I was sixteen and my mom made me get a job. Again. Learn the value of work. She was right, it’s a lesson I retain decades later: the value of work is less than fucking zero, a negative eating away at your soul and your life. So, thanks. I applied at the McDonald’s in Kingston, Mass.
You had to buy your own McDonald’s shirt and special synthetic pocketless pants so you couldn’t walk out with a ninety nine cent hamburger warmed to ass temperature. They took the money out of your first couple checks. The checks came three weeks late; they’d docked sixty eight bucks for the uniforms they’d sold you, and taxes were taken out, something like a third of your check. At that point you’d been working dozens of hours in the sweltering hissing clamoring kitchen, alarms constantly blaring, six hundred degree grills an inch away from the meat of your hands, swabbing the greasy tiles over and over with a filthy mop every time there was a two second lull in orders, getting yelled at– you got your check and it was fucking nothing. You had known what taxes were in an abstract sense, the ten per cent federal tax bracket, but what you didn’t know was state tax, city tax, FICA, SDI… weird acronyms… your check came an ungodly amount of time later and there was nothing left. The value of work. Cleaning the toilet, a filthy log of shit breaching in piss yellow water with toilet paper snaked over the bowl and onto the floor about one out of every four times you went in there– the value of work.
Girls were up front and boys were in the back. In theory it was an equal opportunity workplace free of gender discrimination but not a single girl worked the spattering grill or dollied sixty pound cases of frozen beef patties down to the dark freezer or hauled trash bags the size of refrigerators full of imperfect meat out to the dumpster. Not a single guy ran the cash register or talked to customers. People want to see a smiling girl with perky tits. I don’t blame them. The girls worked up front and didn’t flirt with us or really talk to us at all. They were the house slaves. They had to take the heat when we fucked something up; they were the ones getting scolded that “I told you no onions.” They must have seen us as fuckups and miscreants.
My job was the Quarter Pounder With Cheese and McLean grill. It is an excellent station, if you ever work at a McDonald’s. The volume is significantly lower than hamburger/ cheeseburger/ Big Mac and you’re not dealing with a big deep pit of face-melting frying oil. Plus, the Quarter Pounder was my preferred sandwich as a civilian. When people ordered what I made, I mentally congratulated them for making the correct choice. The hamburger is a trifle, not really food at all; you polish it off in two bites and feel like you’ve eaten greasy air. The Quarter Pounder is a real sandwich. A connoisseur’s sandwich.
You take the patties from the freezer to the left of your grill and drop them on the griddle surface frozen. They hiss and steam. There’s a clamshell lid with another heated surface that you lower on top of them, and the meat is done in ninety seconds. The clamshell grill is a proprietary McDonald’s technology that a training video has explained to you preserves maximum freshness and sanitation in the meat. A light flashes and a distinctive bell sounds and you lift the clamshell lid and spatula the burgers onto the buns you’ve prepared. You have caramelized the buns in a toasting unit which has its own distinctive lights and a buzzer that you will hear in your dreams. A training video has explained that you caramelize the buns to prevent them from absorbing the condiments and becoming soggy. I liked that they didn’t condescend to you– they kept the word “caramelize” instead of some proprietary corporate buzzword that was less hard to say. Caramelize. Ketchup, mustard out of big metal cups with handles where you pull a trigger and it dispenses the perfect amount; pickles laid with care not to overlap, onions. You drape two slices of cheese offset at a forty five degree angle so there is cheese in every bite. The videos are good at explaining why you do things. They didn’t need to; they could have just told me put the cheese at a forty five degree angle because I fucking said so, but they took the time and I appreciated it. Wrap the sandwich in the snug origami-like proprietary McDonald’s fashion. Quarters up.
You get a rhythm. Lunch rush comes and you are anticipating the buzzes and beeps and chimes and lights; you are ahead of the game and the heat lamp rack is not wanting for fresh Quarter Pounders for even one second. No shrill “WHERE ARE MY QUARTERS??!?” from the cashier girl and no quick huddles from the manager on how you have to up your game. I can’t have guys keeping us behind on this team, OK? “Grill orders,” which is the bespoke no onions type of stuff– most grill crew hated those. I loved them. You knew you were preparing a sandwich for one particular person just the way they liked it. A machine spat out instructions on receipt tape in purple ink and you had to run over and grab them and hustle to make the sandwich. When you fucked one up the manager would walk back with the tape and point out to you what it said and ask you: how did this happen? You forget that it’s McDonald’s; it’s literally the least prestigious job in the world, people laugh at you for having it, and your net income is two dollars and fifty cents an hour. You are terrified and you feel bad about yourself. The value of work.
You get a rhythm, and it gets fucked up by having to restock the patties, go to the back and get more buns, empty and sanitize the ketchup dispensers. If things slow down at all the manager will constantly bark at you for a sweep and mop. Wrestle with the filthy greasy mop in the sink and maybe cut your hands on some industrial tomato slicing device soaking there. Not one second is wasted; you are a perfect machine working constantly. McDonald’s is the best managed company in the world, right down to the slightly subnormal woman with a weird limp who smokes unfiltered Pall Malls who’s in charge of your shift– she has been indoctrinated perfectly in how to make your day tight as a drum. You aren’t grilling, you take out the trash, you sweep and mop. Drill sergeants aren’t this good. Her name was Wendy but she insisted on being called “Romayne.”
We would fuck with her. She hated being called “Wendy” so when she turned her back we would start singing “Wendy” over and over. Me and Glenn, a kid from Marshfield who ran McNuggets and french fries. Glenn was funny and smart. I was funny and smart too, and it was the first of many shit jobs where I’d find another funny and smart person and we’d kind of marvel at “what the fuck are you doing here.”
I’d be bummed out when I showed up for a shift and Glenn wasn’t there. We had an imaginary ranking system for all the cooks– you start out as a Grill Knave, moved up to Grill Apprentice, Grill Soldier, Grill Master, Grill Wizard, Grill Lord. The highest level was Grill God. Only one man had ever achieved it and he’d ascended into the Golden Arches and become a hamburger himself. You now know him as Mayor McCheese. We had long running stories about defending our McDonald’s from the conspiracies of the Burger King, Big Dave Thomas, and Colonel Sanders.
We’d get a really good riff going and then “Romayne” would come yell at us for a sweep and mop. Not one second wasted. They will get as much out of you as possible for as little as possible, and rightly view human interaction between employees as wasteful. This is good management. Some companies call this “time theft,” talking to the people you work with. They own time. They own your life, and you are stealing it. The value of work.
I took a week off because I was in the school play. When I came back they had completely gutted the store and reorganized all the machines. A new process had been instated by corporate for each food item, to insure that every McDonald’s meal was even hotter and fresher than before. They had installed something called a “Q’ing oven.” The “Q” stood for “quality.” If a customer asked what it was, you were to say “it’s just something we do to make your food taste better.”
The Q’ing oven was a microwave. But you were NEVER to refer to it as a microwave. In fact, they said, from now on, you are NEVER to use the word “microwave” while inside the store. Whether you are at the register, at the grill, or in the break room. Whether your shift has begun or not. If you are heard using the word “microwave,” you will be fired immediately and escorted from the building.
It was the “big” manager who gave this talk, Mark. The one who went to Hamburger University. The degree was framed in his office where there was a mop bucket and an ancient Tandy PC he would use to enter our hours to the second. That’s how you knew it was some serious shit– him talking to us was like a presidential address. And the word was so doubleplus ungood that Mark seemed scared of saying “microwave” even in the sentence “you must never say the word ‘microwave.’”
Mark wasn’t a bad guy, although I never forgave him for the time I fried my hand on the clamshell grill and got a blister from my pinky to my elbow, and he just scotch taped a bandage on it and made me work the rest of my shift. But he was human. He was just beaten down from fear of losing his job at McDonald’s, fear of bringing nothing home to his family. He just got so indoctrinated with corporate bullshit that he had to spend his days making a room full of teenagers terrified of saying “microwave.” The value of fucking work.
I left, but not before earning a ten cent raise as a “senior grill crew” member and a special pin for how long I’d worked there and how little I’d fucked up. Every job I’ve ever had since has been exactly the same. Someone clogged the toilet and some asshole is yelling at you to fix it, and you’ll get fired for saying what shit really is.
I checked them out on Yelp. See how the alma mater’s doing. They have one star. “Order had errors. Fries were not warm. Sauce pumps were all empty. My meal came with a drink and I had to remind them. Counter was dirty. My filet only had half a piece of cheese and no extra tarter sauce like I asked.”
Fuckin Grill Knaves.