I worked for Taco Bell for roughly nine years – from the time I was 19 until I was about 28 years old.
I started as a crew member and finished as a general manager.
You know life is exceeding your expectations when you upgrade from the nametag with your name Sharpie-ed onto the plastic, to one with your name AND title inscribed upon a genuine 14 carat gold-plated surface. Movin’ on up indeed.
I lived in blue polyester pants and a white- and blue-striped polyester shirt. I smelled like onions all the time. I left refried bean stains on the driver’s seat of my car. I worked from six at night until six in the morning and fell asleep at traffic lights on the way home – only to get up in four hours and go back for the lunch rush. I worked through three pregnancies and went into labor with my youngest child while frying taco salad shells.
I have never worked harder in my life for less money.
And in the world of corporate fast-food chains and their old-boys-club atmosphere, I continually saw much less competent individuals promoted above me as a result of a very selective and rigorous upper management applicant vetting process I fondly referred to as “penis is better than vagina.”
Yet, despite the above glowing report on the experience, all three of my kids have worked or work now for the restaurant industry.
And here’s why I don’t feel sorry for them in the least:
They will learn that most of their problems at this point in life are trivial.
The writers for All My Children should spend a week working behind the counter at Taco Bell to understand that the most dramatic over-the-top story line they can conjure cannot rival the lives of many fast food workers. Family feuds, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, bankruptcies, foreclosures, repossessions, payday loans, teen pregnancies, and the penal code – all in a day’s work. My employees overdosed, rehabbed, got arrested, paroled, violated the terms of their probation, married, divorced and impregnated or gave birth with a regularity that would make Erica Kane and the inhabitants of Pine Valley blush. As someone who was raised in a two-parent household with a generally stable income and a two-car garage, it was a shock to find that the vast majority of the people I worked with found my “normal” childhood to be the anomaly.
They will learn what I like to call “race-relations reality.”
The stores I worked in and managed were in Plymouth and Canton – two generally white, generally privileged towns in southeast Michigan. The majority of my co-workers and eventual employees were African-American, Hispanic or Asian (Indian). They typically did not live near the restaurants where they worked. Seeking higher wages than what was offered in the city, they had to rely on dubious public transportation and/or expensive cabs to get them to work. This often resulted in tedious waits to get home at the end of a long shift making burritos for suburban high schoolers and impatient professionals on their lunch hour. They supported multiple generations on an hourly income that most of us couldn’t manage a car payment on because their college education in foreign countries didn’t translate into a living wage. While we shared a bond rooted in dealing with irate customers and unrealistic speed-of-service demands, we could not claim shared experience. They knew from the start, and I came to realize with time, that my life would most likely end up different from theirs – and that was partially due to the color of my skin and the place of my birth.
They will learn that first impressions – good or bad – are useless in determining character.
My eldest son’s first pair of shoes were Mickey Mouse high tops purchased by Miss Sheila Wells – whom everyone inexplicably called Beulah – a woman of indeterminate age who came to work (on time, without fail) still drunk from the night before; heaved epithets at whomever she encountered; and, simultaneously ate jalapeno peppers while drinking Maalox. Her favorite pastime was picking fights with the developmentally-disabled man who cleaned the dining room – their complicated relationship involved Beulah berating him for improperly cleaning trays and he kissing her cheek whenever she walked past. Every night after her shift she walked across the street to the convenience store to buy a 40-ounce of malt liquor – and diapers that she would leave in the backseat of my car when she knew I was short on cash.
They will learn the true meaning of customer service.
Trust me – the customer is NOT always right – but they go away from the counter quicker if you don’t argue. The power of a smile and an apology – when combined with a free Nachos Bell Grande – cannot be underestimated.
And if nothing else, they will learn that their ability to view these jobs as a learning experience on their way to pursuing their life’s passion is a privilege in and of itself.