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Sunday, August 28, 2011

a look back with cheese

So here we are, with the final post in this series celebrating my 20-year anniversary of my summer at Burger King.
There’s a certain symmetry happening this week, whether by fate or by happenstance. I am currently hunkering down in anticipation of Hurricane Irene, but I rode out my very first hurricane (1991’s Bob) at Burger King. I can still remember driving to work and seeing those ominous gray-green skies, thinking how insane it was for me to be heading to a place where, if the power lines went down, I would be surrounded largely by uncooked meat. 

And last Wednesday, in between a sound check and a concert appearance, I found myself grabbing a double cheeseburger at the BK. Thanks to the availability of mustard packets (for some reason, chains do not put mustard on their burgers in New York City), it tasted exactly the same as I remember. (I created my own ketchup-to-mustard ratio, thank you very much.) I don’t often find myself at a Burger King these days, but not for the reasons you’d think. It has less to do with Burger King and more to do with Five Guys.
I think I need to make it clear at this point that my experiences at Burger King, as odd and un-jolly as they could be, did not repulse me in the least. I saw nothing nefarious or stomach-turning; in fact, my hands were never cleaner than when I worked there. It was the first place I ever saw dispensers of Purell, years before it hit the market. I’ve eaten at Burger King quite a bit in the last 20 years. People are surprised by that.  
As I’ve mentioned before, that summer was a larger learning experience than I ever imagined it could be. I couldn’t afford to take any internships when I was in college. I needed every cent I could make, even if it was only minimum wage, and I couldn’t afford the added expense of living in the fancy cities where the fancy internships were. But there really is something to be said for the Burger King education that I got in 1991, that 10-week intensive course in humanity and work ethics and sandwich-making.
Somewhere in North Carolina, there is a landfill that contains a plaque with engraved plates of all the names of the 1991 Burger King Employees of the Month at Store Number Something Something Something. I never saw it with my name on it. It doesn’t matter. Time marches on, and awards get thrown away or covered with dust or relegated to attics, but no one can take away that education.
For one thing, I learned why chocolate milkshakes at fast-food places are so delicious. It’s because they’re not chocolate milkshakes (made with chocolate ice cream), they’re actually black-and-white milkshakes (made with vanilla ice cream and chocolate or fudge syrup). That nugget of knowledge changed the course of my dessert ordering for the rest of my life.
I also learned that all fast-food garbage smells like rancid cheese and that it takes extra heart and gumption for short people to successfully lob heavy bags into the Dumpsters out back. 
I learned to appreciate employment of any kind, but I also learned to cherish any time I got to make a living doing what I love to do. While I did well at Burger King, and while I had fantastic managers, I didn’t really love the work. I’d had worse jobs before and I’ve had them since, jobs that were much more soul-sucking, but the BK experience was a real turning point. It was there that I learned there was a good chance that if I didn’t catch a lucky break, I could, in the words of my manager George, “go all the way.” I’d known I would never last at the shirt factory I worked in during the summer of 1990. But if I’d retreated from my dreams -- or if they’d retreated from me -- I may still be at that Burger King today. 
And of course, there are all the other lessons I’ve learned that I mentioned in the past seven Burger King posts, lessons about change and beverages and fun and clowns. 
More than anything else, though, I learned not to take myself too seriously, no matter where life took me. When I got my first (and to date, only) feature film job, I brought along a photocopy of my Employee of the Month certificate to hang outside my dressing room door. After all, we shot the film in Wilmington, NC, just an hour south of that Burger King in Jacksonville. The actual certificate is displayed in our home office. Some people don’t understand it. In the past, I have tried to put my Employee of the Month status in various bios, only to see it cut by press reps. Maybe they thought I was joking. Not at all. Granted, it’s a funny juxtaposition, but really, I mention it to let the world know that once upon a time, I did something real. 
So yeah. I’ve never spent a semester at sea, never been a foreign exchange student, never earned college credit for fetching coffee for powerful film executives. And that’s fine by me. All that shiny stuff was for the shiny people, not me. I’m a scrapper.  
That’s right, kids... I’m just Stephanie from the King. 
Yes indeed. Welcome to me. 

POSTSCRIPT: I can't believe I forgot to mention the biggest lessons of all... learning that time does, sometimes thankfully, pass... also, whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger... and finally, some experiences my be rotten now but make for great stories in a couple of decades. The kitten on the rope was right. Hang in there, kids. 

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