In high school, I worked at a Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburger Restaurant in Adrian, Michigan.
Anyone who knows anything about Adrian will know that it’s basically a little slice of Alabama north of the Mason-Dixon Line: Seeing Confederate flags and faded “Bush/Cheney 2000” stickers in the back windows of pick-up trucks was not uncommon. These sights—like the Confederate flag itself—were symbols of the culture in Adrian.
People often hear stories about how people who grow up in these areas are empowered. These stories often show the outcast (the minority) rise up against the majority (white people) and their blind bigotry and hatred to teach them an important lesson and to make them a little wiser.
My story is not that kind of story.
Adrian is about twenty miles southeast of the Michigan International Speedway (MIS), the annual site of three low-profile NASCAR races. For one weekend of each of the summer months, RVs and pick-up trucks (most of which bear the Confederate and/or American flag in some way, shape, or form) crowd US-223 on their way to these races, and poor Adrian becomes the stomping ground for hicks and yahoos alike.
The problem is that Adrian is the closest thing to a big city within an hour of MIS, so the NASCAR fans flock to it in order to keep their supplies in-check and to get a hot meal. The local WalMart is lined with more RVs than a Winnebago show lot; pick-up trucks and conversion vans fill up the parking lot of every major restaurant in town; every convenience store in town stocks extra Budweiser just to make sure that they have enough to satisfy the tastes of the visiting yokels—some from as far away as Tennessee.
This does not bode well for the seventeen-year-old who gets stuck in the drive-thru at the Wendy’s just off of US-223.
I started working there when I was sixteen. My sister and older cousins had all worked at the same Wendy’s and we had developed a sort of legacy there—we were a family of good employees. I followed gracefully in my family’s footsteps by earning “Employee of the Month” three times and becoming a favorite among managers and customers in my almost-three years there. Although fast food was not a glamorous part-time job, I still took pride in my work because I was damn good at it and (at least when I was at that age) a $300 paycheck was nothing to laugh at.
Over the years, the drive-thru became my favorite position. Sure, there was something about the wide-open steel and heartiness of the grill or the connection with the common folk at the front register—even the fry station had its moments of glory. But the drive-thru was for champions: working side-by-side with my manager who was responsible for putting orders together; striving to beat my record time by constantly keeping my eye on the digital timer above the automatic window; speaking articulately to customers who trusted me with their orders so that they could continue on with their busy lives. It became my domain, and I was damn good at it.
Of course, the true test of any fast-food employee is how one deals with difficult customers, and this sentiment was no truer than during Race Weekend.
The week before, I arrived at the restaurant to check my schedule for the following week. I went back past the kitchen and through the supply area to the employee lounge—nothing more than a small table, two chairs, a set of hooks on the wall for jackets, and a television for watching training videos. Taped to the wall was the schedule, and, when I looked at it, I couldn’t believe my eyes.
I was scheduled from eleven in the morning until nine at night on Saturday and Sunday of Race Weekend.
I went to my favorite manger, Alaya (a small single-mother with long brown hair in a single braid and pale complexion), who was also in charge of the schedule, and uttered the following:
“What the fuck, Alaya?”
She turned to me quickly, as if she had a speech prepared.
“Look,” she said sharply, “I hate doing this to you, but Sharonda’s on vacation and I’m stuck closing both days. Ruby can’t work because she has a wedding to go to and Mandy’s already over thirty hours that week. I need a drive-thru person, and you’re the best I’ve got. I need you for Race Weekend—I need someone good. Do this for me.”
I couldn’t say “no” to her. She promised me the next weekend off if I could just help her get through Race Weekend. I conceded and got ready for my shift, trying not to think about the line of RVs that would soon clog the drive-thru.
The Saturday of Race Weekend was not so bad—most true NASCAR fans stayed at a campground close to the Speedway. My ten hours went off without a hitch, and, as I walked out the door at the end of my shift, Alaya told me to rest up for the next day.
The next morning was a typical Sunday morning: the after-church crowd filled our dining room to capacity and the drive-thru was full for a good hour, but it was nothing unusual. Gordon, the Sunday-morning manager, ran a pretty tight ship, and, with his number-one drive-thru boy at his side, he was unstoppable. After the crowd died down, he told me to go on my break (an hour for every five hours we worked), at which point he reached into his pocket, pulled out a five-dollar bill, and told me to go to the convenience store down the street to pick up an energy drink for myself because (in his words) I was going to need it.
As I returned from the store with two cans of SOBE Adrenaline Rush (sugar-free—sugared energy drinks give me a headache), Alaya walked in with a look of sheer determination on her face.
I had never been to war, but I had imagined that the look on Alaya’s face was similar to that of General George S. Patton before the Battle of the Bulge.
She stormed into the kitchen, put on her apron, washed her hands, and gave me a Look that said, “Bring it the fuck on.”
Too nervous (or, perhaps too jittery from the first can of SOBE) to eat, I sat in the lounge until my break was over. When the clock struck four, I was ready: I tucked in my shirt, put on my hat and apron, slipped on the wireless headset, washed my hands, and clocked in. The race would be over soon, and the race fans would be hungrier than ever.
My shift was relatively quiet at its start: a few families grabbing a quick bite before afternoon mass; an elderly couple coming by for their weekly Frosty; a few teenagers grabbing some cold drinks after a game of basketball on the humid June day. We passed the time by cleaning the little nooks and crannies that didn’t get cleaned to perfection every day and by talking about whatever we could find to talk about. Alaya—usually full of wisdom and input—was uncharacteristically quiet.
I opened the drive-thru window and looked outside: a dark overcast covered the once-bright June day. The air was humid and sticky—a sure sign that it was going to rain the next day. The air was sill and all was quiet.
Then I saw the line coming from 223.
Alaya walked up behind me and peered out the window. I looked at her quickly. She was as calm as the air.
Swiftly, she ran to the back and told everyone to prepare.
“Ben: Load up the grill. Michael: Get at least two more baskets of fries down and a basket of nuggets. Amanda: Make sure you have enough buns. Marena: Load the drive-thru up on ice and make sure the pops are all full.”
“What do you need me to do, Alaya?” I asked.
“Just get ready.”
The line came in and surrounded the entire building with an impenetrable wall of RVs and pick-up trucks—we were trapped by rusted Fords and a sense of down-home Americana that made me want to vomit all over my cash register.
With the first Berp! of my headset, I began a routine that would seem to last for an eternity.
“Hi. Can I take your order, please?”
The orders came in as if these bumpkins had small armies to feed (one might think they had the common decency to eat something at the track; but they wouldn’t do that because one can’t be fuddling with a hot dog while watching cars go around in circles): Three Number Fours, two Number Twos, a baked potato, two orders of chili, four Kids’ Meals, and Frosties for the whole lot. Three and four and five cars in a row had orders totaling well over forty dollars.
My coworkers were beaten up by the sheer size of the orders. Their foreheads dripped with sweat and their hands moved faster and faster: flipping their burgers; dropping their fries; building their sandwiches; and I hopped back and forth from my register to my window, sending each of the pick-up trucks off with their orders with a nearly-silent “Fuck you” muttered under my breath.
“Have a good night.”
Every car had the same musty smell of stale Marlboros and Bud Light fuming from the open windows. The kids in the back screamed over the Brooks and Dunn booming from the stereo. Everyone was dressed in stained tank tops and sleeveless t-shirts with photos of various NASCAR drivers printed on the torsos.
I lost count of how many times I heard “Y’all” from someone’s mouth.
The line remained robust and impenetrable for an hour and a half. We were all wearing down, but Alaya kept us all going.
“They’re not leaving until they get their food! Keep it up, Guys!”
Around 7:30 that night, my voice began to get horse and I was angered by every little fault with each of those customers: a man digging around in his ashtray for forty-five seconds for a dime so he could have exact change; a woman who couldn’t decide if she wanted a Pepsi or a Dr. Pepper; a mom yelling at her young son because he couldn’t decide if he wanted a Chicken Nugget or a Cheeseburger Kids’ Meal. With each delay in moving my line, I fell further and further into a dissent of mild rage.
7:46: Still no apparent budge in the line. Our defenses were getting weak, but Alaya and I (the colonel to her general) kept our troops rallied.
An order comes into my headset.
“Hi. Can I take your order?”
I could barely hear him over the roar of his truck. His drawl was thick and drenched in twang.
“Yeah. Do y’alls gots cheeseburgers?”
I had to restrain myself before I leapt out the window, ran up to his car, and punched him right in the mouth.
I looked over at Alaya, who was frantically bagging orders. She stopped and looked over at me with wide eyes. From the back, we heard a few chuckles from the absurdity of what we had just heard over our headsets.
I turned back to my register and hit my “Talk” button. Enough was enough.
Perhaps he didn’t realize that the sign out front read “Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers.” Perhaps he thought maybe we had hamburgers, but we refused to put cheese on them because it would be insulting to the beef. Perhaps he was simply too tired from hours of watching cars go around in circles. Still, in my mind, no excuse existed to excuse his use of that “word” and deplorable grammar.
My voice was sharp.
“No, Sir: We have cheeseburgers.”
I immediately slapped my hand over my mouth—I may have been trying to catch my words from the air and keep them from reaching the customer’s ears.
I looked over at Alaya—my hand still over my mouth—with my eyes wide. She had stopped her bagging and stared back at me, her mouth barely open. My coworkers in the back had gone silent, and the sounds of their food preparation ceased.
I turned back to my register and waited anxiously for the man’s response. I waited to be torn apart; to have my manager called up; to have a formal complaint filed with the corporate office; to be fired for disrespecting customers (no matter how stupid said customers sounded). I sat silent for a moment, until he finally spoke.
“Oh, good. Then I’ll have two cheeseburgers and a Pepsi.”
It took ten seconds for me to formulate a coherent sentence in my head.
“Uh, that will be $5.24 at the second window, please. Thank you.”
He drove off from the speaker without so much a word.
I didn’t know if he didn’t hear me or if he just chose to ignore me, but I all I knew was that I was in the clear.
Alaya came over and put her hand on my shoulder. She then opened the window and waited for him to pull up.
“I’ll take this one,” she said calmly.
She took his money and handed his order to him with no mention of my outburst. He smiled as she handed him his change.
“Have a good night, Sir.”
After he drove off, she placed her hand back on my shoulder.
“I should technically write you up for that, but—you know—I like you too much after that.”
I chuckled. She chuckled back.
“Just don’t do it again.”