Not Quite Just Like Heaven: The Fast Food Years
JUNE, 1990. I was fresh out of high school when my hopes of becoming a Crew Leader went down in flames. It was a hot summer night, almost midnight, when the telltale beeping sound alerted our skeleton crew that someone had rolled up to the drive-thru menu. I was multitasking — stocking cups, wiping counters, trying to wrap things up so I could clock out and rendezvous with friends and cheap beer — and instinctively took the order over my headset: one side of onion rings. I instructed the customer to pull up to the window.
I bagged the order, added the mandated two packets of ketchup, and walked over to open drive-thru window. A long, bronze colored Cadillac awaited, and a man with gold necklaces and gold teeth handed me a twenty dollar bill. I brought his change, and he handed back a ten dollar bill and asked for different change. I provided it, and he handed some of those bills back to me and asked for still different change, all with a smile and soothing voice, with some pleasantries exchanged about the heat and how was my evening going anyway? The night manager stepped up and asked if everything was okay. I told him it was. I’d known all along what the guy in the Caddie was doing: the classic quick change scam. I counted out his final cash and handed him the onion rings, confident that my sharp wits and math skills had won the day.
As I prepared to clock out, the manager called me into his closet of an office. With a grim voice, he gave me the news: my cash register drawer had come up fifty dollars short. Fifty dollars! I knew that anything over twenty bucks meant immediate termination. Two years of fast food employment — more than 10% of my entire life at that time, was over.
Three years earlier, in August of 1987, my family had moved from small town Colorado to big city California. I’d spent the previous winter washing dishes at a ski resort and a final mountain summer mowing lawns and painting fences for $4.50 an hour; not bad when the minimum wage was $3.35. When we arrived in San Diego I was flush with around $300 in savings, and although I quickly blew the money on video games and Taco Bell — amazing urban amenities available on every corner it seemed — I figured I’d find another job soon enough.
Unfortunately, California law stated that you couldn’t work until you were 16. Suddenly, I was ten years old again: checking phone booths and vending machines for the forgotten quarter in the change dispenser; tearing into holiday greeting cards in hopes that they contained cash; feeling like a million bucks when I found five bucks in the pocket of an old jacket; and occasionally hitting up my mom just after payday for a spare ten dollar bill — just enough for a Black Flag album from Blue Meanie Records and two donuts from Winchell’s.
I was basically broke for my entire sophomore year of high school, so a few days before my 16th birthday I walked into a Carl’s Jr. restaurant and filled out a job application. A week later I sat for an interview, was hired on the spot, and spent an hour watching an inspirational corporate video on a tiny television in a tiny break room and failing a basic food safety test (the assistant manager allowed me to change my answers afterward). I then received my uniform: dark gray polyester slacks, a red button up shirt, a gray and white checkered apron, a name tag and a visor, all of which carried the faint smell of rancid grease.
I now had a full time job: Monday through Friday from 6:00 am to 2:30 pm. My days quickly fell into a routine: arise at 5, shower, then don my uniform and listen to music on my walkman for a few minutes to get ready for the day. For the first few weeks of my new job, I listened over and over again to Just Like Heaven, a catchy love song by The Cure I’d recorded off 91X during one of their “Top 9 at 9” evening radio sets. By now I was saturating myself with punk music but had a soft spot for sappy love songs by mellower bands, and I was actually feeling a bit sappy about my first California girlfriend: a buxom blonde who lived with her grandparents in a huge trashy apartment complex near my high school. She’d just blessed my 16th birthday with my first ever hand job, a milestone of every teenage boy’s life.
I was out the door by 5:35 and onto the skateboard (Simms Staab deck with Gullwing trucks and Vision Shredder wheels) for an ever so slightly downhill journey through the dark and quiet city. During these morning commutes I swallowed my pride and wore my work uniform, but I always carried a backpack with civilian clothes for the afternoon skate home: it was one thing to wear a fast food outfit in anonymous darkness, but quite another to be seen wearing it in public in the light of day.
CHOPPING LETTUCE/MORNING METH:
The place didn’t open until 6:30, so I’d pound on the doors and wait outside with the meth heads until the morning manager heard my knocking and let me in. Then I’d jump right into my duties as prep cook. Back then, much of the food at fast food restaurants was actually fresh, and I’d spend the first hour washing and coring heads of iceberg lettuce then using a contraption to press them through a grid of sharp blades. The resulting mound of small lettuce squares was piled in stainless steel tubs to be used throughout the day on burgers and in packaged to-go salads and the salad bar. I then sliced fresh tomatoes with another device, followed by knife and cutting board to prep green peppers and mushrooms for the salad bar. Then came the potatoes: dump a case into the sink, scrub away the dirt and wrap them in foil, then place them in the oven. The rest of the day was spent washing trays and assorted kitchen utensils, filling the ice dispenser, hooking up fresh boxes of soda syrup, hauling trash out the back door to the dumpsters, and feeding frozen beef patties and thawed chicken breasts onto a big conveyor belt for flame broiling, and three different types of buns into a separate conveyor for mild toasting.
The early morning crew was small: assistant manager, cashier/drive thru, one cook and myself, and the first customers were almost always the tweakers. They’d been wandering the streets all night high on crystal meth, and now wanted to sit in the warm dining area for a couple hours to chain-smoke and babble nonsense. Upright citizens heading for work mostly used the drive-thru, and the cook, Kelley, was able to whip up pancakes, fry up eggs — real eggs, not liquified eggs in a box — and crank out breakfast sandwiches and the occasional morning hamburger all on his own. Meanwhile, the morning manager, a red-haired lady named Kathy, tallied the previous day’s receipts and deposited a bag of cash into a drop box at a nearby bank, while a young woman named Denise took orders and kept an eye on the methheads.
The real manager, Linda, arrived around 8 each morning in her red Trans-Am. Like most of the managers — overworked and underpaid— she was fat, although not the morbid obesity so common these days. The handwritten memos she tacked to the break room wall were riddled with so many spelling and grammar errors that I couldn’t stop myself from editing them. She mostly did paperwork, including the twice monthly schedule, but would jump in as needed to cook or clean and keep things moving. She reminded me often that she’d also gotten her start as a dishwasher and prep cook, implying that if I kept at it I might someday manage my own Carl’s Jr. franchise.
If Linda represented what hard work and modest life goals could achieve, Phillip represented something else. He shuffled in around 7:30 and began the task of sweeping up cigarette butts and trash in the parking lot, pausing as needed for a cigarette of his own. He was small and painfully quiet, but worked hard, if slowly. He once asked if I watched the show Alf, then told me he had dreamed of being a police officer but was rejected for being too short. Ironically, the Army had deemed him tall enough to be drafted and sent him TWICE to fight in Vietnam. God only knows what he saw or did over there — not much older than I was at the time but killing other humans and avoiding death in a rice paddy instead of chopping lettuce and sapping out to 80’s love songs — but he had survived and kept the Commies at bay. Two decades later, at the age of 40, he lived with his mother, got drunk in front of the television every night, and awoke each morn to make sure that Carl’s Jr. had a clean parking lot.
FRY COOK/CASHING IN
I worked hard and kept my work space clean, and soon advanced to fry cook. This meant a later start, 8:30 instead of 6:00, and a bit more dignity, as the person who fed meat to the broiler was considered the lowest of the low — poor Phillip resumed this role after my promotion. I prepped a few dozen salads to go, dunked French toast strips into hot grease, and generally readied my station by stocking a small freezer with bags of fries, onion rings and breaded zucchini chips, all in anticipation of the impending lunch rush.
By 11 am we were fully staffed as the lobby filled up and the drive thru starting beeping incessantly. Unlike most fast food outlets at the time our food was made to order, with nothing sitting under heat lamps for more than a couple minutes, so we listened closely to the drive-thru chatter and the head cook calling out orders so as not to fall behind.
I spent the next two hours immersing basket after basket of frozen food products into sizzling oil and stuffing bags and boxes with fries and onion rings and setting aside one order of fries with no salt and another with “extra grease” and quickly grabbing another case of zucchini from the freezer and pouring liquid nacho cheese on baked potatoes and firing off a quick sweep and mop of the floor as the kitchen tiles became spattered with “special sauce” (ketchup and relish) and slices of bacon and rogue bits of onion ring.
It wasn’t rocket science, but it was vaguely exciting to be part of a team that was getting something done, a strangely satisfying feeling. I didn’t consciously think that at the time — indeed, my budding punk rock self was chafing at the growing realization that I was an actual cog in an actual corporate machine — but I clearly remember the sense of focus and collective effort probably akin to what the high school jocks felt about the football team, albeit a team with players inclined towards the fat and slow or, like myself, the skinny and weak.
Over the course of ten weeks the roaring crackle of molten lard clashing with frozen food had been the sound of my money being printed. The federal minimum wage had just increased from $3.35 to $4.25 per hour, and I was netting close to 600 dollars each month, a lot of money when the parents are paying the bills. I bought some clothes and lots more punk records, and continued to spend freely on video games and a new skateboard, and indulged a new love: carne asada burritos from various taco shops like Roberto’s, Alberto’s, Jilberto’s, Aliberto’s or Los Panchos. The summer girlfriend and I’d split up after just a few weeks, and the Cure song had been forgotten when I embarked on a late summer project: obtaining every Dead Kennedys record and transferring their entire catalog onto cassette tapes, in alphabetical order.
ASSISTANT COOK/TEENAGE DAYDREAM
Eventually summer came to an end and I started my junior year of high school. My work hours dropped from 40 to 20 hours per week — the legal limit for a minor in school — and I started working nights and weekends. It was a big change. The summer day shifts had been mostly staffed by adults who fell into seven general categories:
- Managers and Assistant Managers who, while hard working and often intelligent, lacked the college education required to move up the corporate chain, and who would probably be doing this for years to come, especially if they had kids to feed and monthly payments to make on a red Trans Am.
- College students paying the bills while they attained a degree and became some sort of professional. A few more years and the frying of fries would be left to the polyester proletariat.
- Those in transition: maybe discharged from the Navy and figuring out what comes next, or fresh off the traveling carnival circuit or rehab and trying to scratch up enough cash to move into a safer apartment complex. I’m serious about the carnival circuit part.
- High school drop outs who would eventually improve their lot and move on to something bigger, say, working on a road construction crew.
- High school drop outs who would not improve their lot and would likely be flipping burgers for a lifetime, although they might leave the food service industry for a slot at the nearby paper plate factory.
- The intellectually disabled — still referred to then as “retarded” — who quietly, almost anonymously, wiped tables and swept floors before riding the city bus back to their group home.
- The truly lost. Brains warped by drugs or some unknown trauma. They were barely able to hang onto this job and usually didn’t last very long.
There was big demographic variety there — Hispanic, African-American, Asian, Arab, Persian, Filipino, white, male, female, and an openly gay Vietnamese man with an Italian last name — almost everyone on the day shift was an adult, but my new evening and weekend shifts were loaded with fellow teenagers.
We teenagers rolled in from all corners of our smoggy inland valley and beyond, on skateboards and nerdy ten speed bikes; in our step-mom’s brand new Ford Eurostar sedan; in lowered Volkswagen beetles with day-glo accents and “Pebble Pushers” or some other car club logo painted on a back window rattled by booming bass and Eazy-E poetry; in beat up Pintos with Slayer blasting and pot smoke emanating from behind spray-on tinted windows; in white Cabriolets with the top down and Q106 broadcasting the sultry sounds of Paula Abdul and be sure to give those vertical bangs one last shot of hair spray; in a boyfriend’s monster truck with a giant OAKLEY sticker stretching across the entire windshield and Axl Rose’s whine turned up to 11; or, sometimes, simply dropped off by mom or dad.
We came from high schools with two thousand students and mascots that symbolized nothing and locations that symbolized everything. We came from fancy houses with big garages atop eucalyptus hills where someone named Juan, or Jose, or Ernesto — who knew for sure? — kept the lawn manicured. We came from cracker box apartments with names like “Mollison Manor”, where the joy of a swimming pool was tempered by the cockroaches in the kitchen and the domestic violence unfolding next door. We came from freshly bulldozed avocado orchards transformed into rows of identical homes that smelled of new paint and progress. We came from once identical 1950s tract homes that had been remodeled enough times to be unique, fronted by towering palm trees and a modest driveway where dad parked the car after another day crunching numbers for the military-industrial complex. We came from biker gang compounds in hidden canyons where meth was brewed and the nightmares never ended so it was probably good that nobody ever slept.
None of us thought too much about any of that as it simply was. Besides, being teenagers, we had other things on our minds. Being cool, for one, hence the music and related cliques — being Southern California you inevitably ended up in one, if only by default. And we had to think about work, at least enough to avoid getting fired: the boys mainly in the kitchen, the girls up front on the cash registers, all of us overseen by a night manager usually just a few years older than us. Somewhere in the back of our minds we thought vaguely about the future, about the chemistry exam next week, about when the drunken parent would next explode, about our problems — but not as often as you’d think, because we were creatures of the moment, and we were resilient.
Mostly we thought about sex. Having sex with the opposite sex — or, still in secret agony in 1988, the same sex. Biologically, teenagers are at the the peak of their breeding powers. Many, if not most, tend towards the beautiful without having to try very hard — soft, wrinkle-free skin, good teeth and a full head of hair if nothing else — a baseline attractiveness enhanced by the involuntary excretion of pheromones deliberately crafted by God to attract someone else’s sperm or egg. Teens appear to be moderately civilized but hidden beneath the veneer of carefully chosen clothing and nice penmanship there is a hairy Neanderthal who never stops screaming PROCREATE! PROCREATE! PROCREATE! This meant that nights at Carl’s Jr. were just a continuation of our hormonally tortured days in high school except in cheeseball matching work uniforms that did little to lower the temperature.
But thinking about it and doing it are light years apart, and I was still many months — felt like a lifetime — away from that. Plus, in order to maintain employment we had to focus on the task at hand: serving up fast food to customers. By now, I’d been at Carl’s for three months and was promoted to assistant cook. It was sort of a promotion anyway, for although I got to stand next to a lead cook and learn the skills necessary to properly assemble an Old Star or Happy Star burger, I simultaneously had to spend at least a couple of hours at the griddle frying up thousands of slices of bacon. While this seems like a step down from fry cook, cleaning the deep fryer at the end of the night and, worst of all, hauling the dirty grease in fryer #3 — where the fish patties were fried — out to the stinking vat by the rat infested dumpsters in the dark of night was probably the worst job of all, so, yeah, promotion.
Until you were a “Crew Leader” — a sort of a Sergeant who worked in the trenches alongside everyone else but was able to tell others to mop the floor — you could show up to work and find yourself assigned to any part of the restaurant, regardless of whether you’d been “promoted’ or not. Instinctively, management kept the burnouts and pimply faced heavy metal heads hidden in the kitchen where they were less likely to be seen by customers, but the rest of us were eventually cross trained so we could cover any need at any time.
So it was one evening when I arrived for the 5–9 shift and saw my name on the dry erase board next to DINING. For the first time ever I was mingling with the customers. Piece of cake: grab food from beneath the heat lamps, put it on a tray and walk it out the the dining room where you matched a receipt to a numbered plastic triangle the customer had received at the cash register. You didn’t even need to carry drinks, as Carl’s Jr. was the first fast food outlet to offer self-serve sodas. This is the norm now, but back then it felt like a huge bargain: pay for a small soda and drink like a Big Gulp.
It was by far the easiest and cleanest job of all: once people got their food they were generally satisfied, and you were out of the hot mess of the kitchen. Unfortunately, unless you were one of the intellectually disabled employees who struggled to change a trash bag or top off the salad bar, the job was too easy, and after just a few of these shifts I was trained on the cash register. I was out of my comfort zone at first, and nervous. It was one thing to learn new tasks in the kitchen where nobody could see you, but watching lines of hungry customers grow impatient while you endeavored to find the “extra” and “bbq sauce” buttons on the cash register was stressful.
Being up front gave me time to mingle with different folks, and as the months unfolded friendships took hold. Compared to now (age 48), when making new friends involves a calendar, coordination of schedules and the torture of having to spend time around unfamiliar people, making friends as a teenager is as simple as having a single shared interest (often music) or just swapping enough jokes to strike up a connection. Not effortless, but almost, and abetted by the fact that everyone was stuck in a small space together for hours at a time, a setting that encouraged conversation.
Romance blossomed as well. Whatever personal baggage someone carried was left back at home and high school, and the work uniforms erased many of the cliquey social identifiers, so when you walked into the melting pot of Carl’s Jr. you were essentially anonymous and simultaneously exotic — especially if your name was Kandi Kay Johnson. She was a small, rail-thin girl with big blue eyes, and — a year older than me — a senior at Santana High School. She was also in the ROTC and would probably later vote for Trump, but we weren’t hanging out to talk about the government. We were hanging out because there had been a spark between us when we flirted over the tubs of condiments: me on one side of the counter boxing up a Famous Star cheeseburger, her on the other putting lids on milkshakes, our eyes meeting as she flashed a playful smile.
When I left town with my family for a long weekend, I spent most of it on a pay phone talking with her. I was invited over for dinner to meet her parents. I brought her purple roses, her favorite color. We went to the movies and walked around the mall, and made out in her white Mustang. We went trick or treating together. Our song was Never Tear Us Apart by INXS. I wrote her name on school notebooks. She wrote me sweet letters saying she was going to “make love to me” every chance she got. I couldn’t believe it. I would get laid soon. Very soon.
Nothing was ever going to tear us apart. Except for two things. The first was her younger brother, a freshman. She brought him almost everywhere with us. To the movies. To the mall. Out to eat. When my parents drove to Phoenix to see a NASCAR race I thought FOR SURE this was going to be it: an entire weekend of losing my virginity! Instead, Kandi brought her brother over and we never got a moment alone.
The other problem was her other boyfriend, a muscled mullet guy named, of course, Steve. He was supposedly her ex-boyfriend, but somehow it didn’t seem that way, especially when I caught a glimpse of them arguing once when we stopped by his house so she could supposedly get back some of her things. When I told a classmate about my worries, and mentioned that Kandi was on birth control, he laughed and pointed out that she’d been “fucking that other guy every day, probably twice a day, for the last year.” This is not exactly the thing you want to hear when you’re an insecure virgin who is convinced, or trying to be convinced, that you’ve got something special going on with someone who thinks only of you.
Eventually, after pressing her Siamese twin of a brother on the matter, I admitted that I’d been duped and broke it off. Kandi stormed into Carl’s Jr. the next evening to drop off her uniform (everyone on the night shift had taken my side) and ended up working at Del Taco. Meanwhile, I was feeling pretty low, but was able to parlay this into sympathy and dry humping from Trisha, a nice Christian girl from Grossmont High.
Receipts issued forth rapid fire from a tiny printer. I tore them off and hung them at eye level, then called out what we needed: four large fries to the fry cook and a dozen more buns and 16 meat patties to a nameless fresh faced youth manning the charbroiler. I deftly spread bbq sauce on both sides of a toasted sesame bun and slid them towards my assistant who grabbed two onion rings from the fry cook and placed them on the bottom bun. As the broiled meat rolled off the conveyor belt I layered two patties with two slices of American cheese atop the onion rings, slapped on two slices of bacon in a perfect X shape and let the assistant wrap and box that particular Double Western Bacon Cheeseburger while I gave the counter a quick wipe with a rag, instinctively smashed a tiny baby cockroach with the spatula, and moved onto the next one.
A memorable summer of ’89 flew by in a blur of fast food shifts, days at the beach, some epic tiny venue punk shows, and nighttime adventures fueled by 40 ounce bottles of malt liquor followed by my senior year of high school. By now, I’d been at Carl’s for over a year — practically forever. I’d gotten a few raises and was making $4.65 per hour — practically assistant manager pay — and had a name tag with my name ENGRAVED in plastic: CHUCK FRASER CREW MEMBER. The visor had given way to a Carl’s baseball hat, and I wore my black Vans rather than the required black faux-Reeboks (which had become disgusting grease sponges), and sometimes left my shirt untucked. These breaches of the dress code were generally overlooked by management as I was a reliable employee. Not indispensable, and sometimes too much of a smart ass now that I was on casual terms with most everyone in the restaurant, but competent enough to bend some of the rules
This was especially true on the night shifts, and more so after some pals from my high school hired on, which made for an endless succession of mom jokes and general increase in hijinks. We’d use the dish sprayer to soak the back hallway where the soda and supplies were stored and take turns seeing who could run and slide all the way to the back door. Maybe we’d use a grease pen to write dirty messages on the buns before slipping them into the charbroiler just to elicit a laugh or scowl from the cook when they popped out of the other end, or try putting brownies or a tomato in the deep fryer to see what would happen, or make sexually suggestive noises over the drive-thru speakers or falsely announce that the DISTRICT MANAGER had just been spotted parking his black Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme out back.
I thought that last one would be funny. Normally, when the District Manager rolled through town every month or so the store managers would call and warn each other: “He just left #401 and is headed to #89!”. This would trigger a quick cleaning of all surfaces and tucking in of shirts and general “look busy, Bruce the District Manager is coming” vibe. Within minutes he’d arrive in pressed suit and sharply trimmed mustache for an inspection and report, sometimes even hanging up his suit coat and helping out in the kitchen — risking grease on his loafers and mayonnaise on his tie so we’d know he was a man of the people. For Bruce to show up with no warning, at night, was a big deal, and the night manager was panicked then furious when it turned out not to be true. I realized I’d pushed things too far, so rather than come clean and admit it had all been a joke I doubled down and insisted I’d seen him and that I was only trying to help, and somehow I didn’t get in trouble.
There was fun, and there was also theft, usually petty. At the time I felt that stealing was okay, as long as you were stealing from a big corporation. This was especially true with Carl’s Jr, whose founder and CEO supported John Birch wingnut Republicans, engaged in insider trading, and funded anti-gay and anti-abortion groups, as I learned while writing a research paper on Carl Karcher Enterprises in economics class. In the days before omnipresent surveillance— there was not a single camera in Carl’s Jr, not even near the cash registers — it was easy to stuff a steel napkin dispenser and a thousand napkins into your backpack because it seemed like that would be a cool thing to have in your bedroom. It was easy to take an entire box of Kids’ Meal prizes (puffy fluorescent digital watches) to give away to your friends at the punk rock/skateboard section of the quad at school. It was easy to take a break in the walk-in cooler and snack on a brownie or some cookie dough, or to slip your friends some free food when they stopped in.
It wasn’t easy to steal money. Credit or debit card transactions were technically a payment option, but one that was almost never used, so we handled a lot of cash, sometimes a thousand dollars per register on a four hour shift, but you couldn’t just take it. If your till was more than three dollars off when the manager counted it at the end of your shift you’d get an official written reprimand, regardless of whether you’d handled a hundred dollars or a thousand. Two write ups in a year for this got you exiled to the fry station, and three got you fired, so it wasn’t worth the risk to take more than a couple bucks at a time.
But one night a power surge rendered the cash registers inoperable. Closing the restaurant was out of the question, so we were given pencil, calculator and a printed copy of the menu and instructed to write down the orders on the back of some tray liners. I was running the drive-thru cash register that night, which meant that someone else was taking the orders and handing out the food — the hard stuff — while I sat in a nook and listened to the orders on a drive-thru headset, did the math, and took the money before instructing customers to drive to the next window for their food. It was the perfect setup: far from the prying eyes of management or even fellow employees, with no receipts of any kind or any written record other than the one I created, and all of it paid for with cash, about two hundred dollars of which I eventually spent at the record store.
1990 rolled around, and my senior year of high school approached its end. My life had seen some changes. My Colorado grandparents matched my savings and I got a car. My record collection expanded to a second then a third box. My mom’s boyfriend of 8 years abandoned us then returned months later and became my stepdad via a Vegas wedding. The family dog I’d named and loved since I was two years old got frail and warty and sick and had to be put down. Also, I’d finally gotten laid: by a punk rock girl on a mattress on the floor of a bedroom painted entirely black — windows, floor, doorknobs, ceiling, light fixtures, EVERYTHING black — next to a coffin. Meanwhile a Depeche Mode cassette on auto reverse played over and over again, including the song Somebody, a tune that I and a million fellow teens across the globe had listened to many times in lonesome longing but which now served as soundtrack for the big moment.
Somehow, through it all, I still worked at Carl’s Jr., although, there had been changes there too. Kelley, the first person I’d met on the job, started working at a sign factory for a whopping 8 bucks per hour. Phillip the Vietnam veteran had shown up to work drunk one too many times and been fired. Some of the college students graduated and got real jobs. One of the night shift teens had turned 18 and joined the Army. Three others got caught up in a love triangle then got strung out on meth and lost their jobs and their teeth. A slow but constant trickle of former fry cooks migrated across the street to Parkway Plaza mall for more respectable retail work at Sears or Footlocker.
The food had changed too, generally transitioning from fresh to processed. One day the bacon showed up in precooked packages: just stick it in the microwave, which eliminated nightly hours spent sweating over the griddle and ensured that bacon at a Carl’s Jr. in San Diego was exactly like the bacon at a Carl’s Jr. in Long Beach or Fresno. Then fresh heads of lettuce gave way to precut lettuce in plastic bags, followed soon after by prepackaged salad bar veggies. Only the tomatoes were still fresh. The lifeblood of the restaurant — the grease itself — changed as big boxes of LARD that had to be sliced into chunks with a hot knife before melting in the fryer vats were replaced by neatly wrapped precut rectangles of solidified “vegetable oil” that didn’t even require refrigeration. This was marketed as a healthier alternative to the lard, but was partially hydrogenated oil and, along with the bottomless sodas, the most unhealthy thing on the menu.
Late in my senior year of high school I became a vegetarian. Not a health conscious hippy vegetarian — I guzzled soda just like everyone else, ate Taco Bell bean burritos and had never even heard of tofu or the Grateful Dead — but a sort of junk food vegetarian. It was swirling in the air at the time and went hand in hand with the big 20th anniversary of a resurgent Earth Day, which happened that spring. Influenced by sensitive classmates who listened to deeper cuts on Cure albums, and especially from lyric sheets and posters tucked inside select punk albums, I found myself exposed to powerful images of industrial grade slaughterhouses and statistics about the environmental impacts of meat production. So I quit eating meat, even as I was serving up corporate death burgers, probably a sign that this job wouldn’t last forever.
The month of June, 1990, rolled around. I graduated from high school, turned 18, and started working full time night shifts, usually 4 to midnight or so — late enough to close the place down. By now I had mastered every station in the restaurant, and spent most shifts running the drive-thru. I was being groomed for official promotion to Crew Leader and would be starting classes at San Diego State University — the local default option for college bound slackers — in a few months. Everything pointed to another summer of stable fast food employment as I continued along a fairly predictable life trajectory.
Then the guy with the gold teeth and the Cadillac pulled up to the drive thru and ordered those late night onion rings. When my cash register turned up $50 short I was fired, although with reluctance and apologies from the night manager who knew I’d been scammed by a grifter.
I stepped out of the restaurant and into the California night. If there were stars in that sky they were smudged out by smog and the glow of city lights. If there were karmic lessons about theft or greed I wasn’t ready to grasp them. If the moment was charged with metaphors about doors opening and closing and the rest of my life unfolding before me I didn’t quite understand. Confusion and mild shame mingled with a great sense of relief. All I knew for sure was that I’d been fired, it was summer, and I would never again wear polyester slacks.