It’s hard to believe that it is 2020 already. This time of year is good for contemplation and fresh starts. It always makes me nostalgic. The other day I was thinking about this blog– how it started as a tiny little dream and slowly blossomed. I am grateful for all of your support and the time to take to read and comment. Did you know that my first job was in food service? *snicker* Well, kind of. Thankfully I can now make pretty teatime spreads with fancy china and flowers from my garden. But it wasn’t always that way.
I can still remember my first “real” job at the tender age of 16. I donned the black and purple (at the time) McDonald’s uniform and pinned my nametag to my shirt. I put on my hat and looked in the mirror. A proud McDonald’s employee looked back at me. I smiled and headed in to work.
People joke about “getting a dead end job flipping burgers,” but working at a fast food place is deceptively difficult. The work is constant and heavy, the pace goes at breakneck speed 90% of the time, and the hours are ridiculously long and arduous. I remember working 10 hour shifts, as a 16 year old, with just a 10 minute break in between to inhale something to drink. Some workers had even longer shifts. By the end of the day your legs and back ached so much that you had to take advil to sleep.
The first time I experienced a McDonald’s lunch rush I think I saw my life flash before my eyes. Imagine preparing Thanksgiving dinner for your entire family, by yourself. Then imagine doing that for the entire world, for hours that blur into more hours. There is so much food and so many bags to organize and hand out that you *just might* lose track of an order an accidentally hand out the wrong one. Don’t worry. The angry customer will be back in 3 seconds to chew you out and get (another, freshly made) order, while the grill crew grumbles that the (wrong, now defunct) order that you accidentally handed out now has to be remade.
I quickly got the hang of it, though. I learned that when I saw a bus pull into the parking lot, I better drop fries. Fast. I became an expert at creating the characteristic crisp, golden fries and giving them the perfect 3 wrist-twirling arcs of salt before tossing them and placing them into containers. Fries were “wasted” (thrown away) after 6 minutes, and I had to learn the fine balance between not making so many fries that we were throwing them away, but yet having fresh fries coming out of the fryer, hopefully, just as the customer ordered them. I got very good at this job– I played a little game with myself, looking at customers to see whether they looked like “fry types.” Senior citizen couples would generally get 2 senior coffees, one of the $1 sandwiches each, and a small fry to split. Families with kids got happy meals with small fries. College boys got fries, fries, and nothing but fries– once we had to make 7 supersize (a size that doesn’t even exist anymore) fries for a single order, right at midnight.
Sometimes people ordered “no salt” fries (because we were forced to make the fries fresh), and then salted them at the table so that their fries were guaranteed to be brand new. I started to learn which customers ordered no salt fries and drop a fresh basket into the fryer when I saw their cars pull into the parking lot. They were always surprised when I pulled piping hot fries out just as they came in. No salt fries required a special scoop (that wasn’t encrusted with salt, like our regular one was) and the delicate, dangerous job of “pouring” the red-hot potatoes out of the fry basket straight onto the scoop, rather than into the fry holder, where they would get salty. If you dropped the scoop and lost the fries, you had to make new ones. It was a nerve wracking business.
Certain customers had been coming there for years, and they had special understandings with the management. If you were new and didn’t know these unspoken rules, then believe me– you heard about it quickly. There was one senior citizen couple who came every day and always ordered the same thing– 2 McChicken sandwiches ($1 each at the time), with added lettuce and tomato. Two small fries, no salt (the little “add salt at the table so you get fresh fries” trick. Every time). Two senior Diet Cokes. Free refills (one each). The total was $5.35, and they always had the amount counted out in exact change. The problem was, adding lettuce and tomato was an extra cost (at the time an extra tomato slice was 25 cents). The first time I met “Mr. and Mrs. No Salt Fries” I didn’t realize that we never charged them for the extra lettuce and tomato. When they ordered I rang up the order as $5.88. They already had the change (it was always all coins. I have no idea where they got so much change from, as they never seemed to break any actual bills) lined up in neat little piles in front of me. They stared. “It’s supposed to be $5.35.” I had never had a customer dicker with me over the price before.
“Um, I’m sorry but the machine says $5.88,” I apologized.
“Get a manager!” he barked at me. Baffled, I went to get a manager.
Lisa, the manager on duty that night, was always busy. She was in the back counting stacks of money and trying not to lose count. She sighed and came up front to help me. “What seems to be the trouble?”
“The bill is supposed to be $5.35 and this girl rang it up wrong. It is coming up as $5.88.”
Lisa smiled. “Oh I see what she did wrong. No problem.” She punched a few keys and the magic “$5.35” popped up on the screen. Mr. No Salt Fries relaxed and shoved his piles of coins across the counter. Lisa didn’t even count it– just swept it into the cash register. “That will be right up. You have a seat sir– we will bring it out.” She smiled.
As they shuffled off toward their regular booth, I looked at Lisa. “What happened? I rang that up correctly– 2 McChickens, 2 senior Diet Cokes, two no salt small fries, two tomato slices. That’s exactly what they asked for. How did you make the price change?”
Lisa smiled wryly. “We never charge them for tomato. Apparently they’ve been coming here since before there was a charge, and they make such a big deal over 50 cents that we just give it to them. When you take their order out to them just be charming and tell them it’s your first day and you didn’t know how to ring it up. They will forgive you.”
Forgive me? For putting the order in correctly?
I apologized. They forgave me. And thereafter, when I saw newer cashiers being greeted with the same horrified look and the impatient gesture for a manager by Mr. No Salt Fries, I knew exactly what the problem was. And several times I “saved” a new cashier by popping in, whispering, “We don’t charge them for tomatoes,” and removing it from the bill– bringing back the magical $5.35, always counted out exactly, down to the penny. Every single day.
There was another customer whom I liked to call “Mrs. Coupon.” I used to groan when I saw McDonald’s coupons in the Sunday paper because I knew as certainly as I knew the sun would rise that Monday at lunchtime I would have a visit from Mrs. Coupon. She was very tall and imposing– she must have been over 6 feet tall. Her hair was pulled back in a severe black knot, and she wore her eyeglasses on a chain, librarian style, perched at the end of her very long, hawkish nose. Her face would be clasped in a prim, unmoving grimace. The only way to see her smile was to agree with her. And she wasn’t leaving until you did.
Like clockwork, at 11:00 Monday, she showed up for lunch. “Hi there. I’d like to use these coupons.”
The whole sheet.
In the beginning, I told her what I was supposed to tell her– “Ma’am I’m sorry but you can use only one coupon. We can’t take all of them.” And it began.
“But you don’t understand! I am on a fixed income and I need to use these coupons (if you’re on a fixed income maybe you shouldn’t be eating out every day, but that’s just my thought . . .) because I’m trying to save money– are you trying to stop me from saving money???? It’s not like you own this store! It’s not like the money comes out of your pocket, but you’re trying to take it out of my pocket! It says here in the fine print . . . (Mrs. Coupon actually traveled with a gigantic magnifying glass and would produce it, triumphantly and instantaneously, from her purse if you disagreed with her) that you can use ONE coupon per TRANSACTION. So that means that you, by law, have to let me use these coupons. You can ring me up 25 times if you have to. But by LAW you have to let me use them . . .”
Oh my goodness.
Mrs. Coupon should have run for Congress. She was a bulldog that would never give up her ideas. She didn’t care if there were 25 people in line behind her. She made them wait until she got her way. In the end I did what all of us did– just let her do it. It simply wasn’t worth the hassle to argue with her. What she did with all of that food, I never did figure out. But winning certainly made her happy, and putting an entire sheaf of coupons into my drawer, uncut, just told the manager . . . Mrs. Coupon had been here.
There were many other customers– I remember there was one man used to escape from the nursing home where he lived at least once a week. He would ride his motorized wheelchair over to McDonald’s and go around the window. The first time I went to Window 1 to take his money I looked out, confused. There was no one there. Then I saw a tuft of white hair cresting the window. I stuck my head out the window. There he was, down there, on his wheelchair. He handed up the money, which I took, bewildered. He rode slowly to Window 2 to get his order– always a Large Chocolate Shake (which, at the time were truly huge and in cups the size of what the Large Sweet Tea is served in, now). He would raise his enormous cup to us and ride away into the sunset.
At one point the men from the home came to get him. Apparently his daily escape attempts had been discovered, and they were there to take him back to the home and tighten up security on his ride. He saw the nursing home aides coming after him and punched the gas on his wheelchair, driving around the parking lot and slipping deftly between cars as they tried in vain to catch him. Finally he tipped his wheelchair over, and I saw the wheels spinning in the air while he sucked vigorously at his milkshake, lying there on his side while they came to take him back. They may have been going to take him back, but they weren’t going to take that milkshake away before he had a chance to drink it.
There was one woman, “Mrs. Cat Lady,” who always came around the window and ordered a senior coffee and 8 creamers. The first time I waited on her, I made the mistake of putting her creamers INTO the coffee (which is now standard practice). She was angry and yelled at me for doing this. “I want the creamers on the SIDE! Did I ask you to put them in?” Bewildered, I made her another coffee. I filled it only halfway, assuming that her creamers would take up at least half the space in the tiny cup. Again, angrily, she sent it back.
So I made her a third senior coffee. I filled it up to the top and put 8 creamers in a bag. As I did I stared into her van, which was old and covered in quilts and afghans. There were even curtains on the windows. I found out later that she lived quite comfortably in that van, and that, while the coffee was for her, the creamers were for her cat, who also called the van home. Every day we made sure that both Mrs. Cat Lady and her cat were happy. What good cat wants her cream diluted with nasty coffee? Certainly not that one. Dully chastised, I never made the mistake again.
There were also customers who were not as interesting or pleasant. Luckily, the bad ones didn’t often come back once they were incensed by something that we did. I don’t know if McDonald’s restaurants even do this anymore, but when I worked there we had “baby cones” for free– 2 inch tall ice cream cones that were meant for kids. It was always embarrassing, even to me, when adults with obviously no children would ask for “five free baby cones” after the meal, and I knew they were just trying to get out of paying the $1 for a regular ice cream cone. Technically we had the right to refuse them, but we never did.
I remember one particular incident that occurred when I first started working at McDonald’s that still makes me cringe to this day. A man came around the window and ordered a grilled chicken sandwich. At the time, we didn’t sell salads or many of the other grilled chicken options that have become the buzzword of today’s healthier eating styles. The grilled chicken was expensive, and no one ever ordered it (I think in the 2 years I worked there I saw maybe 3 people order it). It took 8 minutes to grill the chicken, and it was always made to order due to how seldom we sold it. Even if customers wanted to try the grilled chicken sandwich, mostly they would change their minds when they heard they would have to wait almost 10 minutes for the order to be ready.
This man ordered a grilled chicken sandwich going around the window, which was disastrous. As usual, we didn’t have any grilled chicken ready. I told him that it would be 8 minutes if he wanted to wait for grilled chicken. He said that he would wait. Oh dear. No one had ever actually decided to wait. What should I do now? I can’t make the drive thru line wait 8 minutes. The manager told me to “pull him up”– to ask him to pull forward, so that we could keep the line running while his meal was being prepared. I told him we would bring out his grilled chicken when it was ready. He pulled up.
Unfortunately I got busy, and I forgot about Mr. Grilled Chicken. About 10 minutes had passed, and I forgot all about him . . . until he stormed in the door, red in the face as a tomato. “Are you people out of your MIND? I HAVE BEEN WAITING ALMOST 10 MINUTES AND NO ONE HAS BROUGHT OUT MY ORDER!!!” Oh dear. I apologized and went to check. The grill had made the grilled chicken, but when I didn’t grab it, someone else used it for break food. WHAT????? I felt my stomach dropping.
I went back to the customer and explained what had happened. He was furious, but unbelievably, he elected to wait ANOTHER 8 minutes for his grilled chicken. That man loved his grilled chicken. This time, he waited inside for it, just so we didn’t forget him. He paced menacingly in front of the counter, freaking all of us out as he periodically banged his fists on the countertop and asked how much longer.
As it was McDonald’s, unfortunately, again, we got busy. The restaurant was buzzing, and even though I was trying to watch for that elusive grilled chicken sandwich, I had customers to wait on, fries to prepare, drinks to make. I realized that I didn’t actually know what the grilled chicken box looked like, because I had never sold one or seen one. Finally a blue box came up. I grabbed it and packed the man’s order. He snatched it from my hands, cursed under his breath, and was gone.
Then I heard those fateful words from the guys at the grill. “Hey Emilie– here’s that grilled chicken you wanted.” A little green box bumped its way down the line. I stared.
And then I ran.
Yes, friends. I had accidentally given the man who waited 20 minutes for that elusive grilled chicken . . . a Fish Filet instead. Because I didn’t realize that the grilled chicken came in a GREEN box instead of blue, I grabbed the wrong one. And oh my. I KNEW he’d be back. I knew it with the same certainty that the world knew WWI would start when the Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated. He was coming back. And he was coming straight for me.
I ran to the manager Lisa in tears. I told her what had happened, and thankfully, she understood. I will say that I always found the McDonald’s managers extremely supportive of their staff. And I was never more grateful for that than at this moment. She told me to wait in the back. She would handle it. She instructed the grill to make 2 more grilled chicken sandwiches– an “heir and a spare.” Just in case.
I heard him come back. I think the whole town heard him come back.
The very building shook. I heard his profanity and the slamming of his meaty fists on the counter. I heard something that may have been a very unfortunate fish filet being thrown at an even more unfortunate employee. I heard the apologies and knew that the green box(es) had finally found the right hands. I heard him rave and ask where I was. I shrunk down against the wall and prayed he wouldn’t come back to find out. I silently apologized to the fish which had died in vain. I wondered how a man could get so angry when all he ate was calm, boring grilled chicken. I wondered if he would be happier if he ordered crispy once in a while. I wished I’d written my final will and testament.
After what seemed like an eternity, finally, he left. Lisa found me quivering in the staff coat closet. “You can come out now. It’s safe. He’s gone. I made sure his car left the parking lot.”
To this day, I can’t see grilled chicken without remembering that incident, even though it happened almost 20 years ago. And to this day, whenever I meet someone named Lisa, I smile and like them immediately. I can’t help it. She certainly went to bat for me that day. And I never forgot it.
There were other, more pleasant things too. Not all of the customers were nasty. I remember once paying for an Amish woman who tried to pay her bill via check, and then started to cry when she found out we didn’t accept checks. Her kids were hungry. I could tell they’d had a ridiculously long day. The bill was small, and I paid for her. The next day she brought a thank you note and a little Amish doll that she had made for me– Amish dolls have no faces, but it certainly made me smile. I still have that doll to this day.
I saw people step forward and pay for others, when someone didn’t have enough money. I saw people pay for the person behind them, or sometimes for 2 or 3 people behind them– just to be nice. I got to be the one to see the smiles of surprise and the stress melt from their faces when I got to tell them “Someone in front of you paid your bill today.” For just a moment, we were all human. The walls we put up around ourselves, just for a moment, were dissolved. Surprised and happy. It was beautiful.
I remember that there used to be a college aged man who participated in Big Brother Big Sister. He would bring his little brothers and sisters into McDonald’s for french fries and milkshakes. I loved seeing the kids’ eyes get big as they came in, trying to decide what they wanted. Some of them had never had a milkshake before. I knew the college guy had almost no money, so I always made sure that I loaded up those fries and refilled the milkshakes, even though technically milkshakes aren’t supposed to get free refills. We fed a lot of kids. We saw a lot of smiles. And I learned that even if you don’t have much money, you can still make a difference. I remember that man’s kindness and giving heart to this day. “If you only have a dollar, using it to help someone else makes you rich.”
I learned many things working at McDonald’s, and I’m glad it was my first job. It taught me the value of working hard and being courteous, even when others acted like trolls. It taught me to respect all jobs, no matter how menial, and realize that even the person mopping the floor at a fast food place is a person working hard to make sure that your day is a little bit better. Saying “thank you” is always a good choice.
I learned how happy it makes someone when you randomly decide to be kind and pay for his or her meal. I learned that smiling goes a long way– a lot farther than you would ever think– to make someone’s day a little brighter.
I also learned to never, ever order the grilled chicken. 😉
You did it. And I’m just so proud of you.
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