When I had it my way

I’d like to say it was my first job, but the fact of the matter is that it wasn’t. My real first job was working in the fields with my cousins. We’d moved into a pretty nice neighborhood when I was a freshman in high school. My dad, in his infinite wisdom, decided that I was to help pick melons with my family during the summer as a means of humbling me in my country club lifestyle. This, despite the fact that I had absolutely no control over where we lived, but whatever. It was the first time I was “working” and the money I earned went towards some bitchin’ rollerblades. But I digress…

It looked very much like this, except I was in a truck and accidentally hit a dude in the head with one of the spoiled cantaloupes.

The following summer I applied for a job at Burger King. I’d started playing guitar and was eager to move on from the Stratocaster copy that my mom ordered me from a Fingerhut catalogue. I dropped off an application and a few days later got a call that I was going to be interviewed. Like the huge fucking dork that I was, I listened to my father’s advice and dressed up for the interview. You could imagine my shock at the fact that I was the only asshole who showed up in a freshly ironed dress shirt and slacks as I sat in the lobby of the Burger King on Military Road in south McAllen. I was, as always, a polite and deferential motherfuck and SURPRISE! I was hired and ready to be trained. I was excited: I was going to spend two weeks training at the McAllen store then move to a new store opening up in nearby Edinburg.

But HOLY SHIT was I unprepared for fast food. First of all, my trainer told me that they hire men to cook/bus/dishwash and women to take orders and/or cashier. We were the seedy underbelly while the women played the face: no skin off my back though, I didn’t really feel like dealing with people. My trainer, a man who seemed like an actual adult but in retrospect was probably only 5 years older than me, was a cool dude. Speaking mostly Spanish, he taught me how to grab the buns from the steamer, place ’em on the board, and depending on the order, throw the meat, veggies and condiments all together, wrapping in wax and sliding them down the waiting tray. Assembly line production at its finest: we had to make sure to be well stocked with Whoppers that we could slightly modify at a moment’s notice, followed by Western Bacon Chee’s and another “special” that was hot in 1997. The first day was a fucking whirlwind: I struggled to keep up, but my trainer was really patient with me. With the location being right on the border, we were constantly swamped with people traveling in and out of Mexico. A real trial-by-fire. I trained from 6PM til closing, which meant I had to help clean and close the store. Most nights I didn’t get home until about 2 in the morning.

At that point, my maternal grandmother (grandma Mary) was living with us. She had a “boyfriend” who she begrudgingly acknowledged at the time, which meant that my mom, sister and I would mercilessly tease her about him. It also meant that she was up late at night talking to him on the phone, on the one land line that we shared. Our family, two adults in their 40’s, one junior-high aged daughter and a tech savvy high school aged son along with said matriarch, shared a single phone line. Naturally, this meant passive-aggressive battles over the phone. It also meant that my grandmother was up late at night when I made it home. She’d be watching tv in the living room while my parents were asleep and I’d chat with her for a bit. One night, I asked her if there was anything I could bring from “El Rey”, to which she replied, “whatever you want to bring”. So I’d bring a burger, maybe some fries at first. Then one night I brought some breakfast cinnamon rolls (cini-minis, they would later be called), and grandma Mary fucking LOVED them. Thus, I’d bring her a nightly sixer of cini-minis and a whopper junior and fries for my sister on the rare nights I was being nice to her.

In high school, summers are prime fuckaround-time, which sucked for me because I’d get home so late, wake up at the crack of noon, then would only have a couple of hours to kill before I had to go into work. My friends had the same schedule sans work, so I never really got to hang out with them. It was a pain in the ass, yet…I kinda started to really like the job. As the days week went by, I was slingin steamy burgers with the best of them, and talking shit to my trainer while slappin meat and pickles on buns. Sometimes, when it was particularly slow, one of the girls would hand me the headset and I’d take some orders. After work, we’d shoot the shit in the parking lot after closing: one specific night, my co-workers were smoking cigarettes as we chatted. I asked for one, at which point one of the girls called me a poser (in Spanish), laughing as she said that I would have no clue what to even do with one. A grabbed one from the pack, punched the car lighter in, popped it out and inhaled, exhaling the smoke out of my nostrils directly into her face and saying, “que dijiste?” It’s probably the most badass I’ve ever been in my life. Weeks later, I’d move to the Edinburg location and work for another couple of months.

And to be honest, I really liked the gig. There was something simple about burger slinging: no crazy responsibilities, no pressure to be a stellar student. Just get those burgers rolling and you’re good. My manager would constantly compliment me on how polite and hard working I was and I honestly ate it up. My coworkers were a ragtag bunch of misfits that I got along with very well-hell, towards the end, I was even training another dude to sling steamy buns.

But it was never gonna be permanent. I saved up enough money to buy a Hamer electric guitar with a hum-single-hum, floyd rose configuration that I was dreaming of and with school coming up, the idea of working while being a full-time student didn’t really appeal to me. Again, following my dad’s advice, I put in my two week’s notice: my manager asked me to stay, saying that I could easily work my way up to assistant manager and they’d work around my school schedule. I had to say “no”.

I’d go on to graduate from high school, but it took almost a decade of fucking up to graduate from college, work for a couple of years as a pack-a-day journalist at a local newspaper, until I’d move onto graduate school. But I look back at my time at the King with fondness: what if I’d gone that route and worked through high school and college? What if I’d gone on to manage a BK of my own? Maybe I’d have taken advantage of their “we’ll pay for yourfuckingcollege” program. Who the hell knows?

I was never going to be a fucking chef. But I think about that experience when I go out to eat or pick up food at any restaurant. In a future blog, I want to talk about my adoration of the late Anthony Bourdain, whose “Parts Unknown” and “No Reservations” were essential viewing for my mother and I. But he astutely pointed out that, when you look in any kitchen, chances are that those people cooking your food are people that look like me: brown, Spanish speaking people of the Latin-American diaspora. Again, I was a fucking BK cook, not a Michelin star winning sous-chef. But my food, your food, our food that we eat at those taquerias, sushi joints, food trucks, cafe’s and, yes, fast food joints are largely staffed by brown people that will toss off a “chinga tu madre” if you cross them.

It’s why, even here in the Pacific Northwest, I feel a slight sense of ease when I hear some norteño music piping out of the kitchen, or a “que le damos, joven?” from the cashier when I walk into the taqueria down the street. However small, and however brief, I did my part.

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