Today while on social media I came across a post about how some guy was going to quit his office job and go back to working at a fast food
restaurant if the minimum wage was increased to $15 an hour, because it was “about what he made now but easier.” This had the usual trolls responding about how it “isn’t easy” to work fast food, how people are expected to work under “stressful situations” and deal with “angry customers.”
I’m admittedly a lot more pessimistic than these posters, because I’ve done far more than my fair of hospitality and restaurant work in my life. I’m very much familiar with what it takes to survive, and perhaps even thrive, in these hostile environments. While police officers are expected to uphold the law, soldiers are expected to spend months away from families often under grueling conditions, and nurses are expected to deliver expert care in an environment where one mistake can lead to the death of their patients, this all pales in comparison to the hard work and dedication a fast food worker has to muster in order to ensure food is served hot and fresh. Failure to do so promptly can lead to a customer being late to work, or needing to come back and get a refund, or even worse! It is certainly not an easy job for everyone.
I’m being sardonic here. Let’s not mince words. These jobs are not particularly skilled labor, but they do require working quickly, adapting to the needs of customers and also the inefficiencies of employees who “don’t want to be there” and “aren’t getting paid enough.” When a customer has a complaint, you’ve got to be able to pretend to care about them as individuals while also trying to “make it right for the customer.” Yet, this has to be done within the constraints of management, who makes it clear that as another cog in their turnkey startup you the employee should have no agency at all except to tell the customer where to shove it. Many more difficult or demanding jobs at least give their employees the tools they need to survive and perhaps even thrive in their respective environments; this is unheard of in these low-wage jobs.
Which leads to the story of how, after four years of being promised to be made management at a local fast food restaurant, I got fired for telling a customer to eat a bag of male genitalia (and then specified the very race of genitals), and in the process started the divorce proceedings for the owner of the store.
This story takes place way back in the early 2000’s. I was in my early 20’s and didn’t have any real ambition or drive. I had even less idea what I was doing with my life. To be fair, I was happier back then, because I had friends and free time and wasn’t as afraid of the world. But this also meant that I was working a fast food job, which in America is about two steps above going door to door selling magazines but three steps below begging for money in front of the WalMart parking lot. Not going to lie, I was damn good at my job. People knew me by name. I had a dedicated slot I worked (night shift, 10:30pm to 6am) and a morning group that would chat me up. Management seemed to like me, even if they would get irritated that I’d break the rules on occasion to make things right for the customer. Sometimes, for me, it made more sense just to make a food item that the customer claimed was missing from their order instead of
arguing with them for minutes that without a receipt I “couldn’t help them.” I called that “fixing a problem.” My bosses called that “theft.” Oh well.
I was in a position where I was officially recognized as being able to train other employees, and I was constantly promised the opportunity to become management. This would come with better pay and better benefits, plus hey maybe I’d get some of that mad mad respect that comes from being management at… a fast food place. An issue arose, however, in that every time there was an opening to train a new manager I was skipped over for someone else. Sometimes a member of the owner’s family. Other times, a coworker who was noticeably more teenage and female than I was. I’d raise some concerns, and there was a bit of a song and dance that always ended on the same refrain: “Next time. Next time.”
Next time never came.
Meanwhile, some events happened in my life that are best not to get into here that caused my bipolar disorder (that “manic depressive”thing all the kids in the late 90’s made up, I’m told) and as a result I was prescribed a powerful anti-depressant. Not going to mention which one here, but one well known side effect of this specific medication is that while it helps cure depression, it can cause wild manic swings. Ho boy, did I.
For like two weeks I was a completely nonredeemable person. I started gambling money that I didn’t have. I started driving erratically. I had no personal filter. My sense of self had done a complete 180, from subservient to self-important. I got a ticket for having my 1/4 ton pickup truck taking up three separate handicapped spaces. I was not afraid to burn some bridges with people I knew.
So, not in the best frame of mind. I didn’t realize this at the time, and I made some exceptionally poor decisions. But at the time? I felt amazing. Top of the world. I was a God, and the
world was my… thing that a God has.
One night in drive thru we have done change over, which means that instead of serving dinner we are now serving breakfast. A drunk driver, one we have dealt with several times before, is irate because we’re not selling dinner items. He says some choice things, as irate customers are prone to do. He attempts to argue we can just “turn the grills back on” and that he is going to “call corporate.”
The veil breaks, and I’m just not playing anymore. I let him know that that’s cool. He can call corporate from jail. Customer wants me to elaborate (“What the f— do you mean?”) I do. (“I’m calling the cops because you’re clearly drinking and driving.”)
He informs me, in so many words, that I can have intercourse with myself.
With this, I respond that he can choke on a bag of male genitalia. This catches the customer off guard and makes him very angry. He dares me to repeat myself. I do better. I elaborate.
“I said go choke on a back of [p3n0r]. A big ol’ bag of n[oh yikes I used that word] [p3n0r]. Then go to hell and do it all over again.”
I don’t know what I expected, more confrontation maybe? Instead the customer drives off. I win. He loses. Whatever. The rest of the night is a bit of a blur, and looking back at it I didn’t realize just how uncomfortable my two coworkers were, but I didn’t care. Things needed to be taken care of for morning shift and if they weren’t going to help and they were going to be in the way, I’d just have to step up my game and do it all myself.
THE NEXT NIGHT
So the owner of this store owns several franchises. It was uncommon, but not rare, for him to show up to this particular store during the day. It was unheard of for him to show up during the night. But there he was, waiting for me, at the entrance, baring me from coming in. He lets me know that “an employee” had “a complaint” about what I had said to a customer. Without further prompting I proudly copped to the charge. “Yeah, I told a drunk asshole he could go [oh yes] himself. It’s okay, though, he was drunk.”
It was not okay.
The owner states he can’t have people using “that kind of language” and that he “has to let me go” and I, more angrily than coyly, respond “what kind of language” and there’s a bit of a give-and-take as it were; he isn’t going to repeat what he said and I’m looking for a fight because as I reiterate I’m very much not well and also this guy has been promising me a management position for over a year now and I’m getting fired instead. In the heat of things, I lose my cool.
“I’ll bet if I was one of your teenage girls at [other franchise location he owned] you were having an affair with you wouldn’t be firing me!”
This sets off a nerve, and he gets very angry with me. Calls me by my first and laugh name, states I need to leave or he’s calling the police. I get in my truck, slam the door, and drive
around the parking lot doing between 25 and 45 for about 5 minutes before speeding home.
I had to come down and come to terms with things when I got home, and my roommate at the time tried to make it less about me and my actions and more about how corporate is out to get everyone. My best friend at the time spoke with me, kind of talked me into realizing I needed to speak to my therapist at the time about the medication I was on. Speaking with the therapist lead to a 72 hour psych hold, during which time I was taken off the anti-depressant and moved to some other medication.
Got me a job as a delivery driver the weekend I got out; that job paid more before tips than my service job ever did, and ultimately lead to me getting a middle management position I had always strived for and felt I deserved.
But the story doesn’t end there.
When I got my last paycheck and turned in my uniform, I learned that the owner’s wife had been at the store as well and overheard everything. This created an argument between them that was so
serious the store actually closed for the night. Not surprisingly, there were cameras at the other store location that confirmed the very concern I’d shared, namely that the owner was meeting up with employees and acting inappropriately towards them. The owner and his wife would divorce.
Looking back on it, I’m not at all proud of how I acted, and while I understand I wasn’t really okay mentally I still worry that may have been more of an excuse than an explanation. Still, it was nice for once to throw some of what I dealt with every day back in the face of those who served it.
Maybe working service jobs isn’t for everyone after all.