It was manual labor and I was good at manual labor. Anything with my hands, really. Check the screen, grab the spoon, smear, repeat with next condiment, a pinch of pickles placed deliberately (no one likes to bite into a pile of pickles), grab two tomato slices and slide to fan as you place them, close with a blanket of lettuce to hold it all in. Grab the metal spatula for the burger, with cheese melted. Carefully, quickly, slam the two sides together, flipping it upside-down, waiting expectantly on the paper wrap, foil side down. This was the moment. Everything had led up to this… Grab a corner and the opposite corner at a diagonal, pull them together lapping one over the other, one more corner, then grab the entire unit and flip it to tuck the final corner down under the now right-side up sandwich. This was sandwich wrapping and I was the fastest in the store. It happened in a blur of silver. The faster you made the sandwiches the sloppier they got, but wrapping was neat and precise; a few quick movements and a turn for flourish.
I could work the register, but it wasn’t my favorite. You make drinks and serve up the chili too, but mostly I dreaded making “pre-change.” There was an expectation that you could prepare for how much change someone might need if they gave you a whole dollar. The register would count out the right amount if you gave it a chance, even push it out on a fun curled slide on the side of the register. Pre-change was more of an expectation if you worked the drive-through. I was more likely to do that if I was working in the evening. You also make drinks and frosties. Scooping fries was more of a sandwich maker task.
You get to spend a lot more time getting to know the grill-guy if you work sandwiches. Beto was the best. He was from Jamaica. He had an infectious laugh and was always making jokes. Sal would work the grill too sometimes; he was aiming for manager and was promoted up. He had just just come from the military and still had the crew cut to accentuate his big puppy-dog eyes. There was another guy, I don’t remember his name, but I hated working with him. He tried to set my hair on fire — just grabbed my ponytail and flicked his lighter behind my back. He laughed, but it felt like trauma to me.
Everything about me smelled like pickles. I loved pickles. You used a box cutter to slice through the plastic slots on the lid of the pickle barrel. Once cut, the lid never fit tightly. The barrel was kept in the walk-in refrigerator, along with the metal bins of frozen beef patties and bags of fries and chicken. For every shift worked you earned a $3 meal budget. For a full day, this wasn’t enough food, but for a short shift, this was plenty for a frosty for the fridge at home and maybe some fries or small cheeseburger. I thrashed my work shoes standing in bleachy mop water, until it was time to buy another pair of black fake-leather high-top shoes. I remember thinking how cool Andre was, crooning Depeche Mode songs on the intercom when the dining room was empty, and how liberating it felt to work too late closing, just goofing off with the others until 2 a.m.
This world, where I earned $3.25 an hour, was an opportunity, a place that offered me a kind of freedom I couldn’t get otherwise. It gave me the financial independence I needed to pay for my car insurance so I could drive and the ability to pay for other things I needed, like organization/club fees (I joined the German Club, FBLA, Art Club!), art supplies, and even money to spend at the mall. It pushed me into other people I’d never have met and challenged me to perform in all kinds of situations. I made friends. Junior year of high school, wasn’t it? I didn’t play sports, I wasn’t on any other teams, just here, united in our efforts to get a paycheck and make it to the next shift. This job wasn’t a dead-end for me. In fact, I had my all-time highest ever GPA while I worked there. I was here for the freedom and the chance to write my own future. Every career starts somewhere; this was where my work history officially started.
(Actually, I started babysitting for money at 13, but we can talk about that later.)