Wage Slavery 2: Will Work for (a Chance to Steal) Food

When last we left the WildeRix, he had taken a job at Taco Bell after trying to work for a half day as a “Scary Person”.  Let’s see what happens next…

You know, one of the things I love most about having such a varied job history?  The people.  Think about it.  How do people meet each other in this modern age?  School, work, and bars.  Schools tend to draw a specific demographic–they actually filter out the ones they don’t want.  Bars and clubs tend to draw their patrons specifically according to demographic: hipsters, work-a-day drinkers, college crowds, cowboys, gays, urbanites.  But out there in the work environment, the lines bleed together more.  And they bleed most in the blue collar world.  Where do the college kids go to get money for school?  Where do the in-between-careers kind of folks go to make the ends meet until they land a new salary?  They slum it with the burger flippers and taco stuffers and pizza delivery folks of the world.

So my roommate and I became taco stuffers. Burrito rollers. Troubadours of the tostada. Entrepreneurs of the enchirito.

I meant literal tacos, by the way.  I did not intend that to sound like a crude euphemism.  But, whatever, take it for what you will.

So my roommate and I became taco stuffers. Burrito rollers. Troubadours of the tostada. Entrepreneurs of the enchirito. And we came home smelling of artificially seasoned meat and corn each night to prove it.

Now, I had already done the fast food thing before, but my roommate broke his fast food hymen with this job.  He had done food service, certainly.  He came home one day (back in college before we moved to the Big City of Austin, TX) from quitting his job washing dishes at a steak house and burned his apron, chanting “I’m not gonna take it!”  But Taco Bell represented something new — a new frontier in the food service industry, if you will.  Aside from waiting tables and circumnavigating the island of Taiwan on foot, working at Taco Bell represented one of his major life goals.  So my roommate had not yet experience the jadedness often associated with the shafting one generally receives in the fast food industry.

But back to the people.  Our general manager took the cake.  Tall, fit, blond, enthusiastic.  He actually looked a lot like Will Ferrell who, at that time, still acted in the cast of Saturday Night Live.  In fact, the Spartan Cheerleaders had already come into vogue, and our GM certainly could have tried out for the squad.  My roommate has a special word for folks like this: Bucko.  The kind of guy who constantly wears a smile, never lets you see him sweat, believes in the silver lining of ever cloud, eats apple pie, loves his mom, and has a laugh like Goofy the dog.  Our GM certainly qualified as a Bucko.  He came to Taco Bell as a career move, and he had earned a watch on his wrist for several years of service to prove it.

He didn’t earn that watch by letting things slide, either.  He took the weights and measures seriously.  We had to know the ounceage of each menu item — down to the weight of each ingredient in that item. 

“How many ounces of meat go on a burrito supreme, Mr. White?” he would ask on the spur of the moment in the middle of the lunch rush.

“How many ounces of meat go on a burrito supreme, Mr. White?” he would ask on the spur of the moment in the middle of the lunch rush.

“Uh, two?” I would hesitantly reply.  (I don’t really remember how many, but at the time I probably could have written it all out in my sleep.)

“Then why does this burrito supreme only weigh 8.5 ounces?  Remake this burrito supreme, Mr. White, because we want to give the customer exactly what they paid for.”  Then he would smile and give me the thumbs up to let me know how much he believed in me.

Down the food chain from the Spartan Cheerleader, we had a few haphazard assistant managers.  I knew their kind, as I had done my time as a serf lord under the reign of the Burger King.  They ran around like chickens with their heads cut off, scrambling to fill out the schedules due to no-shows, watching the money and the inventory like hawks in fear of the happy-go-lucky wrath of the GM — except for Larry Manager.

He didn’t actually go by “Larry Manager.”  But one of the other employees — from Lebanon (we’ll get to him later, don’t worry) — loved to call him that.  I don’t know if Larry Manager had willfully come out of the closet or if someone at work had seen him working in drag at some piano bar.  But once the knowledge became common, he didn’t try to fight the flow.  It explained his meticulously plucked eyebrows, at least.

Larry Manager never really gave in to the GM’s penny-pinching attitudes.  In fact, he really didn’t give a shit.  He just came, did his paperwork, schlepped right along side with us and went home at the end of his shift.  Because of this, he probably garnered a lot more respect than the assistant managers who tried to fight for their respect.  Like Barbara, for instance…

I would have believed her if she had told me that she stared bulldoggin’ cattle before she could walk. But she only ever told me to “get busy and make them orders!”

Barbara fit the stereotype of a Texan hick.  Austin prides itself on its diverse and artsy population — the Portland or Frisco of the South, if you will — but it sits in the middle of Texas, surrounded by ranches and small towns filled with lifetime townies.  Barbara did very little to live down the potency of that stereotypical redneck image.  She spoke with a thick accent, made gravelly by years of smoking Paul Malls.  She had a few missing teeth and tanned, leathery skin that the sun and smoke had aged into a map of all the Farm-to-Market routes of Central Texas.  I would have believed her if she had told me that she stared bulldoggin’ cattle before she could walk.  But she only ever told me to “get busy and make them orders!”

Barbara usually worked the lunch shift, as did her arch enemy — and my new hero — Chana.  Chana came from Lebanon, although he grew up in Jordan.  Or vice versa — I don’t quite remember.  He had the build of a Mediterranean Danny DeVito, and he loved nothing better than to goad Barbara into fits of fury.

He had the build of a Mediterranean Danny DeVito.

Chana only worked the lunch rush at Taco Bell before moving on to his other job at Subway.  He ran the drive-thru side of the assembly line, manning the “steamer” position — slopping meat and beans and red sauce onto tortillas before passing them on to me in my “stuffer” position where I topped the items with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream, guacamole, etc.  He had the memory in his muscles to stay way ahead of the hurried rush, and I always struggled to keep up with his pace.  But Chana recognized me for a good worker, and he took me under his wing to teach me the tricks of the trade — namely irritating Barbara.

Since he only worked the lunch rush, he would clean up the drive-thru assembly line once the rush had ended, but he needed the manager on duty to give him the go-ahead.  “Okay, Barbara.  You tell me now.  This my last order.  I clean up and go home, yeah?” he would grumble in his Arabic-accented English every day at the same time.  Of course, he always said it when he knew that the lunch rush hadn’t really ended because he loved to egg Barbara on.

“You shut up and keep making tacos, or I’ll shoot you!”

He would rib me with his elbow and wink at me from his hiding place behind the steamer cabinet as if to say, “Wait for Barbara’s reaction.  You’ll like this.”  And I did because Barbara always replied the same way: “Chana, You shut up and keep making tacos, or I’ll shoot you!”  Of course, in her drawl, Barbara pronounced it more like “Aahll sheeoocheeoo!”

Chana would laugh and Barbara would mumble under her breath, and everybody working that shift would know — as surely as if a town crier had exclaimed it — that “all was well.”

The more I got to know Chana, the more I respected him.  Not only did he work these two fast food jobs in order to put gas in his late 70s Chevy Blazer (which he offered to pick me up in whenever my VW van didn’t run.)  But he had also owned and managed his own chain of restaurants in Crete before he moved to the states.

I’ll never forget his response: “Punch in. Punch out. Happy. Go home.”

“Why do you still make tacos and sandwiches, then,” I asked him one day.  “You could make GM easily with your experience.  Or open your own restaurant here.”  I’ll never forget his response:  He shook his head and waved his hand as if to wave away my foolish suggestion, and he said, “Punch in.  Punch out.  Happy.  Go home.”

I realized that he had summed up in 7 words the main theme of the whole book of Ecclesiastes: 

So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 8:15

I made Chana’s words my mantra at that job.  While my roommate tried to impress the managers by learning the registers and taking drive-thru orders, I stayed back there on the assembly line with Chana.

“Why you no want to be manager, Richard?”  (I didn’t feel brave enough to put “Rix” on my employment application back then.)  “You make good manager — better than Larry Manager, even,” Chana commented one time.

I smiled and repeated his mantra back to him, thinking that he would smile and pat me on the back.  But his face turned sour.  “No.  No!  You young.  You strong.  Climb.  Go up.  Better than Larry Manager, I say!”

But I had made up my mind.  I knew the thanklessness of food service management.  And I knew that it would feel even worse under the Spartan Cheerleader’s scrutiny.  Besides, I stood in a perfect position to take excellent advantage of my job.  I didn’t need any perks besides free food.

Let me tell you how it started… I turned to a life of crime.

Let me tell you how it started.  I had finally outgrown the priggishness I had exhibited at Burger King.  Living on the edge of sanity in an outrageously overpriced efficiency apartment that received no natural light from the window that looked out on a dead-end hallway, sharing that apartment with three other people (my roommate, his girlfriend, and the girl she eventually hoped to get her own apartment with), barely scraping up enough money to pay rent split four ways and keep my VW camper van running, I turned to a life of crime.

I might have still felt bad stealing food, if I had not already lost all respect for my boss.  His scale-weighing antics seemed over-the-top and obsessive at first.  I believed that he truly wanted to give the customers exactly what they paid for–down to the last ounce.  But one day — possibly in an attempt to make up food cost losses due to the evening manager letting his crew eat for free — I saw the Spartan Cheerleader serve an under-weight burrito.  I felt shocked.  I felt the same way I did when I learned that Santa Clause doesn’t exists.

The Spartan Cheerleader gave someone less than what they paid for.  And he did it on purpose.  I knew this because he commented about it, saying “Oh, well.  Close enough.  I would rather err in our favor than theirs, at least.”

I felt livid — in my reserved, overly kind, repressed, Christian way.  So I did what any repressed, evangelical American would do — I reacted with passive aggression.  I made it my mission to make sure that he would loose money in food cost from that point on.  I would drop whole trays of burritos on the floor — accidentally on purposely — while loading up the stock warmer before the lunch rush.  It meant extra work for me and Chana to get ready, but I knew the two of us could handle it.

Our plan ran like clockwork, and it felt like Mission Impossible.

Meanwhile, my roommate — whose front register duties involved sweeping the floors and taking out the trash before the lunch rush — picked up the burritos and double bagged them in fresh, clean trash bags before dropping them in the trash barrel to take out to the dumpster.  He then pulled the inner, clean bag of burritos out of the dirty, outer bag and sneakily stuffed it into his car, parked behind the dumpster, out of sight of the store windows.  Our plan ran like clockwork, and it felt like Mission Impossible.  I think we pulled it off twice before we got insanely tired of eating burritos for every meal at home.

Once we abandoned that plan, I decided to start picking up the food-cost-loss slack by making sure that I served as many over-stuffed food items as possible.  As long as I could keep the dial of the scale turned away from the Spartan Cheerleader’s eyes, it looked like I had started tyring for employee of the month status because I weighed every item I made — just to make sure that I screwed the GM over as much as possible.

I made it a goal to push the limits of what I believed possible.  For instance, pushing the normally 8.75 ounce burrito supreme to 9 ounces felt difficult at first.  But once I had made that jump, I tried to get it bigger each time.  I think my record for a burrito supreme stood at 13 ounces — almost 50% bigger than the prescribed weight.  Beans and sour creme squirted out of it just from the gravitational pressure of picking it up.  I felt proud as I bagged it for the drive-thru customer.  I just hoped they didn’t try to eat it on the way home.

A manager can boss you around, yell at you, cut your hours, or fire you. But you can always find ways to get him back.

Thus I learned a rule in fast food that hadn’t quite sunk in when I worked as a manager — although I had certainly felt the impact of it then:  the employees hold the real power.  A manager can boss you around, yell at you, cut your hours, or fire you.  But you can always find ways to get him back.  You can call in, steal food, steal cash, waste supplies, and break machinery.  The wars waged for the balance of power continue to this day.  Born in the fields of the once-Fertile Crescent, the dynamic of the distinction between labor and management has probably changed very little.  A few rulers do everything they can to hold the money and power, and the rest of the people break their backs for the pennies the rulers drop their way in order to buy the food that the rulers have placed under lock and key.  But sometimes the people revolt, and sometimes they steal — never enough to truly live — just enough to help them get by.

Next: Wage Slavery 3: Rats!
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6 responses to this post.

  1. […] Next: Wage Slavery 2: Will Work for (a Chance to Steal) Food […]

    Reply

  2. Posted by JustVisiting on 09/14/2007 at 4:42 am

    Hey thanks for a great read. I say “great” because your experience really took me back to my days at McDonalds. The characters you mentioned, the diversity of people you meet in the fast food industry… everything you described sounds so familiar. Oh its a thankless shitty job I don’t plan on ever returning to but I have some great memories and the interaction between those who took it way too seriously and those who didn’t take it seriously at all always kept things somewhat interesting.

    Reply

  3. Posted by The Roommate on 09/14/2007 at 8:14 pm

    WildeRix,

    Thanks for a great stroll down memory lane. It was exactly 10 years ago that we applied for the Scary People Wanted jobs. As I read your essays I remembered something else that you got a kick out of. I was never very good at multi-tasking, so the drivethru would stress me out sometimes. I mean, come on! We had to take orders, make the drinks, AND handle the cash register. Granted, being able to take orders while taking a dump (because we wore portable headsets) was fun, but its not like I got paid more than your taco-stuffing ass for taking on the extra responsibility. Anyway, remember when I would get stressed out when there was a long line at the drive thru and just start giving people their orders while telling them not to worry about paying? I figured, if I’m too busy to do everything, the first thing to go should be taking the money. Good times.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Rix on 09/14/2007 at 9:09 pm

    B-Dog!

    Thanks for the added memories. I remember the moment when you first told me, “Yeah, I … heh … I felt really rushed back there. We had a lot of cars. And, I figured that exchanging money would just slow things down. So I just gave them their food and told them not to worry about it.”

    I was really proud of you in that moment, and a little in awe. I mean sure, we were stealing… but giving away the store — that took it to a new level. And not even to friends. You were just giving food away to strangers. Yeah, I think my “punch in, punch out” had a little more “happy” in the “go home” that day.

    I wish I could say that we fucked that place over — that the management suffered by not getting a bonus that month. Who knows, maybe we made a dent between me giving them too much food and you just giving them their food — plus all the stolen burritos. I doubt we made any more than a dent. But, hey, at least we did our part. We gave it a fair shake. I guess if we ever find ourselves in that kind of situation again, we’ll just have to try harder.

    And I had totally forgotten about taking orders on the crapper. Did I block that out? It seems like the kind of thing I would have really wanted to remember. But I guess with as crazy of a life as we were living back then, only so many memories could stick.

    Reply

  5. […] last we left the WildeRix, he had turned to a life of crime while stuffing tacos. Let’s see what happens […]

    Reply

  6. Dude. This made me laugh out load a dozen times. Genius.

    Reply

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