OK, a quick, serious disclaimer. I do not suffer from delusions of grandeur. Those who know me personally know this. Those who don’t may think I have a pretty high opinion of myself. When I say that I “ran” Highland Road McDonald’s in the late ’80’s and early ’90’s, I don’t mean to say that I was actually in charge. And, sure, some people didn’t like me. But, generally speaking, I was a popular, well-liked person. Being extroverted – at this time and place – helped. I used to joke that I was “MC-ing this event” – meaning I liked to joke around and run my mouth. Hang out with the girl managers while they counted the money at the back, shoot the breeze with everybody and hang out in the drive thru area. It also helped my visibility that I invented stuff – funny riffs about customers or the food we served and generally joking about the work we did – the cool stuff you could have fun with and the lame stuff that you had to poke fun at. That made, I think, for a fun environment in the back area – even when the heat was on.
In the beginning, being chosen to work “grill’ was an honour. You were the one who had to keep the patties cooking which obviously was very important. It was particularly important to be fast during lunch or supper and all the more so when we would hear the dreaded call from up front: “Bus!” If a large group or a sports team, etc. pulled in in a school bus you knew you were about to get killed. It would be time for a “sear/lay”. The way it worked back then was whoever had the job of calling for food would decide how much to tell you to make. We in the back area would lay the patties on the grill and press the timer. The first timer alarm would tell you when to sear the meat with a flat, heavy sear tool. The next alert told you when to turn the patty and the final buzzer told you when to remove the patty and place it on the bun – which had already been toasted (or ‘carmelized’) and dressed by another associate. Lower volume called for the guy working grill to lay another dozen patties down after the first set had been taken off. Higher volume called for a second set of patties to be laid after the first set was turned – a “turn/lay”. The most extreme of all ‘runs’ was the “sear/lay”. The communication between the back area and the person up front “calling bin” was always fun and good for a laugh. If you missed a call you would shout “Recall?!” Eventually, even out in the street, if I didn’t hear what someone had said, instead of “pardon?”, I would say “recall?” Later in life I was working in the auto industry. This habit didn’t go over too well. I was informed early on that we never used the word “recall” while making car parts.
It was a great feeling when everyone was working smoothly together to “thin the herd” over supper. Working ‘grill’ was the driver’s seat. If the guy there was good, he had a style all his own. I was one of the best and when I walked on the floor for my shift, anybody near the grill slowly backed away. Some of us had our own spatulas and learning to wield them in an efficient and stylish manner we referred to as ‘back area rodeo’: spinning the spatula and tossing it in the air, Tom Cruise in Cocktail style. Sometimes for a laugh we’d go overboard and see what else in the kitchen we could throw in the air. The guy dressing the buns also had a job perfect for artistic expression. We were constantly trying to devise ways to dress the buns faster which resulted in occasional messes. There was a flair to such things as changing the tube of Mac Sauce in the gun. And we would all grin any time an order came back for a sandwich with extra everything – it was a licence to load those buns so full it was almost disgusting.
I have so many great snapshots in my head of good times in the back area. Once in the early days I was working fries. The timer went off and a batch was done so I lifted the basket out of the hot oil. A manager was working on one of the fry timers and was kneeling between me and the place we dumped the fries. Using my ingenuity, I simply worked my way around him, lifting the basket of fries over his head. Of course, burning hot fry oil dripped down on him. I remember him stalking away silently despite the incredible pain he must’ve been in.
I burned myself badly a couple of times. Once, in front of the grill, I slipped on a pickle and to hold myself up put my hand down on the grill. The worst was when a toaster I was cleaning closed on me. From my palm right up my forearm began to bubble pretty quickly despite me slamming a bag of frozen french fries down on it. I had to go to the walk-in clinic for that. I’ve still got the scars. I was wrapped up from hand to elbow and got stuck working drive-thru for a while. One customer saw me and said “you break your arm and they don’t give you no time off?!” I replied “I know, eh? I tried to tell them I couldn’t work but they shove me in drive thru!” A manager standing nearby started tripping and said “No, no! That’s not true, sir, that’s not true…”
Sometimes a small group of us would work “Brower”. Martin-Brower was the name of the company that delivered our supplies once a week. Often, the truck would be scheduled to come early in the morning before the store opened. We would arrive in the dark, before school, and get ready for the truck to arrive. When it did, the rollers had to be set up that would begin at the door of the truck and end at the top of the stairs going to the basement. Along the stairs to the basement there was a heavy wooden ramp that would drop down from the wall where it was attached and would cover the stairs for the boxes to slide down on. We would get really amped up for this. The driver would start the boxes down the rollers and there would be someone working the top of the stairs, sending the boxes down the ramp. Then there was someone at the foot of the stairs feeding the boxes into the guy working in the freezer. We would scream ridiculous things like “C’mon, Bennett!! Let’s party!!” (a Schwarzenegger line from Commando) to get ourselves pumped up. There was one driver who somehow got offended and apparently complained afterwards. I even made a playlist (mixed tape) to play while we did Brower, starting with Ram Jam’s “Black Betty”. Years later, many of us recalled this tune as a “Brower song”. Once, Saltarr was working in the freezer but had an asthma attack. We heckled him for breaking down. Because kids. Some generous managers would let us make ourselves some breakfast as the sun rose and the store opened.
My buds and I got our kicks, for sure. We were irreverent and unorthodox. We would joke that when a district supervisor came in for a tour, our managers didn’t want us to be there in the back area laughing and shouting and throwing our spatulas in the air with the grease flying off of them. However, when two buses came in and the lobby was jammed with people ordering food, we were EXACTLY who they wanted there.
I’ll never forget the night pizza was launched at McDonald’s. Newspaper and radio ads spread the news that pizza was being introduced and it was FREE! Area supervisors were there to see things went smoothly. It was a big, prestigious event. Who would get the call to prepare the pizzas and work the ovens? Just about everybody got the call, actually – we would be VERY busy – free pizza, and all – so it was all hands on deck. Also needed were two shlubs to work in the back area, ready to make hamburgers should anyone be foolish enough to order and pay for a Big Mac when the pizza was free. Who were these two losers? Myself and Big Ta. The two of us had been at the store longer than any other part-timers and we were the best there was – but we were rebels who didn’t toe the line. We stood in the back area that night and didn’t make a single burger. We just watched the action by the pizza oven.
The pizza, though short-lived, was actually good. However, I guess it could be confusing. I was working drive thru once and a customer ordered a bacon double cheeseburger. As this was not something we had at that time, I was confused until I realized he was looking at the pizza portion of the menu. Bacon double cheeseburger is a pizza we offer, I informed him. Oh, no thanks, he replied. I’ll have the bacon double cheeseburger. This went on for a few more minutes until I finally yelled “It’s a pizza, man!!”. Often we would go in when we weren’t working and order a pizza, eat it and play Crazy Eights in the lobby for hours. We liked it, hanging out and shooting the breeze with our friends that were working. People that didn’t work there couldn’t understand us wanting to hang out there but we liked it. Of course, I do remember one Saturday night hanging out in the lobby when the frazzled closing manger suddenly appeared and asked me to help them close. So, I got up, put my uniform on and went to work. Actually, though, when I think about pizza I think about Becky. She was my buddy, Ruby’s, kid sister and she was a good worker; she got called to work the ovens the night pizza was introduced. Few girls got our respect in the back area but we all loved Becky. Shortly after I quit, she was tragically killed in a car accident.
Knowing how to work every station in the store was something you aimed for. For one thing, you could get more shifts if you could work the grill and the front counter. Plus, it made for good variety, us back area guys getting a drive-thru shift every now and then. Whenever I was asked if I knew how to work a certain station, I would always just say “yes” whether I did or not. I did this at my next job in an auto plant but soon thought better of it. I would say “yes, I know how to run this machine” but then when I realized that I didn’t know how to run it – and it could take my hand off – I quickly learned to say “No, I don’t. Show me”.
One shift in the back area was historic. I was at the grill, as usual, when a manager said that a counter worker had no-showed – could I take over up there? No sweat. I washed up and took some orders. This type of thing was nice especially in the summer when the kitchen was hot. Things slowed down that shift and I went out for a quick lobby run; wipe some tables and clean up. When I was done that I checked the drive thru screen and set up some of the orders of fries for the girls there. I joked with somebody that, technically, I had already worked four stations this shift: back area, counter, lobby and fries. I got an idea – as I often did at McDonald’s – how many stations can I work tonight? I worked ‘bin’ by ordering a set of six Macs from the guys in the back area. When they came up I packaged them and put them in the staging bin. I ran back to the walk-in fridge and rotated a couple of boxes of lettuce – first to expire out front. There, that was part of ‘Brower’. I ran back and threw together a salad for my ‘salad station’ and did the same with pizza. Ended up being 8 stations in one three-hour shift.
Back in this day, if you were under 18 years old and your shift ended after midnight, the closing manager was obligated to get you home. Once I closed on a week night. I got in the closing manager’s car with the other closer and we drove around – I dunno, somewhere – for hours. I got home in the early morning hours and didn’t get to sleep before it was time to get up and go to school. At this time, I was going to a driver’s ed course that took place at the school before classes started. I got on the bus thinking “I think I’ll be OK, actually” and promptly fell asleep as the bus rolled along. I got through driver’s ed and made it to my first class; drafting with Mr. Wignall. Doug Wignall was a great guy who once told this all-male class about the horror of his vasectomy – smoke and a blue flame. It was a story I never forgot. He and I used to talk Beach Boys. He was a cool guy. I guess he must’ve noticed me nodding off at my desk so he came over to see how I was. It was then that he told me some sad news – Roy Orbison had died. This made my morning even worse. Mr. Wignall suggested I go down to the cafeteria and get something to eat, so I did. Good guy. (Orbison died December 6, 1988)
I remember Big Swa and I working one day. We were really yukking it up when the shift manager snapped and told us not to utter another word for the rest of the shift. We began to work in silence which worked OK until I had my back turned to Swa and didn’t see the tray of food he was handing me to send up. I suddenly heard this pounding and turned to see him smashing the table with his fist. I sent the tray up and we burst out laughing.
Then came the big announcement that McDonald’s was going smoke-free. The night before this kicked in, Albert and I walked around the basement smoking cigars. I remember closing myself in the small men’s bathroom downstairs and puffing like mad on that thing, hoping that the place would still stink of smoke in the morning. Why did I do this? I dunno. I was an idiot, I guess.
Us kids worked evenings and weekends but there was a regular crew of older ladies who opened the store and worked during the day. In some situations, however, you could find yourself working with one of these nice ladies. Dolly was the resident veteran at our store. She loved me. She’d kill herself laughing when I was working with her and would sing a song from an old Elvis movie: “Another day older and nearer to my Lord. One more day…”. Once, poking around somewhere in some office, I found an old punch card of Dolly’s that had the date 1977 on it. This confirmed for us that she had been there forever and we would riff for hours about her origins: “When Dolly started, the training videos were on film!” “No. When she started they were still acting them out on stage!” “Haha! Yes! Shakespeare wrote the training videos!” “Yeah! Dolly was here to serve the Crusades when they came through!” “Let’s face it; Dolly was here before the store was here. She was just sitting in the grass and some guy came up and said ‘hey, we’re starting a restaurant here. Y’wanna help us out?'” Another nice lady was Basmattie or Bibi. When I was older and living on my own and still at McDonald’s, she would take pity on me when I was done my shift and she would whip me up a nice McRib. Done well; not like we served the customers. I noticed, though, that she had a habit of cleaning off her spatula during a shift – by scraping it off on the inside edge of the garbage can.
All this tomfoolery did not sit well with our store manager, Diane Thomas. She hated me. I don’t want to dump on her unfairly but she was severe, to say the least. I mentioned in an earlier segment that I had a collection of name tags. In fact, I was always picking up discarded things to throw in my locker; equipment, utensils, etc. (In fact, the can opener I used today I ‘got’ from McDonald’s). I jokingly would say that I was starting a museum of McDonald’s artifacts: You’re quitting? Wanna donate your swipe card? People said I could start my own store with all this stuff. One little item I discovered abandoned sitting on the safe, I think, was a slightly bent freezer key. I threw it in a little bucket I kept in my locker and it became one of many museum pieces. I never used it to open the freezer once it was locked – but I did allow someone else to. Once. Eventually, Diane called me into her office. She told me that there had been losses lately and it was discovered that I had a freezer key in my locker. She said she couldn’t prove I had done anything wrong but that she could make things unpleasant for me. “I’ll only give you one shift a week. You might as well quit”. Afterwards, I liked to think I upset her when I replied that, no, I think I’ll stay. I had another part time job at the time so it wasn’t the end of the world. The other managers there seemed to take pity on me and the scheduling manager in particular helped by giving me the longest shift possible – Saturday night close – seeing as I could only have one shift a week and could not pick up any shifts.
Fourteen months later, Diane was off on maternity leave. The managers that were left in charge called me in one day and said that they were taking me off my one-shift-a-week restriction. Not because Diane is not here, they said, but because we just think it’s time. I always thought that was nice.
Next Up: “Nobody Died”…