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Sunday, July 10, 2011

first day with cheese

So here we are.
Twenty years ago, I was lucky when that call came through. It was just one summer earlier, during the recession of 1990, when I’d had no luck at all even getting an application at the fast-food joints of Jacksonville, NC. But in the summer of 1991, The King called, beckoning me to his flame-kissed burger palace.
And now I had not one, but two part-time jobs that would help add desperately needed kopeks to my college coffer. I’d work the registers at the mall drugstore in the evening, and during the day, I’d do everything there was to do at Burger King. It would prove to be a pivotal, horrible, wearying, lonely, amazing summer where I learned less about burgers and more about human nature than I could have dreamed.

Don’t get me wrong. I’d worked before... a lot. But BK felt different. Mostly because it was the first job I’d had that required not just a uniform, but also a hairnet. My thick, unruly locks required heavy artillery in the netting department and a special trip to the beauty supply store. That makes a gal feel special, buying her first hairnet.
As I donned my polyester for my first day of work, I stood in front of my bedroom mirror and tried to practice saying “Welcome to Burger King.” I couldn’t get to “Bur-” without giggling. Not because I felt I was above the job, but rather because I felt ridiculous and out of place in every way.
It wasn’t really “my” bedroom mirror, because it wasn’t really “my” bedroom. My mother and sister and I had come to Jacksonville two summers before, just prior to my going away to Northwestern University. This meant that I was essentially a stranger in Jacksonville, and in many ways, my home, which now included an almost-new stepfather. My bedroom had been slept in for only a handful of months  of school vacations over two year’s time. Nothing around me was familiar, especially not this wayward creature in the mirror with the name tag and the hairnet and the cap. That’s why it made sense for me to have two jobs. There was nothing else to do, no friends to hang out with, no Internet yet and no money in my pocket. All I could think to do was throw myself into $4.25 an hour  - ridiculousness and all - and hope that I came out the other end of summer with something to show for it. 
It turned out that it didn’t matter if I could say “Welcome to Burger King” without laughing. I spent half of my first day shoved into a quiet corner of the dining room, watching a stack of training videos on a tinny, tiny TV/VCR combo, and trying to keep the volume low enough so as not to let the surrounding customers in on such trade secrets as the ketchup to mustard ratio on hamburgers and cheeseburgers. In fact, I’d just signed a confidentiality form promising that I’d not divulge such inside information. Burger spies, it would seem, were rampant. 
I still remember this ratio. But you’re not getting it out of me. 
My only misstep on this day was letting my mind wander during the third video. Not because I was bored, but because my inner film major kicked in and was making mental notes as to how the script, shots, and editing could be improved. When I realized I’d totally missed the part about how to use the fryers, I had to rewind. Even with my total lack of fast food experience, I was still aware of the importance of fryer knowledge thanks to a little something called “duh.”
The rest of my day was spent shoving frozen patties and buns onto a conveyor belt that took them into the magical broiler/toaster. This was a source of relief, as I could now honestly say that I was not, in fact, “flipping burgers” that summer. There was nary a flip involved. Semantics are everything. I may have shoved burgers, assembled them, nuked them, dressed them, topped them, wrapped them, and exchanged them for money over the course of that summer, but never, Sir, never did I flip them!
I finished my shift by playing “ice fairy,” as I came to call it, dumping buckets of ice into the top of the fountain drink station. 
Innocuous, simple, low-rung tasks for a first day, but apparently, it was their litmus test. And it was then that I learned the first, biggest lesson of the summer:
Showing up on time and doing the simple tasks that are asked of you are really easy to do... but apparently, not for everyone.
Because it was amazing to see how happy my managers seemed with my rudimentary abilities. College girl did good.
It was even more amazing, considering the fact that I’d not hovered over any fryers all day, that I walked out the door feeling as though I was coated all over with a thin layer of grease. And yet I was undeterred, because even this light larding was better than the previous summer, when the only job I could get was at a shirt factory.
At the end of my first day there, it was clear what color garments were being made by what came out in my Kleenex.
But that’s a story for another time.
Yes indeed. Welcome to me.

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