Lord of the FriesTomasovich the Tankie
While I was a student, I had a part-time job at an investment firm paying five whole dollars an hour! (Wow!) Then the company folded; lawyers, to make a very long story short. This left me scrambling to stay afloat during the recession that was beginning to unfold in 1990. The best I could find was a part-time fast-food gig, which for many people is the employment of last resort. But as far as diversity goes, I was living the dream.
I told the story about this wonderful job, and several others which instilled my love for contemporary capitalism, on my free web host account. (Remember those? This was back in ancient times, when a 56K modem was a speed demon.) Unfortunately, Big Tech swallowed the web host, chewed it up, and eventually spat it out. Therefore, my real curriculum vitae hasn’t been seen in well over a decade. Once again, I’ll share my experience of burger-flipping, in all its multicultural wonder.
Labor, n. One of the processes by which A acquires property for B. — Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
I had to do something to pay the rent. Since I hadn’t been getting anywhere by searching through the meager ads in the paper, I applied for a couple of fast-food positions. I had worked at a pizza place my first summer home from school, but it was very depressing to have to go back to dealing with food after having been in the world of high finance. I got a job at a burger joint; the manager was impressed with my résumé.
The line workers were often Mexicans, who constituted a racial plurality. (Rather oddly, one who worked there briefly, an arrival from East Los Angeles, was as white as Francisco Franco, but covered in gang tattoos like any other vato.) There were a fair number of blacks as well, about the same number as whites. Most of them typically exhibited barely-concealed hostility. The Mexicans were truculent and cocksure, practically strutting around like roosters, but the blacks were harder to deal with. On the plus side, they at least understood American culture, which made them more relatable in that regard. So all told, the scales were in balance, and I was undecided as to which race was more unpleasant.
I got along pretty well with my manager, an older guy who was often humming soul-music riffs from his younger days. All of the managers were pretty decent folks, if one ignores the fact that they shorted us on our hours — that is, other than a certain hothead who, mercifully, didn’t last long.
Many of the rank-and-file employees were members of various youth gangs. I got to hear the news, as it broke, about how the Crips were moving into town. I also got to learn lots of nice phrases, such as chinga tu madre. Most of these young punks thought they were Bruce Lee, John Holmes, and Pancho Villa all rolled into one. Nary a one failed to claim expert knowledge of martial arts. And one of them had recently impregnated a co-worker. I can still recall the workplace discussions: “Just get an abortion,” said the father. “It’s not like running down jackrabbits on the road,” replied the mother. I just wondered why she didn’t have the good sense not to have anything to do with him in the first place. From anecdotal evidence, I understand that “macho men” knocking up their female co-workers isn’t too uncommon in fast-food joints. I fear for the country’s gene pool.
But wait a minute — as all good Marxists know, racism is a tool the capitalists use to keep the proletariat divided, right? If you believe that, maybe you should apply at the local burger shack, where you can try being a proletarian for a while. Perhaps you’ll get a real-life lesson in the wonders of diversity.
One of my happiest moments at the job was when they sent me to another location for a day, because the other store had a staffing shortage. The employees were all rednecks, and although I’m not part of that subculture, I felt right at home. It was a comfort being among real Americans at last. For one day I was away from the racial pressure-cooker and didn’t have to deal with truculence. The equipment was generally dilapidated, and in some cases barely functional, but I wasn’t about to complain. This was unlike the place I usually worked, which had shiny new equipment despite being staffed primarily by genetic detritus who ought to have been sterilized for the sake of posterity. I found that detail a bit ironic.
The hours were limited, probably to keep us from getting the benefits entitled by full-time employees. And, although the minimum wage had been increased a while before, the money men in Congress built in a loophole so that the businesses could still screw many of their minimum wage workers over: There was a three-month period in which workers could be paid a “training wage” equal to (surprise!) the old minimum wage. I recall that the debate in Congress was that it would mainly affect “kids with summer jobs” who don’t deserve equal pay for their toil. Eeeaaahhh, dem kids don’ need no money. [Dismissive wave of hand and sneer.] T’ree fifty’s good enough for ’em. The most farcical element of the charade was the notion that it takes people three months to be trained in the sublime art of how to fry a burger. Anyone who can’t figure it out within three days ought to be surgically sterilized.
Thus, practically speaking the fast-food joint only brought in $400 a month. The problem was, my living expenses at their barest amounted to $600 a month. (Half of that was rent. These days, I doubt one could rent a half-decent shoebox in deepest, darkest Detroit for $300.) If our hours had been reckoned honestly, the shortfall would have been considerably less. There was a timeclock, but no timecards. This meant that the manager got to write down how long we had worked. It’s rather like assigning a fox to do a physical inventory of the henhouse. I know I got screwed out of a good deal of cash, and so did the other guys. But the economy was in a shambles, and even burger-flipping jobs were damned scarce, so our options were to put up with getting shafted or be unemployed. Perhaps some of you are thinking I should have consulted a lawyer. Yeah, right.
Sacrifices therefore had to be made. I didn’t want to add to the credit millstone on my shoulders for something as frivolous as food. At first we were allowed to take home any leftovers at the end of the day, but that ended when one of the little punks got too greedy. There were still opportunities to snatch finger food out of the warming trays, however. Food stolen from a dishonest employer tastes great. And theoretically, burgers are only supposed to be on the warmer for 20 minutes; after that, they are trashed. The occasions when I took the bag of wasted food out back to the trash bin, I got to eat. I nevertheless lost ten pounds in a month.
At that point, just about the only thing I had left at home was a big bag of rice. I started finding bugs crawling around in it, and one day I found several of the little chupacabras floating in the pot after I added the water. I then put the rice in a coffee can, froze it, thawed it, and then took it to my apartment’s porch. I turned my fan on at the lowest setting, then slowly poured the rice from the can into a pot through the blowing air. This separated the rice from the insect corpses, because the rice was denser and therefore didn’t blow as far. I was happy because I had clean rice, and the ants were happy because they got to eat all the dead rice weevils.
All this came to an end when one of the teenage gang punks — the same one who had ruined our leftover food scheme — thought he would make a name for himself by messing with me. I was just trying to do my job and scrape together enough for rent and half the bills. But no, he had to try to prove what a tough guy he was. In the corporate world, people flaunt expensive laptops to demonstrate that they have testicles the size of basketballs; in the blue-collar world, things work a little differently. If you’re thinking that I should have gone to management, it would have been nice if the boss had done something after this punk sent one of his friends to rough me up the day before, because he had known about it. He didn’t, of course. If you’re thinking that I should have turned all four cheeks, well, had I done that, it would have sent a signal to the other punks that I was an easy mark, and then anyone could have picked on me with impunity.
He and his buddies had been hassling me for a while. For days he’d been threatening to fight me after work. Enough was enough, and I took the initiative during work. Clearly, I was in the wrong; to be in the right, I would have had to allow myself to get ambushed by a pack of gang-connected Mexicans in the parking lot. Heaven help any white guy faced with a situation like that in today’s political climate. The manager on duty fired him on the spot. The next day, he strongly suggested that I should resign. He and the head manager sympathized with me, but I guess he was trying to cover his butt. I took the hint, and I ended up having to move back in with my folks for a couple of months.
I wish I could say that this is one of those stories which ends when someone leaves a lousy job only to find a better one. But it was very slim pickings at the time, and I was stuck with other bottom-of-the-barrel work for the next four years. Fortunately, life has been kinder to me since then. Nevertheless, the aftereffects of starvation are stubbornly hard to shake, even now. I season my food too much, wolf down my meals, and generally have a scarcity mentality regarding eating — but I’ll certainly give that particular restaurant chain a miss, even if the hunger imp says it’s my last chance to find grub for weeks. Exploitation lost them a customer. The rest of the big corporations can go to hell, too, as far as I’m concerned.
* * *
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 This means “I considerably appreciate your mother’s beauty and charm.”
 My cultural references might be getting a little dated. Bruce Lee was a famous martial artist who acted in several kick flicks. John Holmes was a porn star noted for the size of his trouser kielbasa who died from AIDS in 1988. (As Jesus spake, “All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” Thus saith the Lord.) Pancho Villa was a Mexican revolutionary/bandito who, because he managed to pull off some successful border raids, became a folk hero to his kind. I’ve seen Santeria candles for sale bearing his image.
 She was white, and very characteristically Nordic. He, of course, was of the Latinx persuasion. I never heard what they ended up doing, but surely the product of their love survived gestation despite the father’s wishes. With the passage of time, the taquito incubating in the Aryan oven back then is now over 30.
 At the time, the minimum wage was $3.80 per hour and the so-called “training wage” was actually $3.35/hour — about 88% of the full amount. Nowadays, unless superseded by state law, the minimum wage is $7.25/hour. The “training wage” still exists, but those age 20 and above are exempt; they can learn to fry a burger in well under three months. Yet, the law still maintains the fiction that teenagers require three months of “training” for that, conveniently screwing them out of full pay on summer jobs. It is now $4.25/hour, about 59% of the full minimum wage. That’s pretty shabby, especially given all the Bidenflation, and quite a slap in the face to our nation’s youth. Back in the day, an hour’s labor under this exploitation loophole still would’ve bought me a cheeseburger combo with change left over, but good luck with that today.
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I spent some time in the service sector and can relate to being given just shy of 40 hours to avoid full benefits but still enough to feel like a full time job. I’d rather just have more free time at that point.
Thanks for the trip down memory lane. I enjoyed that and it made me chuckle at times. Yes, it’s tough getting started at any age when you are not a recipient ‘trustafarian’ or from a wealthier back ground. My first wage was £17,50 a week when it was the Youth Training Scheme or YTS as it was better known in the mid 80’s. That was Thatcher’s answer to getting cheap labour back into the economy to allow business to grow. She may have ‘won’ the Falklands war, beat the miners (literally) and rejuvenated the economy, but she has a mixed legacy – that’s for another day.
When I was sixteen my mother kept pestering me about getting a job. I was more interested in skateboarding, chasing girls and smoking weed. My excuse was “I have no experience, nobody will hire me, etc. a new KFC had just been opened up down the street and she convinced me to go fill out an application. When I came home a little bit later, she asked me how it went. “He wants me to start at four.” I was crestfallen.
Great piece. The only good thing about crappy jobs is they toughen you up.
The economic downturn of the early 90s is a forgotten era. That turn gave us Ross Perot, then the Clintons and now, the Biden blackocracy. The good union jobs everybody’s father or uncle was going to get, dried up, and the baby boomers were still glomming up a lot of the entry level positions. When you finally landed a decent job, you held on tight and took all the bs they handed you. The crack epidemic turned into meth and now the heroin/fentanyl problem that’s eating us up. But at least it was still okay to be White.
Would you rather have been busting your ass doing really hard work on a farm for subsistence in the 19th century – or any other century before the 20th? Or would felling trees (a buddy of mine lost a finger in the 70s working at a Canadian lumber camp) or mining coal be more your line?
Amusing story. It should be noted that the minimum wage is zero when the work is done by robots. The training period mentioned may have had more dimensions than mastering the technique of frying a burger. It probably included learning other talents like showing up for your shift, and being punctual, properly attired, clean, and not shouting “m-fucka” or shooting customers who disrespect you.
My experience in the restaurant business was entirely different, and took place during the Ozzie and Harriet world of 1960, in a family-owned exurban road house with tablecloths and place settings in a carpeted dining room overlooking the Meramec valley. For some reason, girls, as co-workers, are much more accessible than they are as coeds, so my social life quickly became centered at the restaurant. I worked my ass off and loved it. The pay was minimum wage (a dollar an hour) plus tips, which were pooled and shared out equally, cooks included. With the exception of the dishwasher, the employees were all white, as was the clientele. The dining room workforce consisted of about forty high schoolers, working various shifts throughout the week. Everyone in the whole set up was more or less honest. The hostess, a predictably self-important middle aged woman, was thought to skim tips on occasion; we guys were not above pilferage, sometimes bordering on larceny, like the time we stocked up for a camping trip by making off with a fifteen pound bucket of frozen chicken and thirty steaks. And of course, living at home, all my earnings went into my pocket.
Very evocative comment, Speedo Santa! Reading it gave me a pleasant minute or two of respite. I remember those days….
Hasn’t anyone invented a time capsule yet? I just want to climb inside and go back to that world. And stay there.
Hyacinth Bouquet: Glad that my comment inspired a moment of nostalgia. I was in a similar frame of mind last summer when I recalled an earlier and darker sequence of events that I thought could be made into an article that would be of interest to the readers here. I wrote it up, and it seemed pretty good, but I thought it needed a little more work, so I went over it again, and it seemed a little better, which just goaded me into improving it a little bit more, and so on. I think that all the polishing just made it sound like second rate fiction, because it was not accepted. But it was fun to write an account of a meaningful episode in my life, so it wasn’t a waste of time. I append it here, thinking that you might find it amusing. It’s about two thousand words long.
The Last Word
It was a dumbass thing to do, and I knew it right away. It’s no excuse that I was talked into it by Eddy, who was fourteen, three years older than me. Bernie, a Jewish kid, had duped me, and I had a grudge against him, but Eddy didn’t, he just liked stirring up trouble. His idea was to get Bernie to go with us into “the woods”. Then, at a certain spot, Eddy would pretend to see something on the ground and would bend over to look, hoping that Bernie would too. This would put him into an off-balance stance over a patch of poison ivy. The plan worked even better than we had hoped. Eddy did a good job of acting and said “Is that a silver dollar?” Bernie leaned over to look, and all I had to do was nudge him. He made the fall worse by waving his arms in an attempt to keep his balance, but that only caused him to twist and stumble and go down sideways in a very comical fashion. It was perfect.
This had all started several weeks before, when Bernie had bet me a quarter that his cat could chase my dog away. I took him up on it because everyone knew that it was the other way around, that is, dogs chased cats. So I went home and returned with my faithful companion, Buddy, a dog who would have taken a bullet for me. When we got within about two feet, the cat hunched her back, put up her tail, hissed, and bared her teeth. Buddy shrank back, and Bernie burst into jeering laughter. Only then did it break through my stupidity that Buddy was not going to chase that cat, or any other cat, because, as I had witnessed, my father had patiently taught him not to bother our own cat. Bernie had no doubt observed the same behavior in other similarly disciplined dogs who had approached his cat. I wanted very much to hit Bernie, or at least plant my hand right on his smirking face and shove him hard onto his ass, but he was smaller and a couple of years younger than me, so I couldn’t do anything like that. That’s what led up to the poison ivy prank, which had settled the score for me. Not surprisingly, Bernie didn’t see it that way, and since he couldn’t get revenge by himself, he decided to hire a black kid to beat me up. There were plenty of them nearby, in what we called nigger-town, which comprised a twelve square block area of mostly run down houses and shacks where the black people lived.
The location where all this transpired was a suburban community in the St. Louis area, but it was more like a small independent town than a suburb. It had distinct neighborhoods, and a downtown area with all the things you would find in a small town, including a train station. The only house that my parents could afford, that was large enough for our family of nine, was located right next to the black section. Separating us from them was a thicket of brush and trees about 300 yards long and 50 yards wide, the aforementioned “woods”. Our property jutted into it like a salient. We really liked it in there; it felt like a wilderness, complete with a creek running through it.
For some reason, the black kids stayed out of the woods. They seemed to be afraid to go in there, which struck us as odd, because we knew that they were sometimes called “jungle bunnies”. We had another saying which we had learned by experience, and that was “three against one is nigger fun”. It still seems to be true, but nowadays you’re likely to hear it referred to in a disguised way, like “the elderly victim was attacked by several youths” or some such obfuscation. Anyway, I don’t know how Bernie met Reggie, the black kid that he paid to get me. It was probably at the newly desegregated public grade school. (I went to an all-white parochial school.) Bernie’s very talkative sister, who later ratted him out about the hit job, did not mention how much he gave Reggie, but a dollar would have been plenty at the time. Reggie certainly must have looked capable of doing the job from Bernie’s viewpoint, but he would have gotten better results if he had coughed up enough money for at least two of them, which would have been closer to the odds that they prefer. I’m surprised that Reggie didn’t insist on that, but he had never seen me and he probably thought that I was Bernie’s age and size. Maybe he even foolishly thought that Bernie was going to help him.
In other respects, Bernie planned it well. He must have studied my movements, and then picked an opportune time and place for the ambush, which occurred along the edge of the woods, where Bernie and Reggie just popped out in front of me one day. Reggie looked at Bernie and said “Izzat him?” Bernie nodded and Reggie turned towards me. I had never fought a black kid face to face. Up until then, interactions consisted of yelling at them from a distance and sometimes throwing sticks or chunks of mud. I should also point out, that as a rule, fights between the white kids in my neighborhood were a matter of shoving and wrestling, the object being to force your opponent down. Most of my fights had been with one of my older brothers, Tom, who had a real talent for getting my goat, and who always won.
When I found myself confronted by Reggie and Bernie, I became tense, but not really afraid, because Reggie was only very slightly taller than me, not even an inch (and no doubt more than that in another dimension). So, without hesitating, I moved forward to get a hold on him—and walked right into a roundhouse sucker-punch to my left temple. Believe it or not, my first reaction was to think, “gee, the cartoons are right, you actually do see stars after getting socked in the head.” But they weren’t little five-pointed figures circling around above me, they were tiny flashes of light inside my eyes. Amazingly, the blow did not knock me out; what’s more, I did not even feel dazed, just the opposite, as if someone had thrown water in my face.
My hands reflexively formed fists and went up in front of me. Although I had seen a lot of it in the movies, the business of hitting someone really hard was new to me. I got right into it though, and for a minute or so we flailed away furiously at each other like two hockey players. I was more enthusiastic than I was skillful, however. I did throw most of the punches, but I couldn’t land a good one square on his face or in his midsection. Perhaps more importantly, I managed to block or deflect all the rest of his punches—he didn’t get in any more cheap shots. Then he made a move backwards that I mistook for a feint, causing me to pause, but he continued backing away. He might have sensed that I was gaining the offensive, and thanks to Bernie’s stinginess, he had no helpers. Or maybe he just figured that he had delivered a dollar’s worth of revenge.
Whatever the reason, he was getting the hell out of there. When he was a few yards away from me, I yelled out the first thing that came to mind, “You fight like a NIGGER!” It was intended as a crushing insult, but it fell far short, and sounded more like a complaint, or even a compliment. A much better gibe would have been, “you run like a nigger”, and I think that’s what I meant to say, but it just came out the other way. If I had anything resembling a killer instinct, I would have gone after him, but I let him go. Maybe I hadn’t fully recovered from the initial hit. I didn’t feel beaten, although I suppose I was, at least on points: he had certainly scored a ten with the haymaker. On the other hand, it was something of a moral victory that he was the one who had retreated, and then, after I had called him a nigger, he wouldn’t come back to do anything about it. Bernie, of course, followed closely behind him. That took place in the summertime.
In the fall, back at my one hundred percent white Catholic grade school, I was talking to a friend on the playground at recess one day, when one of those inflated red rubber balls rolled against me. I mindlessly picked it up and kicked it back towards where I thought it had come from, then resumed the conversation. I hadn’t noticed, but a guy had been chasing the ball, and he thought that I had kicked it away just to make him chase it farther, so he ran up behind me and jumped on my back, bringing both of us down. With some writhing and rolling I got loose, and as soon as we were upright, I punched him in the mouth with a jab that split his lip. It just happened spontaneously. There was an audible gasp from everyone around us—I was back in an environment where striking someone hard, with your fist, was seriously bad behavior. And I did feel a twinge of guilt, because he would not have expected me to hit him. He probably figured that the fight was going to be be the usual shoving and yelling, which is all it would have been except for my recent encounter. Also, I really don’t like damaging people, and there he was, with his lip bleeding. He reacted to being hit pretty much the way I had, by immediately putting up his fists, and we began circling each other, but before it went any further, the ever-alert nuns swooped down and hauled us apart. They demanded explanations, and I said, truthfully, that I thought I was returning the ball, and hadn’t meant to kick it away from him, and was sorry that I had hit him. He accepted that, we shook hands, and nothing more ever came of it.
I encountered Reggie once more, when I transferred to the public high school a couple of years later. We weren’t in any courses together, but one day I saw him between classes in the hallway and we made eye contact. I kept looking right at him as we passed each other. He nodded as if he recognized me, but I don’t think that he actually did. He might even have thought that I was an admirer, a mistake he could easily have made, because the social elites at the 97-percent-white high school had adopted him as their precious darling pet. He was: The-First-Negro-On-The-Basketball-Team! Their own little version of Jackie Robinson! The girls even elected him The Prom King. By then, I really didn’t care one way or the other about him. It was as if the statute of limitations had expired, and I had moved on. And anyway, if I had attempted something, I would have looked like the aggressor, undoubtedly motivated by bigotry.
I lived in that neighborhood until the end of high school, when our big old house was taken by eminent domain and demolished as part of an urban renewal project, along with the hovels that made up the worst part of nigger-town. Some nice, typically suburban bungalows were built in their place. Not long ago, I went back to where the old house had stood. The woods had been pared down to a hedgerow that still marks the boundary of the black section, which seemed to be partly gentrified now. The town as a whole is still about ninety percent white, and mostly middle to upper class. The neighborhoods are sprinkled with “Black Lives Matter” signs and those nutty “We Believe” posters.
Going back there made me feel nostalgic, so I went online and found my high school class website, only to discover that Reggie’s name was on the deceased list. As for Bernie, I never saw him again. He must have been counting on me getting whipped so badly that I would not dare to approach him, and when that didn’t work out as planned, he probably decided to keep out of sight. I guess you get what you pay for. When I was in my twenties, I heard that he had become a lawyer. Eddy, the instigator, had a career in a government bureaucracy.
@Speedo Santa – Great story! Being allergic to poison ivy, that little antic gave me a bit of a shiver; but overall, it was an almost peaceful, and definitely creative, solution for revenge. As for “Reggie” being elected prom king? I can only shake my head and sigh.
I too enjoyed this “slice-of-life,” as HT said.
There are certain immutable truths one learns in the service industry, to which I can attest, having worked several restaurant counter/server/host jobs in my younger years:
(Whoops, a pattern emerges and patterns aren’t allowed. Please, officer/agent/monitor, I be good boy now. No ruin my life, please!)
But seriously, I actually have mostly fond memories of most of the jobs I worked. The pay, of course, was low. But skating, playing music, and hanging out with friends didn’t cost much, especially when living at home, so it funded that, and provided the build-up to the euphoria of quitting time.
I think working in food service is a great experience. Even for people who come from, dare I say, privileged backgrounds such as myself. It is extremely hard work with terrible pay. It is how large swarths of the world earn their living and I think it’s good for people, even kids with rich parents, to put themselves in their shoes even for a part time job while in college. I actually got better grades while working part time than when I quit my job to focus on grades. It forced me to manage my time. It’s also how I met my wife. You’re working hard and sweating, so even the most un!#$able incel has the potential of getting a lady hot and bothered working together in the kitchen.
I’m reminded of my trip to deep dark south central Los Angeles to ref a basketball game at a bright shiny new high school. It couldn’t have been more than a few months old and there was already graffiti showing up. As the story here relates, some people can’t have nice things because they will never appreciate them nor maintain them. Even the black gentleman that led me to the locker room to change shook his head in shame at the way the animals treated the school. It’s typical.
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