. That'd teach them to tell me what I could or could not do with these McDLT boxes.

In other words, how dare they expect me to do my extremely simple makework job correctly or with a concern for how the company looked. (But it would be about 26 years before I got that message.)

I also wondered who cared? I imagined, as I stickered my way through two more hours, people getting their boxes, and coming back up to the counter (where Jenny was working), complaining that their McDLT, yes, it was fine, but the box -- the sticker was displaced, and what are they supposed to do, look at this Picasso-esque box while they ate their hot-and-cold sandwich? Because they couldn't do that. It was ridiculous, and could they get their money back and they'd just go to Burger King (which also was a ridiculous notion, because back then, in 1985, good people just did not go to Burger King. McDonald's was, as fast food places go, respectable, while Burger King was the place your drunk uncle always stopped at on the way to Thanksgiving dinner, showing up at Grandma's house a little glassy-eyed already and still eating their onion rings as he walked through the door. We never got to go to Burger King, which, to this day, I view as being a little disreputable.)

So it wasn't like people would actually go anywhere else. They'd have to eat their McDLT, and who looked at the packaging, anyway?

Those were the thoughts that occupied my time as I stickered away what was the second last Saturday I ever worked at McDonald's.

But I see I'm out of time and I'll have to finish up this story some other day.

Click here to go to Jobs v. Life's table of contents, where you can read about all the jobs I've ever had, in order, and in what is turning out to be excruciating detail.


Rogue Mutt said...

Oh boy, a cliffhanger! I worked at Burger King my first year in college. I think that I started with fries and then moved on to feeding meat into the broiler and then to actually making sandwiches. Then they moved me up front, which I hated. It wasn't as hot as in the back but I hated dealing with obnoxious customers.

anna. said...

more more more. how does it end?