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Thursday, May 01, 2003
We Love to See You Smile
Just after 11th grade, just after I took my SATs, I got my first job. To apply for the job, I put on my nicest pants and a button-down shirt . . . and went to the drive-thru to pick up an application. However, during the actual interview, I wore cut-off camouflage pants and a t-shirt.

My fast-food career lasted just over three years and included just about every position, including swing manager and maintenance. I started at $3.60 an hour.

Working there didn't demand a lot, mentally. Computers literally guided you through all the cooking procedures. Photos and illustrations for dressing the burgers and sandwiches were standard practice. And there were tons of training videos. So, I learned how to transform a frozen disc of meat into a hamburger. And how to work the cash registers. And how to take apart the shake/sundae machine.

Of course, the videos couldn't teach you everything. Like how to avoid having 20 chicken McNuggets thrown in your face by an angry customer (one of my managers wasn't so lucky). Or how to throw 40-pound cases of meat across a foggy freezer. Or the best way to clean diarrhea and/or vomit off the bathroom wall.


Most of my first year there was spent mastering the basic positions: grill, front counter, and drive-thru. I loved back drive-thru, because all you had to do was take orders with the nifty headphones and take money.

The headphones had two buttons. You'd press one to talk to whoever was at the speaker placing an order, when anyone else wearing a set of headphones in the store could hear you. The second button was used for talking only to people inside. Of course, there were countless times when people were making fun of someone at the speaker or at the window, and they pressed the wrong button to talk.

Here are some tips for drive-thru etiquette:

-- Try to avoid special orders, because the grill staff will screw it up about half the time. And then you have to park the car and come in.

-- If you have to order something special, or you have a complaint, don't be a dick about it. Because the drive-thru person can get the grill staff to do bad things to your food. ("Oh, extra onions? I'll show you extra onions!")

-- If someone points a tartar sauce gun at you through the drive-thru, don't taunt him. Because there's a good chance events could end with you running into a huge cement pylon at the next window.


I once had a woman complain about her order of large fries. You know all about the cardboard containers that large fries are served in---you squeeze the sides and the fries slide down because the container is more open. We were trained that you open the fry container and hold it by the front and back, so fries weren't stuffed in there. Well, this woman in drive-thru took her large fries out of the bag and tamped them on her steering wheel.

"You call this a large fry? It's only half full!"

She was complaining to the girl who was working the front window. I took over, getting the fries back from her. I threw those out and made another one, this time holding the sides to squeeze more fries in. I put that into a new bag and gave it to her.

The woman took the fries out of the bag again and banged them against her steering wheel.

"That's still not full! I paid for a large!"

I took it back from her again. I dumped the fries into the largest handle-size bag we had, took the bag over to the fry station, and proceeded to heap several scoops of fries into the bag. I handed it to her out the window. "That should do it," I said. She looked at me wide-eyed and then scowled before driving off.

Who was she going to complain to? I was a manager at the time.


The cool job detail for regular crew was inventory. It was all guys. We got free food after inventory was over. And we got to throw stuff. We once had a rotten-tomato fight that escalated to include McNugget dipping sauces.

The manager in charge of inventory was a cool chemistry major at FSU. We'd get advice from him about dealing with our high school crap, and he'd relay his lurid stories of college life, or the world in general. I remember, on his last day, he asked another manager to get him a Coke while he supervised our inventory duties. The guy he asked was somewhat of a rival to him. The rival later told us that he put his dick in his Coke and took a piss.


I gravitated toward closing when I got to college. I was taking classes during the day, so working nights was better. Closers were, like, the dregs of the crew. None of the clean, middle-class white kids wanted to close. Except me, of course.

I tried to just do my job. I mean, we'd tell dirty jokes and listen to bad rap music, but it was all clean fun. Even when the closing crew smuggled vodka into the store, got drunk during closing, and ran around the store naked. Or when the same guys were taking turns getting head in the mens' room. Or when a swing manager told me about the time she was handcuffed and fucked in the breakroom by her manager.

That same swing manager once hit on me. Down the road, she started seeing one of the maintenance guys who became a drinking buddy. My failure to grab the reins when I had the chance was a source of ridicule for much of my time there.


If you work in a fast-food place and you're a closer and you're out drinking shots of straight vodka, don't call your friend at the store to tell her how drunk you are. Chances are she's going to relay your message to the manager who won't be sympathetic the next day when you try to call in sick with "the bottle flu."

I suppose this would be true of many working environments.


Random health/safety tips:

-- If you don't have a grease-filtering machine, draining the fry vats into a 5-gallon bucket full of ice isn't a good idea. There is a chance that the bucket could explode and send 350-degree grease onto your skin, giving you a series of nasty burns.

-- The three-second rule applies to most dropped food. Burgers go back on the grill and get flipped twice.

-- The spatulas used for flipping burgers are sharp. Juggling them could result in having your hand split open between the fingers.

-- Searing the meat with your fist is not recommended. Sometimes, the hot grease on the grill can seep through a hole in the meat and singe your knuckle.

-- When the soda system is flushed for algae, stick to drinking Sprite so you can see any black specks of algae floating in your drink.

-- If you ever find a bug in your food, and you want to make a stink, don't give the food back to the manager to get a replacement. Once you give the food back to the staff, they can take the bug out of the food and claim you were mistaken.


One of the coolest managers we had there was Liz, a fiery red-head in her mid-30s who had transferred from another store. She was only there for a few months.

One time, I was scraping frost from the inside of one of the coolers we used to store fish filets and McNuggets. She shaped the ice into a huge phallus of John Holmes-ian proportions. She spent a lot of time working on it, giving it stunning detail, including testicles. Because the cooler was still on, ice phallus stayed intact for an entire afternoon.

I think she even made a comment about riding it.

We think Liz was pretty frustrated, sexually speaking.


I could only handle being a swing manager for about six months. Yeah, the money was better, but I was having a hard time with it. So I took the low pressure alternative of doing maintenance. That's how I ended my career there, for $5.25 an hour, in 1991.