It seems as though carrying around a selection of beautiful, empty journals in my bag every day is no longer satisfying my inner writer. I have the coolest pens. I have a wooden sign from my ever-encouraging husband that says “write your story”. I have ideas. I have the time (I didn’t HAVE to watch an entire season of American Horror Story in one weekend). I have a computer. I actually LIKE writing. A few months ago I watched a speech that Neil Gaiman gave
and it light a fire under me. Not a roaring campfire kinda fire, more like a medium-sized candle from Bath and Body Works that flickers and almost dies every time you open the door. But there was some degree of warmth and illumination when it came to writing something. I’d tell Frank over our coffee about my rambling ideas for a sci-fi story where there’s you know, aliens and alternate versions of all of us, and social media plays a role, or maybe it’s just the afterlife, and ALIENS, and on and on and on. “Write it!” “Yeah, I will”…. And nothing. Now I’m reading Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, which I wish I’d done years ago and something about the way she advises her students to write just clicked. Write down old memories, or describe people you saw on the bus that day, or around your parent’s dinner table when you were a kid. Anything you write is writing, and writing IS the reward. I’m paraphrasing, obviously, because plagiarism, but you get the idea. I don’t write because I’m afraid it won’t be good, and I’m afraid I won’t finish my 100,000 word novel in one sitting. BUT neither of those things matter. It can be terrible AND short, and IT DOES NOT MATTER. You wrote. You did the thing. It is done. And so, here I am. To write down old memories and new ones with no theme, no purpose, no agenda, no goals, no nuttin’. Just me and these keys.
A few weeks ago, I was attending an orientation day for my job, and one of the ice-breaker shticks was to stand up, introduce yourself, and tell everyone in the room what your first job was and what you learned from it. Mine was at Arby’s. You know… WE HAVE THE MEATS. They didn’t have that slogan then. I think in the days of roast beef yore it was “It’s Different in Here” or something like that. It definitely WAS different in there. I was 15, awkward as all get out, full of energy and team spirit, and ready to make some freaking spending money and buy a car.
I started at 4.25 per hour.
I wish I could remember the names of everyone I worked with. It’s been about ten years………
FINE. Many years, it’s been many years, but I’ll work with what I can remember.
There was one girl in her early 20s named Sonya. She was blonde, proudly pleasantly plump, her words, and always wore a black Arby’s cap. I’m not sure I ever saw her without it. She wasn’t a manager but she’d been there so long she practically ran circles around the ones who were. She ran the drive-thru mostly, but she was also fully okay with dealing with the actual meat in the back that cooked all day in the huge ovens. I would eventually learn almost every job in the place as well, but I was not messing with those giant, rubbery globs of meat. NOPE. They were disgusting before they were cut on the slicer. Like, gelatinous (gag) on the outside… perfectly oval shaped, heavy, but they also felt like if you dropped one one the floor it would bounce right back up like a basketball. The worst part is that even after being completely grossed out by them, I’d still kill a Beef n’ Cheddar on my off day like it was nobody’s business. It’s that dang horsey sauce, I can’t resist it.
There was Serena, drop-dead gorgeous black woman whose hair and makeup was always as flawless as her mood. Her energy was infectious, she was so funny and confident that my nervous, dorky teenage self sometimes didn’t know what to say that could compare. We became pals, working together every Sunday morning. She taught me the pure bliss that is fresh, hot regular fries (not that silly curly business) with extra salt, drenched in bleu cheese dressing. I didn’t even like bleu cheese dressing before that. Serena was a bright ball of light, and I’m sure she’s still shining out there somewhere.
Jeremiah. We became buddies right away. Making fun of his never-ending hair flipping was the most fun way to pass the time when the customers weren’t coming in. Honestly, it never stopped. He was like a human gif, before gifs were invented. He began dating one of my very best friends, and soon we had a small crowd of friends hanging around every afternoon in between school letting out and us clocking in to sling beef. Jeremiah was always in a great mood, upbeat in a Zach Morris kinda way. He drove a shitty Cabriolet that to all of us was the most fun ever because, convertible. We’d all be sitting around the designated “employee hang out table” in the restaurant, smoking cigarettes (told ya it was a long time ago), and he’d come peeling into the parking lot with the top down, his own smoke hanging from his lips, shades on, hair flipping in the wind. He may sound like one of those douchey young dudes, but I assure you, he was as sincere and kind as they came. I’m not sure how long he dated my friend, but their relationship was an adorable glimpse into puppy love, complete with pet names and a “song”…I think it was Tonic’s “The Way She Loves Me”. We lost touch after Arby’s, but I went on to meet and cherish his sister, Jennifer, as one of my best friends to this day. We’ve run into each other a few times over the years, at kids’ birthday parties and such. The hair is short now, but the charm and genuine friendliness are still intact.
Our boss was named Roger. Roger could have very well been an SNL character comprised of a comedian playing a fast-food restaurant manager who loved and cheered on his staff for the good of both the company and the employees themselves. He was a small man with big glasses and no shortage of goofy anecdotes. I’m not sure how long he’d been in management, but he had all the best “I’m telling you to do this right now and I mean business but I’m super funny and just do it but hey, I’m a nice guy” lines down. One of the most popular was “I’ll dance at your wedding!” As in, “Heather, drop two more bags of curly fries and ten potato cakes and then go ice those cherry turnovers that just came out? I’ll dance at your wedding!” As the current, more cynical version of myself, if I met him now I might think he was on some kind of speed, but I really do think he was just a high energy, dedicated man. He went on to open his own pizza restaurant, and I’m not sure how that went, but I have trouble imagining him not succeeding at whatever he went after.
One of the times I saw Roger move the fastest was the day I was conned by a short-change artist. (Is that an art? Why are we calling that art?) I was, and sometimes still am to some degree, amazingly naive when it comes to assuming the best in people. I had no idea was was happening until it was over, which I’m told is common if the con man knows his stuff. My shiny, happy self was planted at the register on a weekend morning when he walked up to me in a brightly colored Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses. (Why do these criminals not have other outfit options? I cannot make this up). He ordered a meal and I gave him his total. He handed me a wad of cash and the game was on. “Oh, wait, I’m sorry, can you give me this in fives? Okay, actually can you break a fifty for me and then I’ll just give you this and you and blah blah blah I’m an asshole.” After about 26 seconds I’d managed to lose $200 of the Cowboy Hat’s money, and as soon as I looked up for help, bewildered, he took off. I looked around for Roger and managed to stammer in his direction,”That guy…I…I don’t know how much I gave him…” Roger took off like someone had shot a gun and he was racing toward the gold in crime fighting. I don’t know how he didn’t slip in grease, that was always an issue behind that counter. He made it out to the parking lot as the guy pulled onto 19-41, unable to catch him, but with plenty of time to get the guy’s tag number. We called the police… although I don’t remember ever speaking to them or giving a report. Roger never acted like it was my fault at all, he only acted like a hero that day, and a great boss.
The front line, the drive-thru, and the back line were the main stations you could be assigned on any given day. Sonya trained me to work the drive-thru as my main hub. At first I hated it, because, I hate math. There’s no way to know what the customer will give you at the window, so you have to go ahead and cash out each order as they pull through, so you can ring up the next one.
(Sidenote: it just occurred to me, with extreme horror, that I don’t even think anyone was really using debit cards yet then. Were we?? Did we take cards? Jesus Lord, I don’t even remember. Anyways.)
After a few weeks of car after car and bag after bag, I was dubbed “The Drive-Thru Queen”. It was my first taste of success at a job, my first swell of pride that I was doing something right at work and that the people who I’d made a commitment to were pleased with me. That feeling has come and left me many times over the years, but I’ve always chased it, and that’s where it started. Right there in that drive thru, with me giving back $12.59 out of $20 for an order that was $7.41 with the greatest of ease.
(Sidenote: that kind of shit does not stay with you over the years unless you use it. I had to do that math just now on my phone’s calculator, but I wanted to put it in here for the sake of the story. Anyways. Practice your math, kids. Or don’t. We have phones now.)
Once I was crowned Queen, I rarely got away from the window, but oh how I longed to make sandwiches. I would sneak back there and make the orders sometimes when it was slow, and it was so much fun to me. One squirt of red sauce on top of the onion bun, one squirt of melted cheddar cheese goop on the bottom, meat in the middle, carefully placed on the foil, super cool wrapping motion (it’s all in the wrist) and BAM, slide that baby down the heated metal sandwich chute where it would go on to make dreams come true. I guess I do love to cook now, but this was more about the process. Chicken, bacon, Swiss, honey mustard. BAM. Roast beef, mayo, lettuce, tomato. BAM. I think I could honestly still tell you the ounces and the order they went in. Silly, I know, but it was my favorite spot there….which leads me to my least favorite.
The fry station. While the fries are undoubtedly the most delicious part of any fast-food experience, they are the least fun to make. After an hour of working the fry station on a busy day, you look and feel like you might well be one of the deformed, glistening beef lumps sitting in the back under the heat lamps. And they go SO FAST. Oh, look I just pre-made 15 curlies and 10 regulars and OH MY GOD THEY’RE GONE YOU JERKS! I’ve rarely felt pressure like you do when every set of eyeballs that can see you is staring a hole through you while you stare equally as intensely at the digital timer slowly ticking away the 6 minutes until the fries are ready again. Sassy co-workers with hands on hips, Arby’s bags fully packed and ready to hand to customers AS SOON AS THE FRIES COME UP. Annoyed customers standing at the counter, fingers gripping their red tray with its waiting sandwich, soda, sauces, and napkins. JUST WAITING ON FRIES. There’s nowhere to go. Nothing to do but stand there and sweat. And maybe try to sneak and take them out a tad early and hope no one notices. (Everyone notices.)
The fry station was apparently not without hatred toward me as well. She got her sweet revenge, on one such day. We were so busy that I was either schlepping my way to and from the freezer for more bags of frozen potato products, or shaking the submerged baskets in the hot grease so the goods wouldn’t stick together, or frantically filling box after box with perfectly salted, hot fries. At some point during the rush, I realized that the digital timers were off and there were fewer bubbles rising to the tops of the greasy vats. I’m sure I whispered a classic “what the fuck” under my breath before shouting out “Hey I think something’s wrong with the fryer!” Roger called back to me, not missing a beat, looking frantically back and forth from the order screen to the bag he was holding to make sure he was tossing in the correct sandwiches. “Aw man, could you pull it out from the wall and scootch back there and check it? I’ll dance at your wedding!” The floor around the fry station collected the most grease, of course. My hideous, required non-slip work shoes from Walmart, as well as the bottoms of my bell bottom jeans were drenched in grease. I wiggled the fryer out of its home against the wall and slid my way into the open space. Crouching down a little, I could see the rogue plug lying on the floor. I reached in as far as I could, grabbed it, and in one quick motion I triumphantly returned the metal prongs to their home in the wall.
And was immediately electrocuted.
The force kicked me back a bit, into the main walkway area, and Roger and the others rushed to my side. It honestly wasn’t THAT bad (although now that I think about it, was my hair really this curly before that? hmm) but it did hurt a lot, and my hand and arm were sort of charred and achy for a time. They called the paramedics, who checked me out and declared that I would be fine. And I never worked the fry station again.
So what did I learn from my first job? More than I realized. When you’re that young, you don’t think about the lessons you’re picking up. You’re just in them, clocking in and clocking out, learning as you go, and trying to not die a horrific and untimely death. When you’re older and moving through shiny new jobs, you don’t often look back and attribute things about yourself to those young days. I learned to be kind to newbies, and show them the ropes. I learned that there is a place for spunk and character in every position. I learned that I love to prepare food for others. I learned that I CAN do math if I really try, and that I will never do math again regardless, because it sucks and I hate it. I learned that a boss should always incorporate humor into the job, because it makes your employees LIKE you. I learned that bleu cheese is delicious. That roast beef from Arby’s is only good if someone else makes it for you. I learned what it was like to sit around a table full of laughing peers during a lunch break, look around and sigh and say “Welp, time to get to it!” And then to GET TO IT. No matter what you do, if you do it well and you do it with people who make it fun, you will find what parts call to you. Or you’ll find the tools that will carry you to the next thing, and the next thing, and the next.
(And no, I did not say all this during my introduction at the orientation…
lucky for my fellow attendees…)