I worked at a Hardee’s once. Just once. And by this I don’t mean I was once employed at a Hardee’s for a while. I mean what I said. I worked there once.
Whenever I see a Hardee’s I think of tough times and tougher financial difficulties. And whenever we are in the grip of some financial trouble of some such, which is often, I think of Hardee’s as well. I think of it quite a bit. Rather amazing since there isn’t an item on the menu I’d consent to eat, but there you go.
It was the summer of 1986 or 1992 or the fall of 96 or some such year and season when affairs of the financial sort were rather on unsolid ground and milk and bread were scarce, which was not entirely bad as we are allergic to dairy and wheat, but their scarcity was not a matter of famine so much as the assets to purchase them. Thus, rent was scarce, gas was scarce and scarce also were all manner of niceties and many without-which-life-is-not-so-niceties.
We had a child of one or five or four.asd Or one of six and one a newborne. I am not sure; it could have been either or both as such were the stretches of time we were with little or without.
And we lived in a trailer or perhaps married-student housing outside Gainesville, Florida and frequented the farmer’s market on the opposite outskirts buying what we could of what was left of the greens and fruit when the good stuff of the morning was gone. We spent $25 a week on food much of which consisted of spaghetti and rice and beans. We foraged and I would bring home lambsquarters and rapini. I learned what mushrooms could be picked and which to be left alone and made an error here and again, discovered when the onions were best to pick, grew vegetables in the city.
We gave up a car we could not afford, took a housemate, argued over nothing that had to do with anything except money and lack.
We discussed and planned. We looked for work. I applied at Wal-Mart. I was turned down as overqualified for any starting position because I had an AA in Education or a BA in Psychology or some such degree. The non-starter positions would go to those with experience and I had none. I was over and under-qualified.
Seven-eleven offered me six dollars an hour but I lost the position to a man with a PhD. I was unhireable as a waiter for reasons of which I am still unclear.
Finally I was offered a position at Hardee’s by the son, a manager, of a man with whom I taught at Miami Dade Community College as a paraprofessional or tutor or aid. Fast food? I had to think about it. We were in desperate times and still, fast food I had to think about.
“There’s nothing wrong with it. I know it’s not what you want but it’s better than starving.”
That’s my wife talking. She says this before I go off to job interviews. I see her point. The harder it gets to find work the more I agree but still, fast food is not quite what I had in mind when I started college. I went to Miami Dade and FIU, not Burger King University.
So I listened to my Sweetie. Things were hard enough then without arguing and, of course, she was correct. Completely. Utterly. So I could only reply, “But fast food? Holy crap that’s disgusting. Maybe I could dig ditches or…” I don’t remember what I said but it was quite like that. Besides, I am sure I would have been told I was well overqualified to dig ditches, bale hay, plant trees or anything else remotely physical. Sure enough, it seemed having gone to college ruined me for making any sort of living in the real world. In college I was fed a line.
We had even tried to immigrate to Australia. We were told by the Aussie consulate they needed skilled labour, not teachers. They had plenty of people with degrees. Could people with degrees wire buildings or frame homes or lay pipe? I was actually asked that. I said I imagined they could and if they took us we would frame or wire or lay anything they liked. It was a solid no.
And so, after listening to my wife’s sage advice (“It’s better than starving.”) I called the son of the friend and made an appointment. It was for that afternoon or the next morning or later that night and before I went I asked if he knew I had a degree. He did and assured me since his father said I needed this, and badly so, it would be fine. I was relieved or troubled or aggravated or disappointed or all of it and happy and unhappy both.
I drove the few miles, “Dust in the Wind,” by Kansas, on the radio. It is a habit the Universe is happy to support by playing it for me every time I go on a job interview. That or “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” by REM. Both set the proper mood.
We met. It was a Hardee’s. What more to say? I was hired just because, filled out the forms and was told I could start at eleven. Eleven to two. Morning to afternoon? No. Night to morning. What? Night to morning. Eleven at night to two in the morning. I experienced a palpable sensation of the weight of my heart rise to my throat while I felt the same fall to my stomach; two weights simultaneously shift apart and both, I knew, were heart.
So I left, a bit stooped, tired of struggling, defeated, smaller. I headed to a thrift store for the proper coloured blue pants. Found several pair too small and several too large and opted for one that was only a size too big or maybe too small, but they were three dollars and that cinched the deal so it didn’t matter they were too short. I took them home and, with them and my Hardee’s shirt, sat around and waited for night to come.
Evening came quickly and the hour I was to leave dragged me along through the night. I dressed, put on sneakers and left. When Thoreau wrote “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” he was leaving for Hardee’s.
I arrived and walked in, was greeted by the assistant manager, given a tour of the machines and the headphones, some matters of protocol, how to run a cash-register that had no words, only pictures and then was shown how to make change. Apparently word had not got out I was overqualified. I pretended to mistake the quarters for nickels. I didn’t want to disappoint.
There was a steady stream of customers to the counter, past the window. People glossy and pale. Over-sized people ordering over-sized food. All night and into the morning, food they knew, one had to believe they knew, was not good for them and too much of it. Food Addicts. Food-porn.
There were better things to do and better food to be had. Real, honest food. Not fake food but food with actual nutrition behind it. Food that didn’t just look like food, masquerading as food. Food that would be good for them, body and soul, and not leave them empty. Food with production value. Food that would make their lives better, bring joy to their bodies, make them stronger. Food they could tell everyone about and bring home to their grandmothers. Real food. There were more meaningful culinary relationships to be had with non-virtual food. Food-porn.
That was the general. I remember few of the particulars.
I burnt the french-fries because the fryer handle was hot because no-one could find the handle for the basket.
I made several milkshakes on a machine somewhat like a stand-blender. It had several mechanical teats. Put the cup under teat one for a combined dairy and non-dairy colloid. Put the cup under teat two for some other such solid-fluid. Squirt in the flavoring of chocolate or vanilla or strawberry and then stick it up under the mixer and hold it while you press the button but make sure the cup is up all the way and then push it higher because it isn’t. If you don’t, the mixer will high-speed tangent flavory sluice all over to whatever distances the walls are unless there is something else in the way such as, perhaps, a customer.
I hope none of them were going anywhere after dinner.
Around midnight, I was put on drivethrough. It had the speaker we all know drivethroughs have. But it was augmented by the workers leaving out syllables here and there. You all suspected drivethrough workers did this and I’m confirming it. I know why they do. It makes the job bearable. Nothing makes the time pass like keeping people in a hurry waiting and making hungry people do without. Especially if they are wanting to give you money.
Even better when they are high and there was plenty of opportunity to have at it with folk too high to know they were being had. Fish in a barrel. Fish in a barrel. Yet, they were outside, driving around and I was inside, serving them suicide.
Suicide is what many of them asked for. I thought they were talking about the hamburgers. I didn’t get it the first few times and many of our higher customers, not having full verbal facility and agility became irate. Overheard, a co-worker came over and explained, in a voice fully matter-of-fact, suicide is all the sodas mixed together. They were asking for a carbonated syrup mélange. Whatever PepsiCo makes, yes, I’ll have that.
Suicide was a good thing to order and I started welcoming the drunk and high folk. If I messed up their orders, fixed the burger wrong, missed one of the sodas and so saving them from a successful suicide, made a bit of a mess, they tended not to notice so much. High people were great because I was messing up more than not. This was due to a mixture of apathy and grease. Both were everywhere I was, surrounding me at first but, by the end of the evening, the beginning of morning, they sat, solidly, inside.
I slipped and fell. Twice or thrice or more and I dropped things or didn’t and hurt myself and sat upon the greasy floor for a moment or sprang up from embarrassment. I grabbed handles and appliances to steady myself to rise but they were grease-glazed as well. There were no mats and nothing to absorb the grease but the food. I certify the food was more than adequate to the task.
I dropped things because my hands were greased. I dropped the wrong things because I had picked up the wrong things because my glasses were opaque with a think and growing film of animal fats and vegetable oils. I could see nothing. Is that a ten or a twenty or a one? Pictures on the register were as useful as words and Braille would have been of more use. No sight, no footing, no handholds. I wondered just how much grease was in my lungs, how much my skin had absorbed, how deep in my ears my eustachian tubes were filled with animal sludge. How far up my sinuses were the cavities of my skull coated with the vaporized lipids. Fat was everywhere inside and out. I just wondered how much. I sometimes wonder how much is in there still. Like Oklahoma sand, Hardee’s fat is everywhere.
Time crawled. When I fell, I crawled too. Finally, two in the morning. I was told it was time to leave. No overtime allowed. What a shame.
I walked to my car and greased my door handle, then greased my seat and greased my steering wheel. I drove looking over my glasses which is only slightly safer than driving with my eyes closed. I didn’t hit much – just a curb or a mailbox or some students during mating season. I found my way home.
I greased the doorhandle to my home and walked in. I left my sneakers at the inside of the door. My wife was up, waiting, in the bedroom. I told her I was going to take a shower.
I’m sure I left grease-tracks as I walked toward the bathroom. There, I turned on the water in the shower and left a mark on the handle. I have always disliked showers too hot or too the water too hard… I know I’m sensitive so I read up on Best Water Softener Reviews. This time, I turned it up and let it get hot. I stepped into the shower, grabbed the Dr. Bronners and soaped myself. It took quite a bit for even this castile soap to start cutting through the grease but, after a while, a lather began to rise. Then I took my clothes off.
As I did Lee entered. I looked at her, or, rather, toward her. Then I took off my glasses, rubbed them with soap and put them aside and looked at her.
“You were wrong. There are worse things than starving.”
We talked long that evening and soon moved to a locale more economically viable. We moved to North Miami or Kendall or South Miami and with my father’s help rented an apartment or a duplex or a house with friends. Times change and episodes as difficult as this have been far too frequent but, happily, consigned to memory each one. But you still won’t find me in a Hardee’s.
I have been known, though, to fill my cup under every soda spout in the line. Syrupy, sweet and fat-free.