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(Alex Harris)

“You don’t want to end up flipping burgers for the rest of your life, do you?”

It’s the question my parents always asked when I started slacking on my school work as a kid, and it was usually enough motivation to get me through that one assignment. Me? A McDonald’s worker? Gross. After all, I was too smart to end up behind a grill.

Fast-forward to my second college semester. As it turns out, it doesn’t matter how “smart” you think you are — you still have to turn in assignments in order to pass your classes. With a transcript now marred with Es and unofficial withdrawals, I resigned to the fact that maybe college wasn’t right for me — at least not at that point in time. And with that in mind, I jumped the academic ship and donned a chic, polyester polo emblazoned with golden arches. Thus began my love affair with the service industry.

It didn’t take long to realize that food service was about more than flipping burgers and salting French fries. There was a certain nuance to it all. You had to smile at everyone — but not too big because then you might be misconstrued as an airhead. You had to be confident but not cocky. You had to be fast but also meticulous.

Everything had a rhythm, and that rhythm became the soundtrack for my life. But it wasn’t a soundtrack everyone understood.

“When are you going back to school? You’re looking for better jobs, right? I can’t believe you actually chose to work here with these … these weirdos.”

Yes, weirdos. That’s how people described my McFamily, and they weren’t entirely wrong. After all, we all enjoyed the rush of moving 100 cars through the drive-thru in an hour without any mistakes, and we held deep conversations about the composition of burgers. But I think it was that “weirdo” trait that made us perfect for the job.

Because we were weird, most of us were used to being mocked to some degree. When customers gave us that look — you know the one, the look intended to portray gratitude but really betrayed feelings of disgust at having to interact with the lower class. It stung a little, but we smiled and thanked them anyway.

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(Alex Harris)

Being a weirdo, I enjoyed the challenge of calming an angry customer. When I had scalding hot coffee thrown at me, I simply apologized, smiled and offered to replace the coffee. When the woman with screeching children shoved a sandwich in my face and demanded chicken nuggets instead, I happily obliged and, with permission, promised the kids free ice cream cones if they’d be good for their mom.

Of course, it wasn’t always so easy. Sometimes there was no soothing the savage beast, and there were times when the walk-in fridge served as a therapist’s office. The disapproving looks, the never-ending lines and the numerous spills and mishaps were, at times, too much to bear. But, given the choice, I wouldn’t trade my burger-flipping years for anything.

While the university may have taught me how to analyze a research paper, McDonald’s taught me how to analyze people. Instead of learning to connect two theories, I learned to connect with the humans around me. I learned, without those wretched group projects, to work with a team, which was really more reminiscent of a family.

I’ve since moved up in the fast-food chain. Instead of handing happy meals to screaming toddlers, I now hand pizza slices to sloppy drunks. And although, yes, I have an office job and I’m back in school, it’s my food-service job that brings me the most satisfaction. It’s feeling the rush, interacting with the community and having conversations with regulars that fuels my soul.

So next time someone threatens you with a life-time of flipping burgers, don’t assume that it’s necessarily a bad thing.

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