McJob: An unstimulating, low-wage job with few benefits, esp. in a service industry.
Counter girls come in all shapes and sizes. I know this from experience because I have been all shapes and sizes myself. One might be a big-boobed lovely in a tight pink sweater, leaning over to pour your coffee as she presses a runaway eyelash to her lid (not me). Another might be an old woman with six chin hairs and breath to yellow linoleum (not me, yet). Urban diners might find a few with rusty, infected earrings, or clothing stinking of mildew, or maybe flood pants and greasy hair (my friends). And there will always be those fat, lazy, out-of-shape girls with bad bras and pimples (me, at moments).
However blessed or cursed she (or I) may be with physical endowments, the fate of the counter girl always the same: we are universally regarded as moronic. So when my friend Jason said, “Why don’t you come work at McDonald’s?” I thought he was pulling my leg.
“You’re kidding, right? You want me to work at McDonald’s?”
What was he thinking? Hadn’t I endured enough wearing see-through pants at the Dairy Cream? What about the grim situation at Grandma’s Revenge, where I wasn’t manly enough to be in the kitchen and I wasn’t blonde enough to wait tables? Was I doomed to be a counter girl again?
Yes (sigh). I was. Lured in this time by Jason, an assistant manager at the McDonald’s restaurant in Okoboji, Iowa, a miniature resort area with an amusement park just thirty minutes west of Estherville. The area is home to several lakes around which the Midwest elite built shamefully elaborate summer homes and let their children run wild. Jason desperately needed more employees but hesitated to ask me, not wanting to look bad if a hired friend turned out to be a lousy worker. His current crew was largely composed of wealthy summer kids forced to take jobs “for the experience,” all of them despondent that their summer would be spent flipping burgers and serving their equally-privileged peers while earning $3.35 an hour. They were, “Like, so embarrassed!”
The turnover rate was high, and Jason managed the chronic absenteeism by hiring an eclectic collection of Esthervillians who were surprisingly reliable and capable of carpooling. There was my sister Lisa, whose warp-speed work habits earned her the nickname Lightning; her best friend, Lynn, a seasoned drinker and sex addict; Maryann, a twenty-McNugget-eating blonde; Christian, a pedantic comedian with a bloated ego; and Tina, a young woman who would years later marry the pedantic burger boy.
These people became my first temporary family. They were the first group of coworkers with whom I became emotionally entwined, who filled a hole that continually yawned open and slammed shut. But, like the countless temporary families that would follow, I wouldn’t miss them when I moved on—they were immediately replaced by fill-ins: a recycling of coworker understudies in the theatrical drama I imagined my working life to be.
Tina and her family spent summers in an RV park on West Lake Okoboji. They had a lovely home nearby but for some strange reason enjoyed living in a mauve trailer that smelled like a port-a-potty. I spent many nights in that trailer (along with countless other couches and cars in the area) and days could pass without my needing a single reentry into Estherville. Tina and I (with Lisa nary a shadow away) quickly became sleep-deprived party girls. We worked the late-night or early-morning shifts and always had a subtle odor of fast food in our clothes and hair, making it mandatory that we confine our socializing to members of the McDonald’s crew.
This turned our working world into an incestuous stew, roiling with catfights and the drunken fruitfulness of coworkers with grossly conflicting gene pools. Jason and I even dated for a couple months during my first summer at the Mack Shack. Regrettably, I was uninterested in sharing any emotions at the time, unable to separate myself from the meticulous and orderly work machinations monopolizing my brain space. I was intent on charging ahead, propelling myself through time and on to whatever came next—even if it was just mopping. There could be no boyfriends. I was an emotional stone; my personality floated far away in a sea of insecurity and self-loathing.
Some nights, Lisa, Tina and I stayed out so late we had to sleep in one of our cars in the McDonald’s parking lot. We set our Swatches for 5:30 a.m. and like polyester-clad characters from “the Night of the Living Dead” marched inside to make Egg McMuffins, smelling strongly of booze and beer, hair matted and full of twigs from making out with coworkers in local wooded areas. More often than not, my head felt as though someone had screwed off the top and poured in salty road grit.
It was after these early mornings that I took little siestas in the women’s restroom. Yes, you read correctly; I slept in the john. If there were enough people working on a given day, a ten-minute absence went unnoticed, so a few times a day I napped with my head on my knees in the bathroom using my crossed arms as a pillow. And yet, no matter how bad the hangovers, no matter how wretched and awkward the lavatory slumber, my performance was always rock solid; it’s the Midwest way.
A handful of aspirin and a socially unacceptable amount of pickle slices later, Tina and I resumed our status as the ultimate drive-thru team: super fast, super accurate, and super friendly. Lisa provided the ballast of our power trio, running bags of food back and forth from the bins to the drive-thru window, feeding her addiction by occasionally snatching handfuls of fries from customers’ bags. The manager loved us because we worked as though someone were pointing a gun at our heads. The customers loved us because we pasted smiles on our faces no matter how bad our grease burns (two words: beef tallow). They would get their shakes, they would get their Big Macs, and they would get their fries (most of them, anyway). Everything was going to be just fine . . .
Yet, despite our obvious success as fast-food automatons, I still craved the attention of customers, even yearned for it, secretly desiring everyone’s approval and admiration. It was without rationale, this longing, and it expanded beyond any reasonable internal drive. It was a force that seemed at times to stand behind me, hissing in my ear, slapping my head and kicking me in the back. Faster! Faster! Hurry!
Then, behind the stainless steel counter of a Midwest McDonald’s (a counter I had personally scrubbed and polished to a mirror-like sheen) an imaginary fan club signed up members in my mind. Look at Sandy go. She’s so fast. What would we ever do without Sandy?
I took on two other jobs that summer and, for the first time, experienced the marvels of sleep deprivation. Having multiple jobs guaranteed my escape from the boring tranquility of Midwest summers. As much I wanted it to be otherwise, that first summer in ’85 wasn’t the end of my relationship with McDonald’s—the franchise in Okoboji sustained me through other employment gigs, always providing a solid platform from which to branch. It simmered in the background the following summer, again in the winter of ’87 and in the spring and summer of ’88.
We all make bad choices (and trust me, I’ve made plenty), but I don’t think working in a fast food restaurant was one of mine. Until you’ve served several thousand rude assholes with a smile on your face, cat-napped on a public toilet, swept and mopped miles and miles of tile, won the take-the-shake-machine-apart contest two summers in a row, dined on a meal of pickles dipped in ketchup, and slept fully clothed in a blue LeCar in a McDonald’s parking lot—have you really, truly lived?