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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

My Life To Go

Technically, 14 years old is the minimum age one can begin earning and claiming wages in the United States. In most states, a work certificate must be acquired in order for a person under the age of 18 to work and his/her hours must be limited to a maximum per day and week.

I started working at the age of 15, which I believe was the minimum at that time, with the exception of working on your family's farm, and then it was 14. Of course, I had been getting paid to cut the neighbors yard years before I had my first interview and landed my first real paying job, so it wasn't like I was just sitting around. Still, nothing would prepare me for just how bad the real working world was.

My first job was at Captain D's, a fast food seafood chain similar to Long John Silver's, but mostly based in the American South. I'm not sure why I picked that particular place to work, though I'm sure it had something to do with fast food restaurants being the easiest, most prevalent places for working-class youths with no skills to find work. Since my Dad was a watch and jewelry repairman and my Mom a secretary at a stock brokerage, I couldn't exactly find an entry-level position where they worked.

So, full of excitement at joining the work force, partially due to encouragement from my parents to find work, I interviewed and got the job. Being young and naïve and not as quick in the mental department, I would say, were my best selling points. That, and the fact that I didn't have to feed a family making minimum wage, which at that time was around $3.35 an hour (a full-timer, after taxes, couldn't even crack $100 a week).

In other words, I was the perfect candidate for Captain D's.

My manager was this grossly overweight white guy who presided like Boss Hogg over his crew of predominantly young, black kids. Until then, I had never met another human being who so utterly disgusted every single ounce of my body and soul. He was a fat, repulsive, loathsome, lazy, pig-dog who would drool from the sides of his mouth while barking petty commands and pulling young women workers onto his filthy lap.

God! The sexual harassment suits that could've (should've) been filed.

Needless to say, I enjoyed my working hours more whenever he wasn't around. Work consisted of restocking supplies and helping clean up in the kitchen. The work hours weren't long, but they were monotonous enough to have planted the first seeds of disenchantment with the "real world" of working in my head.

The working conditions in the kitchen were archaic and dangerous. Amidst huge vats of oil hot enough to deep fry a piece of fish in a matter of seconds, young cooks crowded into a kitchen that was so small it required one to get intimate with his co-worker every time one needed to move around. Between squeezing by your co-workers, who were cranking out fried fish and hushpuppies as quickly as possible, you had to take care not to touch any of the hot vats that lined both sides of the kitchen.

Of course, accidents will happen, especially in conditions where the bottom line demands placing workers (especially young ones) in the conditions that I've mentioned above. At a certain point, so-called accidents cease being accidents and just become inevitable crimes of negligence.

My "accident" happened one night when restocking supplies in the kitchen. While standing next to a vat, the guy standing behind me turned around and reached for a metal water pitcher that was placed precariously on a shelf above me. He goofed, it fell into the vat, and hot oil splashed out, covering my exposed arm from just below the short-sleeve of my work shirt to the tips of my fingers.

Second-degree blisters spotted my arm in a matter of minutes. At that point, it was decided in my best interests to give me the rest of the night off. So thoughtful, don't you think?

Later, when my Dad picked me up, I told him what had happened and he told me that I didn't have to go back if I didn't want to; I could quit. In hindsight, this seemed like a rather insufficient response. That fact is, the working conditions at Captain D's were as such that if something like that didn’t happen to me, it was bound to happen to someone else. Perhaps it had, and perhaps it still does.

So, it was back to mowing yards for a little while longer. During this time, I was into skateboarding and hanging out with my friends at Dog's house. Dog's real name was Eric but, when he was a kid, he was bitten by a dog and his white trash family thought he had contracted rabies. From then on, he was simply "Dog", except for when his mother needed him to buy cigarettes or do something for his little sister, and then it was "Errrric!"

The whole family smoked and dealt weed; from the brain-dead father, the lazy mother who never left the couch, the older brother, and even the skanky, not-pregnant-yet little sister. The room Dog shared with his brother Mike was like a little pot dispensary where various guys would come and go, and where we would smoke a couple of leftover roaches while Dog attempted to play bass guitar along with Metallica's "Master of Puppets" blaring from the stereo.

"Errric! Can you turn it down? I can't hear the TV!"

Along with hanging out with Dog, there was also Patches, whose real name was something like "James Arthur Something III", but who became known to his family as Patches when his mama nicknamed him after the hit song by Clarence Carter. Patches' family were the real deal hillbillies, with lots of young'ns living in the house, all screaming for their older brother "Pay-chees!"

Around this point I turned 16, had an old car that my Dad gave up (he began to take the bus to work), and started working at Little Caesars Pizza (LCP), which was considered a cool job at the time. It was a lot safer than working at Captain D's, that's for sure.

Unlike Captain D's, the teenage and adult management and staff at Little Caesars were all white, better paid, and working in less dangerous conditions. Being white, born and raised in the South, one doesn't immediately recognize these differences and assumes this is just how the world works. It didn't dawn on me that fast food work (like many jobs) may have been segregated and that the most dangerous job I had worked (though only for a short while) was the one that had an almost all-black workforce.

The work at Little Caesars was pretty relaxed and easy. You clocked in, you clocked out. You wear your uniform (mine went unwashed for days). You keep the district supervisors and the franchise owners (who popped in occasionally) happy, and that was it. Eventually I was opening and closing the store. I made dough in the morning (no school days, of course). I washed dishes in the afternoon. I did the books and deposits at night.

Working at Little Caesars was something I could brag about to my friends, and in fact, eventually Dog and Patches came to work there with me. They brought in their other friends and eventually everyone not only worked together, but also hung out together. So many people I knew filtered through that place.

Of course, despite being an outstanding worker, I was fired from Little Caesars by the district supervisor for being absent 3 days in a row. Despite begging for my job, she fired me because she could, and because a teenage workforce is expendable.

Around this time I went to work at McDonalds because two of my girl friends (one of whom was dating the manager) were already working there. Also, by this time I was making car payments on another used car, so I couldn't afford to be without work.

This particular McDonalds was more racially mixed, though it still was a step down from LCP. Unlike Captain D's, all races and genders were equally shat on. Like LCP, there was the obligatory uniform. Unlike LCP, you had to sit through a stupid training video that attempted to beat into your brain a corporate McDonalds monoculture.

It was such an eye opening experience. Is this the same McDonalds I fondly remembered as a child, whose Pop (grandfather) would take on a Saturday morning and buy him an Egg McMuffin? Is this the same McDonalds that from my earliest memories had played some part in my own personal history?

The memories of my Mom and I having conversations while waiting to pick up our food in the drive thru; the memory of my Grandmaw (who couldn't drive) and I moving uncontrollably backwards downhill towards a busy intersection because Pop had forgotten to put the car in park while he dashed inside to pick up our food (we were saved by a parking block); the memory of learning how to use chopsticks from a Chinese Chicken McNuggets promotion; and the memory of singing "if you want my body and you think I'm sexy" to all of my giggling friends while I stood on a chair in the middle of McDonalds' lobby; all of these memories, McDonalds memories.

I even have a prom photo taken in, where else, a McDonalds parking lot.

That special day

When I started working there, it was as if the wool had been pulled from my eyes. The first thing I noticed was the food. Everything was frozen and came delivered on large pallets. The burgers were cooked a dozen at a time on something that resembled a large steam press, with hot plates on both sides. The amount of salt we poured over the already salty burgers was a joke. I learned from one of the other workers that, as a customer, the secret to getting a freshly made burger was to ask for something to be left off (like mayo) or added (like cheese). Otherwise, all burgers were manufactured uniformly, waiting for you to purchase them. Burgers that sat too long were tossed.

Although we threw away an obscene amount of food every 20 minutes or so, we had to pay for our own meals (though, at an insignificant discount). We weren't even trusted to make our meals ourselves. It was humiliating to go on lunch break and have to reach into your pockets to pay the person you were just standing next to 5 minutes earlier. Often times, after digging into my pockets, I found out that I didn't even have enough cash to pay for my meal. The fact that McDonalds was this huge corporation that was too greedy to feed its own workers wasn't lost on me, then or now.

I began sneaking food every chance I got. When no one was looking, I would walk over to the Chicken McNugget station, open the drawer they were kept hot in, and pop as many in my mouth as I could get away with. If I could've stolen something, anything, more, I wouldn't have hesitated. I remember often standing over a trashcan at the end of the night taking bites out of burgers, McNuggets, chicken sandwiches, or whatever else as I was throwing them away.

In fact, I think this is how Sonia "Black Widow" Thomas got her start in competitive eating.

After a month of the McJob, I felt completely demoralized. I was so desperate to get out, I went back to LCP and asked for my job back. Shortly after, my McCareer was finally McOver.

That experience didn't end my McDonalds eating experience, though it certainly put a huge dent in it. Now, finally, I refuse to step into one, despite the disturbing urge I get every time I walk past one. Like an addiction, the urge to spontaneously stop into a McDonalds for a Big Mac can sometimes seem absurdly strong, but like they say in AA, "one is too many, and a thousand is never enough".

Back at Little Caesars, demoralized from my previous experiences at Captain D's, my first time at LCP, and after McDonalds, after a huge build up in disappointment in the work world and riding low in the teenage angst/"no future" phase, I pretty much didn't give a shit about anything except getting high, getting paid, getting out of high school, and getting the fuck out of that town.

Fortunately I wasn't alone in the Life's Disappointments camp at LCP. First, besides Dog and Patches, both of whom were born into disappointment, there was my manager, Melinda, who found out her Dad was gay late one night when his best friend called her to come pick him (the Dad) up because he was drunk and hitting on him (the best friend) and wasn't taking "no" for an answer.

Then there was the assistant manager Cindy, who was obviously gay, but in the closet (this is North Carolina, after all) and whose parents, I later learned from a friend who was her neighbor, had sent her to numerous doctors and hospitals to try to "cure" her. Rumor had it that she was even subjected to electro-shock therapy. Thank God gayness can't be cured, because Cindy was the coolest, butch, countrified lesbian you could ever hope to meet.


There was also Faron, a diminutive, doughy, nebbishy looking man in his late 30s who had shot and killed (in self-defense) his girlfriend's ex-boyfriend who had tried to kill him in the front yard of his trailer home. For a murderer, he generally was pretty nice guy, a hard worker, and occasionally had a few profound words to add to the conversations we'd have over rolling dough or mopping floors.

There was Scott, a bi-polar freakazoid who eventually became a merchant marine, and Kelly, another bi-polar freakazoid who he knocked up, to the unfortunate surprise of her lower middle class parents.

There was the other Kelly, who was the one of the nicest people you could meet. It was sad then to know that she had severe psychological problems that caused her to compulsively twist out her hair, so that she had to be prescribed lithium and wear a wig.

Also working there for a short time was a guy who was a veteran of the invasion of Grenada, who delighted in telling me how great it was to kill the people he killed and how he absolutely had no regrets and how much he missed it. Standing before me then was the second human being I had met who, like the manager of Captain D's, disgusted me to the core of my being. I assume he moved on after Little Caesars and is at this moment happily massacring whole villages in a developing country somewhere. It would please me to no end to learn of his slow and painful death at the hands of an angry village mob.

But other than the random drifter, it was just us teens and young adults running the show...and most of us were on drugs of one sort or the other. If folks weren't coming into work high, we certainly were getting stoned out back. After the store closed, we usually sparked one up (which often made counting money a chore). I also have a fond memory of doing LSD and using the cold, stark darkness inside of the walk-in cooler to facilitate the seeing of colors and moving octagonal shapes.

We always made and took home as much pizza as we wanted. Nothing was off limits. In fact, probably inspired by either the munchies or a hangover, someone created a "secret menu" Little Caesars pizza that was a BLT pizza. Most mornings at the store were pretty dead, and it became the custom for a little while to make a BLT pizza for breakfast.

This involved taking a plain, unsauced pizza, laying on plenty of cheese and bacon and sending it through the oven. When it came out, we would cover it with thin layer of mayonnaise, top it with shredded lettuce and chopped tomatoes, and slice.


I don’t' believe I ate anything else but LCP pizzas, "crazy bread", sandwiches and salads during those years. Frankly, I can't remember what I ate when I wasn't eating at work.

Eventually, I graduated high school and started working full-time. I desperately wanted to get on with my life and, to me, that meant leaving town. I had my sights on Los Angeles, but I was terrified of big cities, and for good reason. Though I had driven down to Atlanta occasionally for punk shows, and even slept in the backseat of my Volkswagen after shows there, I still had no idea of what life (or people) was like in a town that had more than the 50,000 people mine had.

God! I loved that car.

It happened that, at the time, there was a guy named Paul working there who was from Florida and not happy with life in Asheville. He wanted to move back, but needed a way to get there. It was decided then that I would go with him (from here it's a long story, but I eventually ended up, by myself, in Tampa) and I would drive.

Here is where I learned one of many of life's lessons: Be careful whom you confide in, most especially those you work with.

At that point, we had a new store manager, Mark, who, though a doofus and sleazebag, tried to be cool with those of us who had been working there 3 years or more. After a while, I mistakenly became convinced that although he was a "manager", he wasn't of the management, if only because he was such a maladroit dumbass.

Big mistake.

I had decided that as my final coup de gras and final fuck you for that incident where I was fired a year or so before that I would leave Little Caesars high and dry, with no warning whatsoever. Foolishly, the day before I would quit, during a bit of small talk while making pizzas, I casually let it slip to Mark what I was planning to do.

Me, at this time (and acting silly), right before I moved to Florida

He freaked out, told all of my co-workers, and started calling people to see if they could cover my shift. My co-workers, some of who were my friends, were pissed and wouldn't speak to me the rest of the day (ok, and for good reason). I felt like a complete idiot and screw-up.

Had I not let it slip, the pressure would've fell on Mark and the management to cover me, since an employee had an easier chance of getting off the hook. That was my plan all along, but my loose lips sank my ship.

Thus my life in fast food ended as it began.


My life in food service continued for a short time after that, but by the time I came to California (other than working for a few months for a cookie caterer) it was over for good. Since then, I haven't seen nor come close to touching a commercial dough mixer, oven, fryer or slicer and for that I am eternally grateful.

In fact, I'm lovin' it.



Blogger Cali said...

Ah, the McMemories...

First McDonald's item- hamburger- 29 cents.
Last McDonald's item- chicken cesar salad- $5.49.
McDonald's item I hate myself for loving- Sausage McGriddles. Cost of my self-esteem- priceless.

1:00 AM  
Anonymous lelandwong said...

hmmm...maybe this experience is the reason why you love to peek into hole in the wall restaurants to see them struggling in food biz. you're having flash backs...lsd type of flash backs with the moving octogonal shapes.

2:28 PM  
Anonymous blister said...

Very henry miller,
good writing

10:29 AM  
Blogger mingerspice said...

This is the best thing I've seen on a food blog since like, forever.

Wow. Thanks for sharing!

The old timey photos are really a nice touch too.

I love the one of you looking all shy while flashing the camera some skin under the "Am I Evil" graffiti. Brilliant!

4:11 AM  

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