The Works

Crazy spinning tilt-a-whirl

I got my first job through family connections.

My Sibling. She worked at the nearby–at least in midwest suburban standards–hamburger joint called Burger Chef. The manager, Ken, really liked her alot. There was a shift opening, and she got me in. I don’t think Ken thought that I’d be a hard worker, but since he liked Sib, alot, he took a chance. It wasn’t a big risk. Kids got on and off that store like an amusement park ride, and there was always another 16-year-old needing a first job.

I don’t think that I worked a shift with the Sib. She soon got a school sponsored co-op job at a graphics shop and couldn’t do the hamburger thing. Lucky.

My first day I donned my plastic uniform. It was plastic. Seriously. They made this awful double-knit fabric that was made out of melted straws and drink cup lids. You would pull it out of the washing machine and it would be mostly dry because it wasn’t actually fabric.

It was topped by a crappy brown plastic tunic and crappy brown plastic pants–I guess to hide the stains of a day’s work–with 70’s orange and yellow stripes. Like the worst that the Brady’s would wear.  And then there was the worst cap ever. These days fast food workers wear baseball caps. In those days we wore clown jester hats. Nobody looked good in it. Even Emma Watson wouldn’t be able pull it off. Judge for yourself here.

My training shift was a two hour gig between lunch and dinner rush. Since there was virtually nobody there, the boss could actually spend time telling you what to do.

It was my first day at my first job and I didn’t yet constitutionally hate my crappy brown plastic uniform. I was cheerful and bouncy–like a worker should be, right? Ken showed me how to punch in and gave me my name tag. I toured the back of the house. I had never actually seen a grill or a triple sink before. The walk-in fridge was incredibly impressive. [Ask me sometime what I did when I accidently dumped over the pickle bucket in the walk-in. Be assured I never ate pickles again at that store. Another fun fact, when we were overcome by peeling and slicing onions, we’d go into the walk-in and put our faces next to the fan. Cleared the tears in a minute.]

After the tour, it was time for some actual work. Ken gave me a towel and a bucket with some diluted cleaning solution. He showed me how to wipe down the table and the booths, being sure to sponge the back of the bench as well as the seats.

I methodically worked my way through the dining room. Leaning over to make sure that I did a really good job. I went around the perimeter washing each booth then moved to the bolted down tabletops and twisty chairs. The booths were orange and the twisty chairs were beige and yellow. [Who chose those colors? Papa Brady?]

It probably took me 25 minutes to do a thorough job. Ken was behind the counter, prepping the cash registers or identifying what needed to be stocked for the dinner rush. When I was done, I walked back behind the counter–not gonna lie, it felt cool to cross the line to the back of the house. Boss Man was leaning against the stainless steel expo area and talking to another staffer. I eagerly asked him what I should do next.

He looked at me and surveyed the empty dining room. “Clean the tables.”

I thought he must have misspoke since I had just done that and nobody had sat down in that time. “I just did that.”

“Do it again.”

“What?” I thought. And I am sure that my face was somewhere between are you kidding me and screw you. But he was serious.

He was letting me know that he was the guy in charge and I answered to him. It didn’t matter that the tables were cleaned almost contemporaneously. He was paying me. Paying at below minimum wage, I might add still bitter decades later, because Burger Chef participated in a rip-off program that hired high school students at a lousy wage so they could exploit us even more while we got work experience so we could hop off their tilt-a-whirl.

“I said, go clean the dining room.”

I furiously grabbed my rag and my bucket and with a high level of attitude began rewiping down the tables and chairs. I mouthed and maybe spoke many curse words aimed primarily at my boss. The litany included everything except the F-word, because it was not yet my go-to when spitting vulgar profanities at the injustices of the world.

I was significantly pissed. I could have quit right then and there, I was telling myself. It was so stupid and unreasonable, I complained in my head as I squeezed out my towel. Why did I have to do something that was already done, I blasphemed as I extended my reach to the back of the booth next to the window and wiped again. I hated that stupid weasel-faced Ken with his stupid white shirt with short sleeves and that lame brown tie, those hideous aviator glasses and his awful mousy hair parted neatly on the side when all the guys I knew wore their hair like Jon Bon Jovi if they had curls or Tom Petty if they did not.

Somehow I worked my way around the dining room and my shift was over. I clocked out. I came back the next day and learned the cash register. And that’s how I learned to work.

God, it was awful. I swore I would never ever ever work with food again. That was a promise I kept.

When I left, they were sorry to see me go. They told me I had a future, as a crew chief. That’s the other thing I learned. Don’t go away mad. Just go away.

Now I’m thinking about Ken for the first time as a person. He was in his early twenties–just six or seven years my elder–even though he seemed like an old man when I was sixteen. I’m the old person at work. I hope I’m not so unreasonable. I hope I either advertently or inadvertently grant some valued lessons. And I hope that Ken has had a great life.

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