Confessions of a Former Fast Food Employee
You can blame McDonald’s for fat kids, mad cows, and Morgan Spurlock, but you’ll have to blame me, too. I was there. I made your Big Macs, took your order, asked you to pull up to the window, and poured extra salt on your fries for the beauty of it. Something in the way the salt came out of the canister mesmerized me. It didn’t just pour out — it flowed like a beautiful river of sodium, under the hot fry light.
I worked at McDonald’s in my teens, from 1996 to 1999. The first thing you should know about McDonald’s is that there is grease. Once you step behind the counter, your shoes are like tires without tread on a rainy day. The ground is slick and your rubber soles slide gently with it. Grease is everywhere — the smell of it, the taste of it. It cakes the walls, your skin, creeps underneath your fingernails, and bonds with your hair. It bakes into your polyester pants and denim hat. It becomes a part of you. A McDonald’s job isn’t forever; nobody ever stays. But the grease never leaves you.
Now, let’s take a few things off the table. Number one — we never flipped the burgers. I was not a burger flipper. There was a giant machine, known as The Clamshell, and you pulled it down on top of the burgers to grill them on both sides at once. Think of it as an industrial-sized Foreman Grill.
McDonald’s had industrial machines for everything. Preparing food was magical and Wonka-like, so easy a monkey could do it — or at least a bunch of vacant-eyed high-schoolers. Ice cream came from pulling levers; eggs formed in a cup of microwaved liquid; meat came from a cardboard box.
Another thing: I’ve never spit in anyone’s food. I’m smarter than that. So what if your victim — Donny, the obnoxious jock with a crooked lip — ingests a gob of spit? Nothing happens. He didn’t even know it. If I wanted to get him, I’d do something more sinister and more harmful. My weapon was the salt canister.
I over-salted people’s fries. I mean, I over-salted them. It was the perfect tactic, completely invisible. The potatoes absorbed all the salt, hiding my attack. Crappy fries will ruin your meal. Even your day. Especially your arteries.
My other favorite thing to do was to tell friends I picked the food up off the ground and served it to customers. I loved their dramatic reactions and declarations that they would never eat at McDonald’s again — though I was completely making it up. Looking back on it now, it doesn’t seem as cool to exaggerate stories of picking food up off the ground.
Every story gets exaggerated. There was this one kid, Rob, who drank a whole bucket of lard once. He did it for twenty bucks. True story. Except the bucket was actually a sixteen-ounce cup, and the “lard” was just a shot of vegetable oil. And no one paid him. He did it for laughs.
And there was the time I broke my spinal cord, left femur, and head falling down the stairs; everyone remembers that. I almost died. In fact, I did die, and I even saw The Light on my trip down those stairs. I got burnt from splattered grease a few times, too, and I still have the mangled scars to prove it. Children ask me in fear and awe what they are. Every story gets exaggerated.
As my first job, McDonald’s was influential on my young mind in many ways. Waking up early, standing on my feet for eight hours, microwaving chicken patties repetitiously — I knew I was going to need something stronger than oxygen to get me through this day. So I taught myself to enjoy coffee, and I thought McDonald’s had the best coffee until my Dad told me it wasn’t.
“That coffee’s terrible,” he said. So I moved on to coffee from the Exxon station.
I ate cheeseburgers every single day I worked, until one day I couldn’t possibly eat another in my life, and then I became a vegetarian. Sometimes I still tell exaggerated stories about why I became a vegetarian, making up stuff I’d seen in the grill area, like blood dripping from the meat patties. War stories. But I didn’t see anything like that. I really just got sick of those omnipresent all-beef patties. When I came out to my steak-grilling, meatloaf-baking parents as a vegetarian, my dad laughed at me and said I’d be craving meat in a few days, but I haven’t touched a two cheeseburger meal since.
Pictured above is the actual hat I wore. All the pins on the bill were earned for doing something good, like coming to work on time, or keeping your mouth shut — like after you worked a 12-hour shift without overtime. McDonald’s had sketchy labor practices, but they were worth enduring for a pin.
Pins were prized possessions. Pins were street cred. The more you had, the more of a soldier you were. Of course, standards were pretty low when some of the managers were ex-convicts. Still, it was better than being a Wendy’s employee.
You also got pins for surviving special promotions such as berry-flavored milkshakes, the bi-annual return of the McRib, or Beanie Babies featured in the Happy Meals.
I worked at McDonald’s during the height of Beanie Baby craze, when everyone thought Babies were going to be cherished dolls for the ages. The day the Beanies came out, McDonald’s had lines out the door. Adults were buying six Happy Meals for themselves; children were being kicked in the shins; and people’s heads were exploding because our hellhole was out of “Scoop the Pelican” dolls.
At the end of the day, we surveyed the damage. We had lost the ice cream machine, one of drive-thru girls walked out and quit, and Dave had slipped and mangled his hand on the Clamshell. We were exhausted and greasy, but still standing. I was given a Scoop the Pelican pin for my hat. A medal.
But of all these things, my favorite memory of McDonald’s is the time I got to run a birthday party. Every kid dreamed of having their party at McDonald’s at some point, and I got to be the dream maker.
This happened by accident. There was a special employee who came in to run the parties, Mary Beth. Mary Beth was bubbly with an irritating laugh, and actually liked children, but one Saturday, Mary Beth had the flu. Little Jimmy’s birthday party was at 2 p.m. It was now 1:30. The manager started sweating, scanning the skeleton crew: a bunch of ugly teenagers, potheads, and morons. I was the best-looking and most coherent employee left. They chose me. I knew nothing about childrens’ birthday parties, but already some of Jimmy’s friends had started pouring in with big wrapped gifts. I couldn’t let the kid down.
Birthday parties needed games. I wadded up a tray liner and grabbed a couple of super-sized cups. Within seconds, I had invented toss-the-wad-in-the-cup, win a Happy Meal toy. I knew this was the worst game ever, but I had to work with what I had, which was absolutely nothing.
Still, the kids played this game competitively. They even tried to cheat. I couldn’t believe I was policing 7 year-olds sneaking an extra step over the line to land a wad of paper in a paper cup. Kids are jerks. But I gave them all a prize out of sheer guilt over the crappiness of the game.
The food came out and everyone started eating, so I had some time to solve the next problem — the cake. The birthday cakes were stored in the freezer, needing a few hours to thaw out before the party. This had not happened. I stood there staring at this frozen brick of a sheet cake, an edible image of Ronald McDonald and Grimace dancing on the top. I tried zap-thawing it in the microwave. The kids were finishing eating, slurping the last sips of their Sprites. I hit another 20 seconds on the microwave.
Finally, I could stall no longer. So I did what I had to do. I marched that frozen cake out there with a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday. I was thrilled when all the kids joined in with me. I was really running this show! I placed the cake in front of Little Jimmy and he blew out the candles.
This was it. I pulled out a knife, and with every iota of strength and power vested in me by Thor, I cut through the arctic, frozen solid cake. And then I served it. To this day, I have no idea how the children ate the cake, but they all did—every last bite. I take it all back. Kids are not jerks–they are amazing, self-preserving creatures, determined to have a good time. God bless them.
Summer soon ended, and for me, college was approaching. So one day, I strutted into McDonald’s and did the classiest thing I knew how–I wrote my two weeks’ notice on the back of a tray liner. No one ever stays. We all quit, one by one.
Rob, the guy who drank lard, went on to work for a septic cleaning company. Dave, the kid who caught his hand on the grill, found work at the grocery store. No one ever heard from Mary Beth again. Some say you can faintly hear her bubbly laugh coming through the drive-thru speaker at night.
This was my story. Our story. We were former fast food employees once, soldiers once … and young.
A version of this piece originally appeared in The Surfing Pizza.