I was 15 years old when I started at McDonald’s and had just moved to town. I lived in a part of the city that meant I had to attend KCI – Kitchener Collegiate Institute or Kitchener’s Collection of Idiots. It was a vocational school that accepted a lot of mature students – and problem students. It’s an old school – the fourth oldest in Canada. The McDonald’s I worked at was in a different district. The kids that worked there did not go to KCI. They went to high tone Forest Heights. I kept to myself at school but when I got to work it was showtime.
At this time, I had a girlfriend who was older than me and…obvious-looking, let’s say. She began to show up when I was working every now and then and the other guys in the back area with me would notice her. When it became known she was my girlfriend, my stock rose. These were guys that were a couple of years older than me and who basically ran the place. To have them pat you on the back and give you their approval meant a lot to me. It was my “in”.
Britwin was very mature and had a lot on the ball. He would end up being a manager at McDonald’s and then go on to a career in the restaurant business. Real restaurants. His cohort was Steve Gawlik. At this time, Steve was a full-on legend and I thought he was cool. We became friends. Even though he was hipper and edgier than me, I think he appreciated my normalcy. He could be himself around me. We would drive around in his Charger in the winter. He’d throw on the handbrake and do donuts. We would crack the windows so we wouldn’t die from the cigarette smoke. Britwin and Steve would always be competing in the ‘conquest’ department. They even made up a ‘league’ of sorts. They were more talk than action, though. A third member of the gang was Todd Swangard. He loved beer, soccer and house music. People obviously called him “Swany” but some started calling him “Big Ta” – this may have been where all the nicknames came from. More on that later.
With these people and others, I basically ‘came of age’. I did dumb things – like smoking and drinking. My first cigarette I ever had was at McDonald’s while I was wearing my uniform. I only smoked for six years but I was good at it. People would say “Gary’s never dying for a smoke. He’s always having one”. I would watch other people fumble with their cigarettes – I had it down cold. It was like a sixth finger. I wasn’t much of a teenage drinker. I only drank three times before I reached the legal age. The first time was with the above mentioned three guys on a New Year’s Eve. I didn’t know any better so I drank Molson Canadian and the big memories of that night are “I didn’t know the Smithereens had beards” and “I think we had rabbits in the night” – it was just pieces of sausage from the pizza all over the carpet.
Eventually, there was an exodus of the old guard at our store. The guys that ‘ran’ the place when I started at 15 years old began to hit 18 and 19 and went on to greener pastures. I remember we’d stand in the back area and lament the loss of all these legends. A lot stepped up a notch and went to work at Swiss Chalet, some went to Zellers. What we didn’t realize at first was that now we were taking over. We were running the place.
When McDonald’s became the center of my social life, I transferred from KCI to Forest Heights – which I think was actually closer to my house than KCI, the school in my district. (I looked it up: from my door, KCI was 3.6 km away – a 44 minute walk. Forest Heights? 2.2 km/29 mins) I remember I had to write a long letter to Forest Heights explaining why I wanted to make the move. This was my first indication that Forest Heights fancied itself an upscale preparatory school of sorts. It didn’t take me long to learn that Forest Heights was the opposite of KCI. My last year at KCI for example, the school president was elected by acclimation. At Forest Heights, the campaigns were a big deal with banner waving and rallys and the whole bit. Very ‘school spirit’. I’ve always said that in the quiet confines of KCI, I spent time alone and learned who I was. At Forest Heights, I looked around me at all the hubbub, parties and dances and learned who I wasn’t. Anyways, now I went to school with all my friends from McDonald’s.
After the “obvious looking” girl and I broke up, I dated a McDonald’s girl and she was my first serious girlfriend. We became a popular couple, like the king and queen of the place. Girls, of course, were a big thing for us guys at the time. “Drive Thru Girls” became a separate designation. I remember sometimes after my shift sitting inside in the drive thru area on a milk crate out of sight of the customers and talking to the girl working there. Kid stuff but fun times.
Big Ta had a younger brother that started working there – Big Swa, who sometimes got Big Swiss, Big Stu, Big Studebaker and Beauregard (?). We became best friends. There was also Hash Man. The nickname was ironic. Hash was a clean cut, good-looking straight-shooter. One day in the smoking section at Forest Heights, some guy who thought he had heard that Hash was someone who could hook him up, approached him wanting to score some drugs. This was SO unlike Hash that Big Swa jokingly started calling him Hash Man. He also sometimes got Hash Brown, Ace (his initials) or ‘Atch – the French pronunciation of “Hash”. I used these names when introducing these guys to my folks: “‘Big Swa’? Is he Indian?” (he isn’t). “‘Hash Man’?! I don’t like the sounds of that!”. The third member of our gang was Saltarr, the Malekian Warrior. I don’t know where the ‘warrior’ part came from but “Saltarr” was a manipulation of his surname.
Everybody we worked with had to have a nickname. I was the one who usually gave them out – although I never got one. I did collect random name tags, though. Some I found here and there and I also would ask people for their name tags for my collection when they quit. This collection of name tags began a museum of sorts in my locker in the change room – a museum that would get me into trouble years later. I began to wear these various name tags during shifts. I would also make my own name tags. For some weekend maintenance shifts, I was “Eddie”. One time I was working ‘window’ – or the counter, taking orders – and a customer looked at my name tag and said “is your name really ‘Jerry Lee’?!” Once a ditzy co-worker looked at my name tag – which said “Ahab” – and scoffed. But she pronounced it “aHAB”. We in the back area used her pronunciation to scoff at her: “‘AHAB’! Like ‘AHAB a speech impediment’!”
Another good friend was Stevie Ray – although he was only 16, he played the guitar and loved the blues. Stevie and I and our families are tight to this day. Face Man was a ‘himbo’ – he was great looking but dumb. Dice Man loved Andrew ‘Dice’ Clay. Ruby – well, his last name was Ruby. (My dad: “‘Ruby’? Who’s she?”) Good story featuring my man, Ruby: every now and then we would have a meeting the whole crew needed to be at. Another store would come in and work at our store and we’d have our meeting. One time when our meeting let out, Ruby and I swapped cars and bombed around the parking lot of the place the meeting was being held at. Now, we had a manager at this time who was going to school to be a police officer. This manager came out of the building and saw us tearing around – me with no lights on in the gathering dusk because I couldn’t figure out how to turn them on in Ruby’s Celica. I shoot by the door and this cop-manager starts running behind me yelling “Stop!! Police!” After many years, Ruby and I are in touch again. One of the positives of social media.
Heater was a master fajita maker – ‘fajit-er’? He also got Jimmy, which wasn’t his name. Coney Island Whitefish Boy was one of my favourite nick names – his real name was Lincoln. Lincolny. Coney. “Coney Island Whitefish Boy” is a song by Aerosmith. He’d be working in the back area and have these sneezing fits. He’d sneeze and would blast out his nose all over the food. We used to say it was like using the gun that the Big Mac sauce tube was in. Bouncer, another good friend, was eager to please and would bounce all over the place, taking care of everything. Also, he fell down the stairs to the basement on one of his first shifts (he bounced). Side note: it was Bouncer who came in while I was working one night in November of 1996. He said he had just seen a movie maybe I would like. He was right: Swingers changed my life (check out my post on this event). Uno wasn’t much help when you worked with him. He could only do one thing at a time. Zero was even worse than Uno was – he couldn’t do anything. But Zero was a massive guy with huge shoulders. To his face, he got ‘Sir’ a lot. The Riddler’s last name was Reidel. Todd had a really short haircut so he got Buzz. One winter day, Dave came back inside from a check of the parking lot (“lot check”) and was covered in snow. One of the guys in the back area who had only a little English giggled and said “Snowman” so thereafter Dave was The Snowman. The best though was a quiet little fella we all liked name of Adam. He would never say anything so I called him Harpo, after the Marx Brother that played mute. His high-pitched voice and crazy laugh reminded me of Squiggy from Laverne and Shirley so he got Squiggy sometimes. His work shoes were these cheap-o dress shoes with zero grip on the soles. He would go sliding around the back area while working – Slider. He came with a group of us when we made the mistake of going to see Poison and Warrant together in concert. Seemed an odd choice for a quiet guy like Squiggy. What seemed stranger was the t-shirt he bought at the concert. It depicted a crazy demon-looking thing riding a hot rod. It said “Road Dogs from Hell” on it which earned him another ironic nick name: Road Dog. He was so not a ‘Road Dog’ but thing is the guy took karate or something and his little chest was like iron. You’d playfully poke him and sprain your knuckles.
I stayed at McDonald’s too long. All of these people eventually got better jobs somewhere else. With most, unfortunately, when we weren’t together regularly in the trenches, it was a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Life goes on. When I finally moved away from Kitchener, I attempted to make return visits and to keep in touch. Big Swa, Hash and Saltarr and I were good friends, even after they had left me in the back area. Once I left town, we still stayed in touch and were together to celebrate weddings and children arriving. Eventually, though, it should come as no surprise that our friendship faded. Life certainly takes over. It becomes harder to maintain relationships when you are dealing with marriage, children, school, work, homes, vehicles, etc. I have been able to keep in touch with two or three of the other players, though, mostly through social media. Whether people are a part of my life now or not, they still have that sheen to them. The memories of the people, the friends, the co-workers are cherished like old movies or songs. After all, I quite often say that things glow all the brighter when they pass into “memory”.
Next Up: A Legend in My Own Mind…