I graduated from high school in 1986. I was 18, I had a job and a $600 Chevy Chevette and was living in an apartment with (too many) other folks and wasn’t going to University. I was gainfully employed at a wage of $3.35 per hour at the fast-food paradise Wendy’s, where the clockin/clockout culture ensured you didn’t get paid when you went to the toilet or took a 7 and 1/2 minute food/cigarette break. With the exception of those lucky folk on management track, we were *contracted* to work 39.5 hours a week with time and 1/2 for anything beyond that. Why? So the good folks that ran Wendy’s didn’t have to pay for health insurance.
You can’t really pay your rent and then have money to do novel things like eat, with a full time job at Wendy’s – even in Tennessee, even in 1986, no matter how many roommates you had. So I had a second job on weekends at Western Sizzlin’ steak house. Western Sizzlin’ (yes it really had that flirty apostrophe) wasn’t exactly a fine dining establishment and armed in my industrial weapons grade double knit polyester and rubber-soled shoes I ran the salad bar. It sounds easy, it wasn’t. It was a Friday/Saturday/Sunday night frantic slip sliding away on grease coated backroom floors to get hungry all-you-can-eat patrons a full bowl of pasta salad or one of the other 168 items stocked by the salad bar kind of job. Wendy’s had its grease issues too, where my first job of the day after my 8 AM clock-in was to pour the mop bucket of congealed grease from the day before into the collection vat – so Wendy’s could make some additional profit but selling it to cosmetic companies (yes, really). I still can’t bring myself to wear foundation to this day.
(this *was* me – thankfully I was spared this particular humiliation)
Yet being the physically-drained, covered-with-grease, working poor wasn’t the worst part of this. The worst part was that people treated you like shit. People you worked for (not with), people that you served. While there were certainly more than a few civil patrons, a large portion of the work-day was spent being regarded like something someone had stuck on the bottom of their shoe.
I was screamed at (too put it mildly) by a man in Porsche for being too slow – it was the lunch rush and only 1/3 of the staff had actually showed up that day. Why? Because maybe the bus service had been shut down, or their kid was stuck in hospital or perhaps they had actually escaped to a better world. He told me ‘I’ll have your job’ – I told him he could have it. I think the only reason I didn’t get fired was because the manager would have had to run the grill himself.
I had a senior manager watch me wash every single window in the restaurant by hand – because the squeegee was broken. He watched me without saying a word, waited till I finished the whole thing and promptly ran off to tell another junior manager to tell me I had to do it again with the squeegee because that was the way it was done. I thought I was expressing that can-do spirit of a good work ethic by hand-washing on a ladder. Instead I almost got fired given that I voluminously expressed my opinion about what exactly I thought that senior manager could do with that squeegee.
Eventually, I escaped, I got a job working the night shift at a gas station. This new employ – where incidentally I DID get eventually fired (but that is most definitely a story for another day) – was a definite improvement – if only because of the sweet farewell to double knit brown uniforms.
But this is the thing – I didn’t pull myself up by my boot straps, I was armed with the background and education that allowed me to escape, I was privileged. I was also lucky. It wasn’t exactly smooth sailing into my future from 1986, but in the US, 30 years ago, state universities didn’t cost an exorbitant amount of money (like they do now) so it was a hell of a lot easier to go back to school. I grew up in a suburb, with a decent high school education, with parents who believed it is a good thing to go to college. This is not always an option, more importantly it doesn’t feel like an option. If you’re just working to stay alive and feed yourself and your kids, where can you find the time to go back to school? Money isn’t the only thing people used to say to me – but it is the only thing you think about when you can’t pay your rent. No one is patting you on the back up for working that minimum-wage job – even though you’re just trying to get ahead in life or feed your family, trying to get back to school or stay off the streets. At least now in the US, when you are among the working poor you have health insurance, so you don’t have hang out at the emergency room after hours to get treated for a broken arm – which is what you used to have to do, or doctors wouldn’t see you.
Whatever happened to my fellow Wendians I don’t know. Some of them went into management, some of them went back to college, some of them maybe went to McDonald’s (we were always convinced it was much better there; they had a clown). But I hope they aren’t working jobs where they are still treated like garbage and that they have nice managers (I had a few) and that they’re always nice to the next person that hands them a Frosty and a Single with cheese.