Memories of McDonald’s Part Seven: The Dream is Over

April 12th of this year will mark the 30th anniversary of the day I got my first job. During my 9 years at McDonald’s, I accumulated some great memories that I think are humourous and ridiculous enough to share with all of you. I hope you enjoy this series.

We’ve made it to about 1995. I was 22 years old, working full time midnights at McDonald’s making less than ten dollars an hour. I was taking the path of least resistance. I was cruising. Coasting. I mentioned in the previous segment that my man, Chris, and I would read the “Social Studies” section of the Globe and Mail. We read one night about dissatisfaction in the workplace. One thing we read was that if two people have the same job, the older of the two is more susceptible to being unhappy with his position, the thinking being that the older person figures that the younger person has already made it to where the older person is. The older person hasn’t made effective use of those extra years. We looked at each other and busted out laughing. Chris thought it was funny; he should be unhappy because we had the same job although he was older than me.

This, however, got me thinking about the kids I was working with. They were dealing with high school problems, sure, but they were also making plans for the future and having their whole lives in front of them. “I’m going to go to school and be such-n-such”, they would say. “That’s great, young man”, I would reply – and go back to sweeping the floor. What am I still doing here? I would wonder.

I’ve said that, during my two years working midnights at McDonald’s, I was basically alone. Being single, going nowhere, spinning my wheels and working overnight isolated me from people. The only good thing about being alone, I guess, is the time you’ve got. I used the time to start a novel. I wanted to write for a living. I had a novel in me so I wanted to write it and also began to think about a career in journalism. For this, I needed to go to school. For this, I needed money. Plans began to germinate in my head.

In November of 1996, I saw the movie “Swingers”. This got me a little excited about life again. I began to look forward to the time off I had booked around Christmas. I planned to get together with my friends and do life again – get out and get some kicks and try to scrape the rust off. But the holidays were a bust and that was a confirmation for me that everybody in my life was moving forward. They were either getting married and starting a family or they were getting together with their college friends, with whom they had much in common. And then there was me. I would say I was going in another direction – if I had’ve been moving at all.

As the new year began I knew something had to give. I looked into getting a student loan and got the paperwork together. Without knowing how such things worked, my plan was to get a loan, go to school, work at McDonald’s and write my novel. I had my loan application filled out and was going to mail it off when my mother invited me down to her place in Florida for a week. I left the loan application in my apartment with instructions for Saltarr, who was going to come in while I was gone and feed Reef, my cat. I asked him to mail it off for me mid-week.

In Florida, I got talking to my mom and step-father about my plans. My mother expressed concern that I would have the time to work on my novel when I was both going to school and working. She suggested I come to work at the trailer park they owned back in Canada and run the small diner they had started there. It would be mostly weekend work, I’d be living rent free and would have all the time in the world to write. It seemed monumental to me, leaving Kitchener. I’m not a big fan of change and this seemed huge. Living in a trailer and being the hot dog guy? I dunno, I said. Her argument was simple and effective: would it be worse than what I was doing now? By the end of the week, I had decided to quit McDonald’s and leave town. Huge. Huge for me. I wanted to play straight-up with McDonald’s so when I got back to town I went right in and handed in my resignation, giving them 9 weeks notice.

I channeled Lennon leaving the Beatles with my resignation. This confirms for me my start date of April 12th.

In the end, my last day would come a dozen days after my 9th anniversary. Big Ta wanted me to stay and hit the 10-year mark because he had already hit that milestone and we would get some award or have some dinner together. I don’t remember but they did something for you when you hit ten years. But it was not to be. Sometime during my last 9 weeks, I started to half-jokingly talk about my last shift. The day after that last shift, I was going to be packing and moving so I would have to get home and get a couple of hours sleep before all the action started. I knew my mind would be racing and I would have trouble falling asleep. I thought it would have taken a LOT of warm milk to do the trick and that thought terrified me (see Part 6). I started to make plans to take a six-pack into work with me on my last shift and drink it so I’d be able to crash when I got home. Thursday morning, at the end of my second-last shift, I was called in to the manager’s office. I was told that, in honour of my 9 years at McDonald’s, I was being given my last shift off with pay. It occurred to me at once that they were robbing me of my ‘victory lap’. Maybe they had caught wind of the plans I had for my last shift – which I likely wouldn’t have gone through with anyways – and thought it was worth it to them to pay me to stay home so I wouldn’t get up to any last-shift shenanigans. After growing from a kid to an adult at McDonald’s, in the end it was “business”. Cutthroat.

This didn’t sit well with me but I guess I couldn’t blame them. And I’m sure it wasn’t something they did just to me. If you’ve already quit, you’ve got nothing to lose; they didn’t want anything broken or stolen. At the very least they probably figured they weren’t going to get any work out of me that night (they were bang on) so why should they pay for that? I left the office, went into the men’s change room and scrawled “THE DREAM IS OVER” across four lockers. And I left.

Chronologically, this part of my life was immediately followed by the events depicted in my post “20th Anniversary of a Life-Changer”. ( Things changed pretty fast when I finally made the move. Inside of three months, I had a girlfriend that would become my wife and I had the job I’m still at twenty years later.

I would sit and regale all of the new people in my life with stories of my adventures under the Golden Arches and they would die laughing. My stories had new life! As I’ve grown older, I find I am a nostalgic person. Things of the past have a tremendous glow for me. This applies all the more to things of my own past. This goes for everything: music I used to listen to, movies I watched back then, streets I walked, people I knew… My time at McDonald’s looms large in my legend. When you think about it, I was there between the ages of 15 and 24. You know the amount of growing up you do between those ages?! And I did all that growing up while I was working at McDonald’s. It’s no wonder I feel about it the way I do. That lightness in your chest, that bittersweet feeling that comes over you when you think about a specific point in your past – I get that when I think of my days at McDonald’s. High school was never about groups of friends for me. McDonald’s was the source of all the hanging out, all the adventures, all the guys and all the girls. It was the home base.

“No vested monies” pretty well sums up 9 years at McDonald’s. “Monies will be forfeited”, indeed.

I have zero hard feelings toward the place. On the contrary, I’ve always said that young people can benefit greatly by having a first job like this. Work becomes a very serious thing as we get older – how wonderful to have a lightweight job like McDonald’s. Little is expected of you, low pressure, lots of kicks and socializing and good times. Maybe for some of you it’s been a while since your job included any of those things.

Funny – when I worked at McDonald’s, people would always say “Aren’t you sick of the food by now? I bet you don’t eat there anymore”. That would always confuse me. No, I would say, I’ve got no problem with the food. I never did get tired of eating there. And I never get tired of reminiscing about the place.

Thanks so much for sharing my memories with me. It has been a blast!



Memories of McDonald’s Part Six: Chris and I

April 12th of this year will mark the 30th anniversary of the day I got my first job. During my 9 years at McDonald’s, I accumulated some great memories that I think are humourous and ridiculous enough to share with all of you. I hope you enjoy this series.

We used to say that there were a lot of “legends in McDonaldian folklore” but very few ‘living legends’. ‘Living legend’ tended to refer to someone who had been through the wars in some way but was still working there. I was a living legend. After being on the outs for fourteen months with store manger Diane over the freezer key incident (see part 3) and after watching all my friends leave for better jobs and finding myself an old man of 20 working with 16-year-old’s, I was referred to as a ‘living legend’ (by myself mostly). Chris was another living legend.

Chris (1)

One of the first times I ever heard about Chris was when he was off on a leave of absence. Rumours were flying about what had happened to him but it was generally understood that Chris had his struggles, the effects of which required him to take regular medication. Unfortunately, taking these meds would often leave him in desperate need of sleep by shift’s end.

Due to his condition or not, he was also very particular about his job. He sometimes appeared somewhat groggy at the start of his shift at 11 pm and he would just put his head down and work. Other times, though, he was very animated, talking and laughing with the kids closing (Chris was in his 30’s) and going like a madman. “Can’t talk, I’m behind!”, became a running joke with him. He always felt like he was running behind and had to go, go, go to catch up. One night, he half-jokingly said to Manager Julie “I’m a little behind” and bent down to work on something. Julie, looking quickly away from Chris’ ‘plumber’s crack’, quipped “a little behind?!”. Us guys joined in: “Hey, Chris! That’s a good place for my broom. Here, hold this!”.

I got to know Chris and learned he was a great guy. We would talk music a lot. We loved the same type of music and his folks had been born in Liverpool so we had the Beatles in common. We would smoke out on the patio together sometimes. He was particular in his job which teen-aged kids often could not understand. They’d be telling him to slow down and relax, don’t be grumpy but what kids in general don’t realize is that when you do the same job night after night you come to have a ‘way’ and anything that gets in the way of doing your job is a speed bump, a hassle. So he was pretty particular and his meds would do a number on him sometimes but generally he was the placid, likable guy working on one of the fryers with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth.

I think I was about 22 years old and living on my own. I worked part time at McDonald’s with 16-year-old’s and part time at a department store with 50-year-old’s. I wore a suit and sold lamps and rugs – basically the opposite of McDonald’s. When I got fired from the department store, I asked McDonald’s if they could up my hours. I had to go full time there now. Even with the two jobs, I once added up my income and expenses and found I was below the technical definition of the ‘poverty line’. They were good enough to give me more hours and eventually I found myself with a regular shift during the day. My buddy, Hash Man, also had one at that time and we would spend the day setting traps for each other, pranking each other. When one of us would inadvertently grab a knife that had pizza sauce all over the handle, the other would yell “sabotage!!” Then the full time midnights position of maintenance came open and they offered it to me. This meant I’d be working overnight, Sunday night to Thursday night, locked in the place every night with my buddy, Chris. It’s a big change in your life, going to midnights, but I needed the money so I accepted. I had been a part-timer for 7 years which gave me top seniority among all the part-timers there. I was never going to be a manager so all I had was my tenure – to this day I tend to respect longevity over a person’s position in a company.

I got a new uniform which at that time was a sharp looking deep red colored button up shirt and blue work pants. The pants came ‘one length fits all’ and they were super long. One night before work, I was standing back by the upstairs office and grabbed an exacto knife. I lifted one foot and cut the pant leg to size, then did the other one. Some of the kids working that night laughed and shook their heads – they had a story now about the ‘living legend’. I went to the bargain store and bought the cheapest velcro running shoes they had. Black, had to be black. They were lame but I didn’t care; they were for work. This new position also came with enrollment in the benefits package. This was amazing – I hadn’t had any sort of medical coverage for a few years. There was at that time four different levels of coverage you could sign up for. The biggest and most expensive provided coverage for families and the lowest was very basic. I signed up for one of the ones in the middle. They were called, seriously, The Big Mac Plan, The Quarter Pounder Plan, The Hamburger Plan and The Fry Plan. We would joke that I took The Orange Drink Plan – one glass of that gross orange beverage per shift. Now I was a ‘full-timer’.

A quick personal note: the years I worked midnights at McDonald’s were years I spent alone. At least that’s how I remember them. My friends were going to college, spending time with girlfriends, working other jobs and generally being awake and active in the daytime and sleeping at night. Everything about me was the opposite. Pretty much a dead end job (the pay raise to full-time bumped me up to $9-something an hour) that I would walk to in the darkness and walk home from in the darkness. I remember walking to work on a Sunday night past people’s homes with lights on in the living room thinking how everyone is settling down for a relaxing Sunday night after a weekend and getting ready for another work week. While this niceness was going on, I was walking to McDonald’s where I would sweep and mop the floor. Friday mornings I would be determined to have a normal weekend which entailed abruptly reversing my sleep habits which of course is hard. Before leaving work in the morning I would nuke up a small container of milk and drink it warm to help me sleep. I would often have to hold my nose to drink it – and often have to run home to get on the toilet, it would have that effect on me. I would try to sleep during the day Friday, get up around 2 or 3 and try to function. Didn’t always work. And most times I’d come home from work Friday morning and wouldn’t see anybody – except my cat, Reef, – until going back to work Sunday night. I would say, only half-jokingly, that I could die one Friday morning (maybe from the warm milk) and no one would know until I didn’t show up for work on Sunday. On the bright side, I quit smoking while on midnights. My body must have been so messed up that smoking suddenly became repugnant to me – it ‘tasted’ different’ – so I abruptly quit after only six years as a smoker.

Chris and I became co-workers and good buddies. I would go into work Sunday night never sure of the mood he’d be in. Chris was in the same boat I was in when it came to sleep on the weekends. If he’d managed his sleep well enough over the last two days, he’d be his normal jovial self. Much the same as me, really. We’d get to work and go hard until the closers left. Now, to get anything even remotely negative out of the way, yes; we both got on each others nerves sometimes. I remember thinking at the time and later on in life that you can be great friends with someone but the real test is to be locked in a building all night alone with that person. So, yeah, sometimes we got frustrated with each other but generally things were great.

We both got to be very good at our jobs, as one would expect. Chris had been doing his job for years and could do it in his sleep – as he often did. My job was a lot less challenging and required a lot less knowledge and skills than Chris’ did. The most advanced piece of machinery I used was that dust pan with the long handle. If I was ever asked to fix something I would always say “My job is ‘maintenance’ as in ‘cleaning’ not ‘maintenance’ as in ‘fixing'”. But I got in to a routine and could work swiftly and effectively. It helped that by this time I had learned to use a plunger (see Part Five). Mopping for Chris and I became an artistic expression. The way you wielded the mop could be graceful – “like Fred Astaire” I would say. (The kids would say “who?”) We had learned the ‘deep cuts’ of mopping like gathering debris you had not picked up with the broom and we were particular about our mop heads – the ends definitely had to be tied and not loose. One morning years earlier, shortly after I started at McDonald’s, I was out mopping the deck. My dad stopped by to see how I was doing. He watched me mop, awkwardly moving the mop forwards and backwards. He took the mop off me and showed me the proper way, swinging it from side to side. Years later when I began working in the auto industry I took great delight in mopping the floors of the plant. I would joke “you can take the boy out of McDonald’s but you can’t take the McDonald’s out of the boy”. Once when I was asked to mop I said ‘sure’ and made a big deal of how McDonald’s had made me a master mopper. My supervisors snickered and stood there watching me. After a few minutes I heard one turn to the other and say “That is how you mop, though. For sure”.

Chris and I eventually got things so wired that we would bust our humps for a few hours and then be able to sit down and take a break. Sometimes, a long one. I can still see us sitting in that two-person booth. One time, we spent that break watching “American Graffiti” in the crew room, using the VCR that was there to play training videos. Generally what we did though was read the newspaper. Well, I would read the paper to Chris. Toronto has several different newspapers but the most upscale one is the Globe and Mail. They had a section of their paper that they called “Social Studies”. It was a short segment that shared trivia and bits of information that would get Chris and I talking and our imaginations working. We were regularly in tears laughing. On a more somber note, we found the obituaries equally fascinating. “Gary Wells’ Death Watch”, we called it. The affluent nature of the paper meant that those that were memorialized in this section had been in life respected members of society: war veterans, inventors, politicians, business men and the like. It made for great reading.

Often, after reading the paper, Chris and I would play some Tray Ball. I would get out our tennis ball and we would knock it back and forth, tennis style, in the lobby. A call of “game on” would get the game started and any breaks in play were announced with a “game off”. Sometimes – as we were both still little boys, really – the play would get heated. One night, I think it was me that struck a particularly cracking blow that sent the ball hurtling towards a framed picture hanging in the lobby. Sure enough, the glass of the picture frame broke. “Game off!!”, Chris yelled. We were both thinking fast, though, and simply removed all of the glass – Chris cut himself – and threw it out, leaving a perfectly fine looking picture of a vase with flowers in it. Only a close look and some hard pondering would cause anyone to realize that something was different about the picture: there was no glass. No one ever noticed.

Now, I’m not sure what the statute of limitations would be here but… Every now and then – not always – we would have ourselves a little snack. It wasn’t common practice but sometimes trays of hamburger buns were left out, stacked for the next days’ use. And, sometimes, conscientious closers would do the openers a solid and have the peanut butter and jam packages already out and ready for the morning. And…sometimes…Chris and I would have us a couple of peanut butter and jam sandwiches. Sometimes. What happened ALL the time, though, was I would eat a free meal before and after my shift. Remember, I was living on my own at the time and any free meal was a real bonus. It was common practice for managers to allow overnight workers to have a free meal. When I got into work around 10:30, the closing manager was cool enough to let me have a free meal. When I was done for the day at 7am, Lisa, the opening manager, let me have a free meal as well. So, for two years, I ate at McDonald’s 10 times a week.

At work, we would blast the radio all night. I was introduced to a couple of great songs I had never heard before but Chris had. “Taxi” by Harry Chapin, I had to ask him what song it was. (“‘Harry, keep the change!'”, Chris would holler) And when I heard the greatest REO Speedwagon song ever – “Roll With the Changes” – Chris had to identify it for me. We would say goodbye to each other as we left the store in the morning, often joking that we were that dog and coyote from the Warner Bros. cartoon: “G’night, George”, he’d say. “Good night, Ralph”, I’d reply. We both lived 5 minutes from the store and we walked home. Some mornings, I’d be unlocking my apartment door and the phone would be ringing. It would be Chris, with more to say. Chris and I hung out together on the outside. We listened to classic rock and drank Canadian Club. Our birthdays were a day apart. I remember going over to his apartment on a Saturday night, sitting around a bit and then heading to Kelsey’s. I was in on things when he bought the first car he’d owned in awhile. I shared his happiness when he met Peggy.

When I finally decided to leave both McDonald’s and Kitchener, Chris and I were unemotional about our parting. Of course. Shortly after I left town, Chris and Peggy decided to get married. I have to admit, I never thought this would happen to Chris. He and Peg were kind enough to invite me to their wedding, which I attended with my new girlfriend, Andrea, who would eventually become my wife. This provided me with a unique opportunity to introduce Andrea to my old friends. My adult life has had two separate acts; my time spent single in Kitchener and everything that came after I moved away: marriage, kids, the real stuff. When I reminisce about the old days, my wife can only imagine the lunacy I describe. But Chris she met, she was at his wedding with me. The fact that Andrea met Chris and Peggy strengthens my connection with my old buddy. Also at Chris’ wedding was Becky Ruby, my buddy, Ruby’s, kid sister I mentioned in Part Two. Andrea met Becky and liked her almost as much as I did. As a result, Becky’s untimely death affected my wife, as well. I was thrilled to be invited to Chris and Peggy’s wedding and was glad Andrea shared it with me. It was nice for me to know that, going forward, I could share memories of Chris with Andrea.

The memory of my two years spent working with Chris came flooding back again a few years ago when I heard that Chris had passed away. I think it was Hash Man who told me in a text. Needless to say, I was shocked and saddened. I searched for Peggy on Facebook and found her. I was again shocked to see that Chris had had children, two little girls. At first, this made me feel worse; now there was not just a widow but there were two kids with no father. However, writing this post has actually helped me feel better. The way Chris was when I knew him, he was like me. An unfulfilling job, no significant other to share life with, living almost incognito, working midnights and being somewhat out of touch with friends and family and the general pursuit of the joy of living. Then when he met Peggy – and here I’ll begin to make assumptions – things began to change. His crappy job seemed not so bad. Everything in his life began to shine a little brighter. Nothing was all that bad now, actually. Getting married, I know, is not for everybody but Chris finding love and becoming a husband gave his life new meaning and purpose. A point. Having two children, even more so. In the end, he and I both were regular Joes with not much going for us, saved by good women. You may say that having had a family makes his passing even sadder but I think it reveals the footprint he left behind, the legacy.

If he had passed away without ever meeting Peggy or having kids, then, yes, there would have been three less people to feel sadness and mourn his passing. And yet the way it happened, he left behind a woman and two girls that will always cherish his memory. Maybe his girls will get married one day and have kids themselves. And so on. Because of Chris. I miss him, as a lot of people do. Chris’ story reminds me that life is beautiful. Even when it’s sad.

Chris (2)


Next Up: The Dream Is Over…

Memories of McDonald’s Part Five: The Toilet


April 12th of this year will mark the 30th anniversary of the day I got my first job. During my 9 years at McDonald’s, I accumulated some great memories that I think are humourous and ridiculous enough to share with all of you. I hope you enjoy this series.

I’ve said before that us kids worked evenings and weekends. There were many full-time adults that worked every morning and overnight. Lisa was the opening manager. She was pleasant but we used to heckle her mercilessly. I won’t be mean and get into it here. I’ve mentioned Dolly who had been there longer than the building itself. Pat was a sort of den mother. She was a wonderful lady, one of those workers who could and did do everything and basically ran the store while Lisa counted the money and answered the phone. Thing about Pat, though, was that she was cool. She liked me and the rest of us kids and got a kick out of our antics. When I said something real stupid, though – inappropriate – she would let me know it. Her daughter – another Lisa – was our age and worked there, too. Lisa and I dated a few times and I would joke with Pat about joining her family. This, no doubt, frightened her.

There were two positions back in that day for full-time, overnight workers. One was ‘close/open’ and one was ‘maintenance’. Our ‘close/opener’ was the living legend, Chris Coffey – more about him later. The maintenance position was held by a variety of people during my time there. The close/opener dealt with the machines. He had to empty all of the fryers, the ice cream machine and the milkshake machine, clean them thoroughly and then put them back together, filling them with fresh oil or milk product. The maintenance job was sweeping and mopping the lobby, cleaning windows, etc. You were cool if you were a part-time teenager who would work one of these two shifts on the weekends. When I first started working there it was this interesting and mysterious thing. You’d start at 11:00 pm on a Friday and/or Saturday night. Often you’d come in a bit early to shoot the breeze and flirt with the closers and then, after the store closed, everyone would leave, the closing manager would say “good night” and he or she would lock the door and go home. So, the two guys working overnight would be locked in all night alone until the opening manager arrived around 5:00 am.

I started working the maintenance shift on the weekends and it seemed like you were doing different, more serious work then just making burgers or serving customers – plus you got paid more for it, a shift premium. Once the store closed, one of the overnight workers would get some tunes out and blast them while the closers worked, cleaning up and putting away before they went home. It was a fun, loose time. I’ll never forget one night when I was closing and Saltarr was working overnight. He was into different music than I was and one song he played that night was “Political” by Spirit of the West. I was so taken with it and it’s energy that I asked him to play it over and over and he did.

There was always stories about what went on at night when everyone went home – did any work get done? The full-timers were good workers; it was their job and their lives so, yeah, they did good work. The kids on the weekends, though? The opening manager always had to check their work before they got to go home so it had to look half decent, at least. There was one crazy, mysterious guy named Burt. He was a rough white guy that hung out with a gang of Chinese guys. Burt would come in on the weekends to do close/open and all he would do all night was crank “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns ‘n’ Roses and dance up on the counter. Before the opening manager would show up, he would wipe down all the machines – so they were shining, yes, but otherwise they hadn’t been touched. Me, I would wear the different puke-brown McD’s maintenance shirt with my ‘Eddie’ name tag on and get down and do some good work.

One summer, the full-time maintenance guy went on holidays. His last name was Zondervan and we called him ‘Zondie’. He was an older guy and I remember once he yelled at us “my name is not ‘Zondie’!!”. Anyways, Zondie went on holidays and they asked me to work his shift for three days. It was good money and school was out so I said sure. Chris and I always got along so that part was great. Chris always put his head down and worked so I would, too. The first night I went in to the men’s bathroom in the lobby. Now, cleaning the lobby bathrooms, as you can probably imagine, was one of the less attractive parts of the job. I was surprised to learn over time that the women’s bathroom was often more disgusting than the men’s. Of course, one time in the men’s bathroom I found a pair of children’s underwear loaded with excrement. It was gross but we had a good laugh trying to imagine some poor slob going in there with his kid who had crapped himself! Much to my chagrin on this first night of working maintenance, I found the men’s toilet plugged up. No water in the bowl just paper and other mess. Now, here’s a key part of this story, the part that is perhaps hardest to believe. At this point, I was in my late teens and living at home and, in my life, I had never used a plunger before. On this night, grabbing a plunger and letting it do it’s magic work never occurred to me. If it had, though, I wouldn’t have this story.

I had been anticipating a fun week and now I was frustrated over this blemish. I pondered what to do. The answer at once became obvious to me as it has just become obvious to you: I grabbed a pair of tongs from the kitchen. These tongs were normally used to take the McChicken patties out of the warming drawer and put them onto the buns. I took the tongs into the bathroom and used them to remove the contents of the toilet bowl. This left nothing in the bowl; no water, nothing. I poured a bucket of water into the bowl. Fixed! I threw out my garbage bag of ‘mess’ and then I considered the tongs. My brain was really working this night and soon I had it; I would sterilize them and put them back in use. I filled a tin with warm – warm – water and let the tongs soak the rest of the night. My thinking was that there were two or three pairs of tongs in the kitchen and, chances were, these tongs may not even get used. Talk about a gamble. In the morning, I put the ‘sterile’ tongs back in the back area.

Come the third night of my three-night week, I dreaded the time I’d have to go into the bathroom and check on the toilet. This night, sure enough, it was still clogged up and filled with all manner of grossness. The first two nights I kept thinking that somebody, surely, would complain during the day and it would get fixed. But, no, it was up to me again. I may have been feeling a bit, well, off about using the tongs so I racked my brain for another way. Then, I had it. I went downstairs to the storeroom and grabbed our ShopVac. I knew it was a ‘wet/dry’ ShopVac so I knew it would work; I’d suck out all the junk and clean up the bowl nice and run for the hills. Let the next guy that tried to flush it worry about it. Why’d this have to happen on my watch, anyways? By the middle of the night, I had a clean, empty toilet bowl and a ShopVac full of excrement, which I threw in the back room to deal with in the morning.

Morning came and I was ready to go home. This working ‘full time’ (this was, after all, the first time I had worked 8-hour shifts on consecutive days) was for the birds. Then I remembered the PoopVac. I was so fed up with this ‘crap’ by now that I decided to just hide it. I had made a lot of mistakes this week but this was my fatal one. Looking back, I find it hard to believe that I was actually going to hide a ShopVac full of feces downstairs somewhere. Follow me, now: I have the ShopVac at the top of the stairs. I lift it by the handle on the top of the motor, not the two handles on either side of the canister. I lift it up to carry it downstairs and – no word of a lie – I’m on the first step when the canister lets go. I’m left holding this ShopVac motor in my two hands as I watch this thing bounce down fifteen steps, spilling it’s contents all over the stairwell. The canister lands on the floor below where a pool of feces, urine and used toilet paper starts to form.

Panic? Yeah. You could say that. I start grabbing mops and rags and start wiping and mopping, throwing out rags and mop heads as soon as they become disgusting – which is awfully fast. This mess covers not only the floor at the foot of the stairs but each and every step and the walls of the stairwell. It doesn’t take long for Opening Manager Lisa to walk slowly to the top of steps with her hand over her mouth and nose. “Gary, what is that smell?” “Well, I had a bit of a spill”. She tells me the smell is starting to drift out into the lobby and the old guys that drink coffee there every morning are starting to make faces. I continue to frantically wipe and mop, gagging as I go. Now my jeans have become covered in crap. I figure I need to get some more new rags, a bucket of boiling water and some soap but this takes time. To mask the smell, I grab some cans of bug spray and start spraying the staircase and basement. Now, this smell proves to be no better and even toxic, to boot. Now Lisa is in a panic, saying the customers are choking on this bug spray. Well, I open a door, I turn on a fan – I mean, I have no idea what to do except keep cleaning like a madman!

In the end, the smells dissipate. I’ve had to throw out countless rags, mop heads and one floor mat. I get out of there two hours late. I get home and throw my poop-stained jeans in the wash – by themselves – with some bleach. They come out with a few new holes and that cool, white-and-blue bleached look and they become my ‘maintenance pants’. What an ordeal and what a story I have to tell – I am very popular at work the next week or so. Looking back, I can’t believe the number of stupid things I did that week. Well, at least ‘nobody died’. Not that I know of, anyways.


Next Up: Chris and I……..

The Guinea Worm

Like all of you, lately I’ve been listening to “The Pirate History Podcast”. As far as I can see, it is the world’s only regularly occurring, current podcast devoted to the history of privateers and their adventures on the high seas, predominantly in the 17th century. I was surprised to find that it is not at all childish, comedic or overly sensational but is meticulously researched and delivered in a low key format, erudite, with a wealth of interesting information. You can find the pod on iTunes or simply Google “The Pirate History Podcast” and head to their website. (

I was listening to Episode 61: “More Willful and Less Under Command” that dropped on March 24th. This episode dealt with the aftermath of the English Pacific Adventure in 1682 and the ships that embarked on a new adventure at sea. It talks specifically about one William Dampier, an English privateer, explorer and navigator who became the first Englishman to explore parts of what is today Australia. He was the first person to circumnavigate the globe three times and wrote “A New Voyage ‘Round the World”, a ‘sensational’ book from 1697 that was made up of his diaries documenting his first circumnavigation.

In 2006, Dampier got his own stamp in Ecuador.

Episode 61 speaks of Dampier retiring to the English colony of Virginia. The in-depth podcast talks of Dampier and other Englishmen living idly, in modest luxury, but wonders why Dampier didn’t go home to England to be with his wife. Turns out Dampier was ill. Here’s where my ears really perked up – and my stomach turned.

I’ll quote the podcast: “He did discover a strange, string-like growth coming out of his leg. He correctly identified it as a Guinea Worm, and spent weeks slowly spooling it around a stick and slowly drawing it out of his flesh”. Say what, now? This I had to look up.

Turns out Dracunculus medinensis is a thing. Also called the Guinea worm, derived from the Guinea region of Africa, it’s a nematode, the female of which causes the disease and can be as long as 31 inches. The larvae are found in fresh water and can be ingested by humans. The male and female nematodes reproduce in the stomach of the “host” and settle in the intestine. The male dies and the female settles just under the skin. One year later, the infected person notices a blister, usually on the lower extremities but sometimes on the hand or scrotum. Then the blister ruptures and the female slowly emerges from the skin! Like, barf. You know how hard it is to type that?

While you are experiencing intense pain and irritation, you need to begin to remove this thing from your body. You submerge the affected body part in water then slowly coax the worm out. Sure enough, as the Pirate History Podcast says, the way to do this is to get it wrapped around a stick – are you picturing this?! – and gently pull. Gently – you don’t want to break it off and have to start again. This extraction process can take several days! The idea of a worm wrapped around a stick is thought to be behind the symbol of medicine, the Rod of Aclepius.
I was going to share a picture of a Guinea worm but I just couldn’t.

There’s good news, though. The Guinea worm is thought to be nearly eradicated and still only exists in African regions such as the Congo, Angola, Ethiopia and others. In 1986, there were 3.5 million cases reported in 16 countries but last year there were only 30 cases reported in 2 countries.

I just figured you guys would like to know about the Guinea worm – if I can’t ‘unknow’ this, why should you get off? Think about it next time you’re out swimming. 


Memories of McDonald’s Part Four: Nobody Died


April 12th of this year will mark the 30th anniversary of the day I got my first job. During my 9 years at McDonald’s, I accumulated some great memories that I think are humourous and ridiculous enough to share with all of you. I hope you enjoy this series.

Working at McDonald’s throughout my teens was certainly an education in many, many ways. One of the most striking things I learned was that people will eat anything. Especially from McDonald’s.

Once I recall the store I worked at was repaving the parking lot. The exit was blocked and cars had only one way to enter and exit. I was working over supper that day and felt confident we’d have an easy shift. When it turned out to be crazy busy like any other shift it was eye-opening. “We could build a wall around this place”, I quipped “and people would still find a way to get in”.

Something certainly was lost when they came up with the clamshell grill. A large lid came down covering the patties on the grill. When they were done, the lid would pop open. Gone was the artistry of the ‘turn/lay’ (see part Three). I was also surprised to see microwaves show up in the back area. The way it was explained to us was that if the food a customer received was very hot, it was assumed to be good. Like, really? Well, what did we know? The new methods also included warming ovens. We would run a set of patties and put them in the warming oven. When an order came through, we’d grab a patty, dress a bun and throw the sandwich in the nuker. This technique removed the last remnants of style in the back area. Also, many things began to come to us pre-made like scrambled eggs and hotcakes.

It should come as no surprise that eating at McDonald’s is not the healthiest way to go. Even under the best circumstances. Then you have to factor in the idea that it’s carefree, young people that are preparing this food when really they would be hard-pressed to make toast at home. You could also say that eating fast food late at night is unhealthy. I can confirm that ordering 20 McNuggets at 1:45am on a Saturday night at Highland Road McDonald’s in the late 1980’s was VERY hazardous to your health. Keep in mind that a good ‘closer’ gradually goes down to the bare bones as the shift progresses so that, ideally, when the sign gets turned off and the store is closed, you’ve already got most things put away and the place clean so that you can get out of there as soon as possible. I remember one shift early on in my career when I was closing with my good friend Steve who I mentioned in Part Two. We had minimal food left in the back area near the end of the shift when some joker orders 20 nuggets. Steve curses and rips open the drawer where the cooked nuggets are kept. The count came to 19. I was still rookie enough to wonder aloud if we had to drop (cook) a whole bag of nuggets just because we were short one. Suddenly, Steve gets down on one knee and looks underneath the fryers. Smiling, he jumps back up with a nugget he found that’s been on the floor under the fryer for who knows how long. As I slowly open my mouth, he drops it in the vat to heat it up a little, adds it to it’s 19 more edible brethren and serves it up. As I look at him in admiration, he utters the legendary phrase: “that’s what you get when you order 20 nuggets at closing time”.

IMG_0003 (2)
My legendary 6-year streak of never achieving “Employee of the Month” came to an end in 1994.

There was another close I recall during the pizza era. Once again, it was getting late and we had most everything put away. An order came through for a personal pepperoni pizza. OK, that’s cool; I’ve got one left sitting in the big walk-in fridge at the back. I open the fridge door and push aside the heavy, clear plastic strips of curtain that hang just inside the door. I grab the personal pep and turn, parting the strips to get back out of the fridge. One of the strips knocks the pizza out of my hands and on to the floor. The customer is waiting, we’re just about closed. ALL the pizza shells, sauces and toppings are neatly put away. The clock is ticking…so I gather up the fallen shredded cheese and pepperoni by sliding the edge of my hand along the floor – also gathering up anything else that may be on the floor – and arrange it neatly on the pizza shell. I throw the rescued pizza in the oven but I’m shaking my head at this one. I serve it up and it goes out to the customer who apparently lives after eating it. I justify it to myself with another bon mot that will get a lot of mileage over the years: “Hey, we mopped that floor yesterday. It was pretty clean”.

Even my shoes were legendary. Workers were required to wear a black casual shoe. As a teenager, I never owned anything but runners so acquiring these shoes was always sketchy. To keep costs down, most of us would buy cheap casual shoes from dollar stores. Of course, these wouldn’t last long and you’d constantly be having to replace your shoes. I inherited a solid pair from a departing co-worker, I think, and decided they would last me forever. As they began to take on the dirt and food stains of many back area shifts, not cleaning them became a thing with me. (I remember the same went for our ties in that era. Managers would finally look at them in horror and get us new ones) I mentioned earlier about the ‘back area rodeo’ – the art of being stylish with your spatulas while cooking. There was also the fine art of back area ‘hacky sack’. If a patty should fall to the floor, we became adept at sticking out our shoes to catch it before it hit the floor. A few times we would kick the patty two or three times trying to keep it off the floor until finally it disintegrated and was (usually) deemed unservable. Over time, my shoes became disgustingly filthy, something I wore like a badge of honour. Once, I dropped a patty and caught it on my shoe. I told the manager: “It’s OK. It landed on my shoe”, to which the manager replied “I’ve seen your shoes. I’d rather it fell on the floor”.

In the days of the ‘turn/lay’, before the clamshell grill came long, if you forgot to turn the patties at the appointed time, eventually the grease floating on the patties would actually acquire a greenish tinge. No sweat: you’d just turn them over to brown them up a little and away they go.

Once I was working a breakfast shift. It was back in the days of the hotcake mix. We would add water and mix it up in a big bowl. As I poured a couple of bags of mix in the bowl, I was taken by how fine it was. I stuck a hand in to more fully enjoy it’s velvety consistency. When I had both hands wrist-deep in hotcake mix, the district supervisor happened to stroll by. He looks at me bewildered and says “Hey, Gary. What are you doing?” Always a fast thinker, I come up with the brilliant “Uhhhh, I dropped my ring in here”. Big Shot accepted that but he must’ve been distracted; an unfound ring in the hotcake mix – a ring you’re not supposed to be wearing in the kitchen to begin with – could be cause for concern. Much worse than some kid’s grubby hands feeling up the hotcake mix.

Let’s face it: you go into a restaurant and use cutlery that’s been used by a thousand people. You spend the night in a hotel and walk on a rug and sleep under sheets that have known many bodies. Experts say we inadvertently eat several hundred bugs over the course of our lives. Unless you go around wearing latex gloves or never even leave your house, you’re going to run into some less-than-hygienic conditions. We served some substandard food MANY more times than we ever got complaints. Actually, I don’t remember ever getting taken aside and being told someone got a green nugget. This just encouraged us to carry on as we were. “Fast OR good”, we would say, “not both”. Anytime we thought back on some of the stuff we served, we would just shrug and say “Well, nobody died”.

The closest I ever came to killing somebody at McDonald’s had nothing to do with the kitchen.

Up Next: The Toilet……………..


Memories of McDonald’s Part Three: A Legend in My Own Mind


April 12th of this year will mark the 30th anniversary of the day I got my first job. During my 9 years at McDonald’s, I accumulated some great memories that I think are humourous and ridiculous enough to share with all of you. I hope you enjoy this series.

OK, a quick, serious disclaimer. I do not suffer from delusions of grandeur. Those who know me personally know this. Those who don’t may think I have a pretty high opinion of myself. When I say that I “ran” Highland Road McDonald’s in the late ’80’s and early ’90’s, I don’t mean to say that I was actually in charge. And, sure, some people didn’t like me. But, generally speaking, I was a popular, well-liked person. Being extroverted – at this time and place – helped. I used to joke that I was “MC-ing this event” – meaning I liked to joke around and run my mouth. Hang out with the girl managers while they counted the money at the back, shoot the breeze with everybody and hang out in the drive thru area. It also helped my visibility that I invented stuff – funny riffs about customers or the food we served and generally joking about the work we did – the cool stuff you could have fun with and the lame stuff that you had to poke fun at. That made, I think, for a fun environment in the back area – even when the heat was on.

IMG_0002 (2)
For some reason, I grabbed this report from early 1990. A lot of names that bring back a lot of memories.

In the beginning, being chosen to work “grill’ was an honour. You were the one who had to keep the patties cooking which obviously was very important. It was particularly important to be fast during lunch or supper and all the more so when we would hear the dreaded call from up front: “Bus!” If a large group or a sports team, etc. pulled in in a school bus you knew you were about to get killed. It would be time for a “sear/lay”.  The way it worked back then was whoever had the job of calling for food would decide how much to tell you to make. We in the back area would lay the patties on the grill and press the timer. The first timer alarm would tell you when to sear the meat with a flat, heavy sear tool. The next alert told you when to turn the patty and the final buzzer told you when to remove the patty and place it on the bun – which had already been toasted (or ‘carmelized’) and dressed by another associate. Lower volume called for the guy working grill to lay another dozen patties down after the first set had been taken off. Higher volume called for a second set of patties to be laid after the first set was turned – a “turn/lay”. The most extreme of all ‘runs’ was the “sear/lay”. The communication between the back area and the person up front “calling bin” was always fun and good for a laugh. If you missed a call you would shout “Recall?!” Eventually, even out in the street, if I didn’t hear what someone had said, instead of “pardon?”, I would say “recall?” Later in life I was working in the auto industry. This habit didn’t go over too well. I was informed early on that we never used the word “recall” while making car parts.

Highland Road was shy one sear tool when I added this baby to the archives. I’ve still got it.

It was a great feeling when everyone was working smoothly together to “thin the herd” over supper. Working ‘grill’ was the driver’s seat. If the guy there was good, he had a style all his own. I was one of the best and when I walked on the floor for my shift, anybody near the grill slowly backed away. Some of us had our own spatulas and learning to wield them in an efficient and stylish manner we referred to as ‘back area rodeo’: spinning the spatula and tossing it in the air, Tom Cruise in “Cocktail” style. Sometimes for a laugh we’d go overboard and see what else in the kitchen we could throw in the air. The guy dressing the buns also had a job perfect for artistic expression. We were constantly trying to devise ways to dress the buns faster which resulted in occasional messes. There was a flair to such things as changing the tube of Mac Sauce in the gun. And we would all grin any time an order came back for a sandwich with extra everything – it was a licence to load those buns so full it was almost disgusting.

I have so many great snapshots in my head of good times in the back area. Once in the early days I was working fries. The timer went off and a batch was done so I lifted the basket out of the hot oil. A manager was working on one of the fry timers and was kneeling between me and the place we dumped the fries. Using my ingenuity, I simply worked my way around him, lifting the basket of fries over his head. Of course, burning hot fry oil dripped down on him. I remember him stalking away silently despite the incredible pain he must’ve been in.

I burned myself badly a couple of times. Once, in front of the grill, I slipped on a pickle and to hold myself up put my hand down on the grill. The worst was when a toaster I was cleaning closed on me. From my palm right up my forearm began to bubble pretty quickly despite me slamming a bag of frozen french fries down on it. I had to go to the walk-in clinic for that. I’ve still got the scars. I was wrapped up from hand to elbow and got stuck working drive-thru for a while. One customer saw me and said “you break your arm and they don’t give you no time off?!” I replied “I know, eh? I tried to tell them I couldn’t work but they shove me in drive thru!” A manager standing nearby started tripping and said “No, no! That’s not true, sir, that’s not true…”

Sometimes a small group of us would work “Brower”. Martin-Brower was the name of the company that delivered our supplies once a week. Often, the truck would be scheduled to come early in the morning before the store opened. We would arrive in the dark, before school, and get ready for the truck to arrive. When it did, the rollers had to be set up that would begin at the door of the truck and end at the top of the stairs going to the basement. Along the stairs to the basement there was a heavy wooden ramp that would drop down from the wall where it was attached and would cover the stairs for the boxes to slide down on. We would get really amped up for this. The driver would start the boxes down the rollers and there would be someone working the top of the stairs, sending the boxes  down the ramp. Then there was someone at the foot of the stairs feeding the boxes into the guy working in the freezer. We would scream ridiculous things like “C’mon, Bennett!! Let’s party!!” (a Schwarzenegger line from “Commando”) to get ourselves pumped up. There was one driver who somehow got offended and apparently complained afterwards. I even made a playlist (mixed tape) to play while we did Brower, starting with Ram Jam’s “Black Betty”. Years later, many of us recalled this tune as a “Brower song”. Once, Saltarr was working in the freezer but had an asthma attack. We heckled him for breaking down. Because kids. Some generous managers would let us make ourselves some breakfast as the sun rose and the store opened.

Some pin we got from Martin-Brower because we were the best Brower crew in history.

My buds and I got our kicks, for sure. We were irreverent and unorthodox. We would joke that when a district supervisor came in for a tour, our managers didn’t want us to be there in the back area laughing and shouting and throwing our spatulas in the air with the grease flying off of them. However, when two buses came in and the lobby was jammed with people ordering food, we were EXACTLY who they wanted there.

I’ll never forget the night pizza was launched at McDonald’s. Newspaper and radio ads spread the news that pizza was being introduced and it was FREE! Area supervisors were there to see things went smoothly. It was a big, prestigious event. Who would get the call to prepare the pizzas and work the ovens? Just about everybody got the call, actually – we would be VERY busy – free pizza, and all – so it was all hands on deck. Also needed were two shlubs to work in the back area, ready to make hamburgers should anyone be foolish enough to order and pay for a Big Mac when the pizza was free. Who were these two losers? Myself and Big Ta. The two of us had been at the store longer than any other part-timers and we were the best there was – but we were rebels who didn’t toe the line. We stood in the back area that night and didn’t make a single burger. We just watched the action by the pizza oven.

The pizza, though short-lived, was actually good. However, I guess it could be confusing. I was working drive thru once and a customer ordered a bacon double cheeseburger. As this was not something we had at that time, I was confused until I realized he was looking at the pizza portion of the menu. Bacon double cheeseburger is a pizza we offer, I informed him. Oh, no thanks, he replied. I’ll have the bacon double cheeseburger. This went on for a few more minutes until I finally yelled “It’s a pizza, man!!”. Often we would go in when we weren’t working and order a pizza, eat it and play Crazy Eights in the lobby for hours. We liked it, hanging out and shooting the breeze with our friends that were working. People that didn’t work there couldn’t understand us wanting to hang out there but we liked it. Of course, I do remember one Saturday night hanging out in the lobby when the frazzled closing manger suddenly appeared and asked me to help them close. So, I got up, put my uniform on and went to work. Actually, though, when I think about pizza I think about Becky. She was my buddy, Ruby’s, kid sister and she was a good worker; she got called to work the ovens the night pizza was introduced. Few girls got our respect in the back area but we all loved Becky. Shortly after I quit, she was tragically killed in a car accident.

Knowing how to work every station in the store was something you aimed for. For one thing, you could get more shifts if you could work the grill and the front counter. Plus, it made for good variety, us back area guys getting a drive-thru shift every now and then. Whenever I was asked if I knew how to work a certain station, I would always just say “yes” whether I did or not. I did this at my next job in an auto plant but soon thought better of it. I would say “yes, I know how to run this machine” but then when I realized that I didn’t know how to run it – and it could take my hand off – I quickly learned to say “No, I don’t. Show me”.

One shift in the back area was historic. I was at the grill, as usual, when a manager said that a counter worker had no-showed – could I take over up there? No sweat. I washed up and took some orders. This type of thing was nice especially in the summer when the kitchen was hot. Things slowed down that shift and I went out for a quick lobby run; wipe some tables and clean up. When I was done that I checked the drive thru screen and set up some of the orders of fries for the girls there. I joked with somebody that, technically, I had already worked four stations this shift: back area, counter, lobby and fries. I got an idea – as I often did at McDonald’s – how many stations can I work tonight? I worked ‘bin’ by ordering a set of six Macs from the guys in the back area. When they came up I packaged them and put them in the staging bin. I ran back to the walk-in fridge and rotated a couple of boxes of lettuce – first to expire out front. There, that was part of ‘Brower’. I ran back and threw together a salad for my ‘salad station’ and did the same with pizza. Ended up being 8 stations in one three-hour shift.

Back in this day, if you were under 18 years old and your shift ended after midnight, the closing manager was obligated to get you home. Once I closed on a week night. I got in the closing manager’s car with the other closer and we drove around – I dunno, somewhere – for hours. I got home in the early morning hours and didn’t get to sleep before it was time to get up and go to school. At this time, I was going to a driver’s ed course that took place at the school before classes started. I got on the bus thinking “I think I’ll be OK, actually” and promptly fell asleep as the bus rolled along. I got through driver’s ed and made it to my first class; drafting with Mr. Wignall. Doug Wignall was a great guy who once told this all-male class about the horror of his vasectomy – smoke and a blue flame. It was a story I never forgot. He and I used to talk Beach Boys. He was a cool guy. I guess he must’ve noticed me nodding off at my desk so he came over to see how I was. It was then that he told me some sad news – Roy Orbison had died. This made my morning even worse. Mr. Wignall suggested I go down to the cafeteria and get something to eat, so I did. Good guy. (Orbison died December 6, 1988)

I remember Big Swa and I working one day. We were really yukking it up when the shift manager snapped and told us not to utter another word for the rest of the shift. We began to work in silence which worked OK until I had my back turned to Swa and didn’t see the tray of food he was handing me to send up. I suddenly heard this pounding and turned to see him smashing the table with his fist. I sent the tray up and we burst out laughing.

Then came the big announcement that McDonald’s was going smoke-free. The night before this kicked in, Albert and I walked around the basement smoking cigars. I remember closing myself in the small men’s bathroom downstairs and puffing like mad on that thing, hoping that the place would still stink of smoke in the morning. Why did I do this? I dunno. I was an idiot, I guess.

Us kids worked evenings and weekends but there was a regular crew of older ladies who opened the store and worked during the day. In some situations, however, you could find yourself working with one of these nice ladies. Dolly was the resident veteran at our store. She loved me. She’d kill herself laughing when I was working with her and would sing a song from an old Elvis movie: “Another day older and nearer to my Lord. One more day…”. Once, poking around somewhere in some office, I found an old punch card of Dolly’s that had the date 1977 on it. This confirmed for us that she had been there forever and we would riff for hours about her origins: “When Dolly started, the training videos were on film!” “No. When she started they were still acting them out on stage!” “Haha! Yes! Shakespeare wrote the training videos!” “Yeah! Dolly was here to serve the Crusades when they came through!” “Let’s face it; Dolly was here before the store was here. She was just sitting in the grass and some guy came up and said ‘hey, we’re starting a restaurant here. Y’wanna help us out?'” Another nice lady was Basmattie or Bibi. When I was older and living on my own and still at McDonald’s, she would take pity on me when I was done my shift and she would whip me up a nice McRib. Done well; not like we served the customers. I noticed, though, that she had a habit of cleaning off her spatula during a shift – by scraping it off on the inside edge of the garbage can.

Dolly was an original fixture of the place. This is an actual “punch” card; before the “swipe” cards.

All this tomfoolery did not sit well with our store manager, Diane Thomas. She hated me. I don’t want to dump on her unfairly but she was severe, to say the least. I mentioned in an earlier segment that I had a collection of name tags. In fact, I was always picking up discarded things to throw in my locker; equipment, utensils, etc. (In fact, the can opener I used today I ‘got’ from McDonald’s). I jokingly would say that I was starting a museum of McDonald’s artifacts: You’re quitting? Wanna donate your swipe card? People said I could start my own store with all this stuff. One little item I discovered abandoned sitting on the safe, I think, was a slightly bent freezer key. I threw it in a little bucket I kept in my locker and it became one of many museum pieces. I never used it to open the freezer once it was locked – but I did allow someone else to. Once. Eventually, Diane called me into her office. She told me that there had been losses lately and it was discovered that I had a freezer key in my locker. She said she couldn’t prove I had done anything wrong but that she could make things unpleasant for me. “I’ll only give you one shift a week. You might as well quit”. Afterwards, I liked to think I upset her when I replied that, no, I think I’ll stay. I had another part time job at the time so it wasn’t the end of the world. The other managers there seemed to take pity on me and the scheduling manager in particular helped by giving me the longest shift possible – Saturday night close – seeing as I could only have one shift a week and could not pick up any shifts.

Fourteen months later, Diane was off on maternity leave. The managers that were left in charge called me in one day and said that they were taking me off my one-shift-a-week restriction. Not because Diane is not here, they said, but because we just think it’s time. I always thought that was nice.

Next Up: “Nobody Died”…


Memories of McDonald’s Part Two: A Motley Crew

April 12th of this year will mark the 30th anniversary of the day I got my first job. During my 9 years at McDonald’s, I accumulated some great memories that I think are humourous and ridiculous enough to share with all of you. I hope you enjoy this series.

I was 15 years old when I started at McDonald’s and had just moved to town. I lived in a part of the city that meant I had to attend KCI – Kitchener Collegiate Institute or Kitchener’s Collection of Idiots. It was a vocational school that accepted a lot of mature students – and problem students. It’s an old school – the fourth oldest in Canada. The McDonald’s I worked at was in a different district. The kids that worked there did not go to KCI. They went to high tone Forest Heights. I kept to myself at school but when I got to work it was showtime.

At this time, I had a girlfriend who was older than me and…obvious-looking, let’s say. She began to show up when I was working every now and then and the other guys in the back area with me would notice her. When it became known she was my girlfriend, my stock rose. These were guys that were a couple of years older than me and who basically ran the place. To have them pat you on the back and give you their approval meant a lot to me. It was my “in”.

Britwin was very mature and had a lot on the ball. He would end up being a manager at McDonald’s and then go on to a career in the restaurant business. Real restaurants. His cohort was Steve Gawlik. At this time, Steve was a full-on legend and I thought he was cool. We became friends. Even though he was hipper and edgier than me, I think he appreciated my normalcy. He could be himself around me. We would drive around in his Charger in the winter. He’d throw on the handbrake and do donuts. We would crack the windows so we wouldn’t die from the cigarette smoke. Britwin and Steve would always be competing in the ‘conquest’ department. They even made up a ‘league’ of sorts. They were more talk than action, though. A third member of the gang was Todd Swangard. He loved beer, soccer and house music. People obviously called him “Swany” but some started calling him “Big Ta” – this may have been where all the nicknames came from. More on that later.

With these people and others, I basically ‘came of age’. I did dumb things – like smoking and drinking. My first cigarette I ever had was at McDonald’s while I was wearing my uniform. I only smoked for six years but I was good at it. People would say “Gary’s never dying for a smoke. He’s always having one”. I would watch other people fumble with their cigarettes – I had it down cold. It was like a sixth finger. I wasn’t much of a teenage drinker. I only drank three times before I reached the legal age. The first time was with the above mentioned three guys on a New Year’s Eve. I didn’t know any better so I drank Molson Canadian and the big memories of that night are “I didn’t know the Smithereens had beards” and “I think we had rabbits in the night” – it was just pieces of sausage from the pizza all over the carpet.

Eventually, there was an exodus of the old guard at our store. The guys that ‘ran’ the place when I started at 15 years old began to hit 18 and 19 and went on to greener pastures. I remember we’d stand in the back area and lament the loss of all these legends. A lot stepped up a notch and went to work at Swiss Chalet, some went to Zellers. What we didn’t realize at first was that now we were taking over. We were running the place.

When McDonald’s became the center of my social life, I transferred from KCI to Forest Heights – which I think was actually closer to my house than KCI, the school in my district. (I looked it up: from my door, KCI was 3.6 km away – a 44 minute walk. Forest Heights? 2.2 km/29 mins) I remember I had to write a long letter to Forest Heights explaining why I wanted to make the move. This was my first indication that Forest Heights fancied itself an upscale preparatory school of sorts. It didn’t take me long to learn that Forest Heights was the opposite of KCI. My last year at KCI for example, the school president was elected by acclimation. At Forest Heights, the campaigns were a big deal with banner waving and rallys and the whole bit. Very ‘school spirit’. I’ve always said that in the quiet confines of KCI, I spent time alone and learned who I was. At Forest Heights, I looked around me at all the hubbub, parties and dances and learned who I wasn’t. Anyways, now I went to school with all my friends from McDonald’s.

After the “obvious looking” girl and I broke up, I dated a McDonald’s girl and she was my first serious girlfriend. We became a popular couple, like the king and queen of the place. Girls, of course, were a big thing for us guys at the time. “Drive Thru Girls” became a separate designation. I remember sometimes after my shift sitting inside in the drive thru area on a milk crate out of sight of the customers and talking to the girl working there. Kid stuff but fun times.

Big Ta had a younger brother that started working there – Big Swa, who sometimes got Big Swiss, Big Stu, Big Studebaker and Beauregard (?). We became best friends. There was also Hash Man. The nickname was ironic. Hash was a clean cut, good-looking straight-shooter. One day in the smoking section at Forest Heights, some guy who thought he had heard that Hash was someone who could hook him up, approached him wanting to score some drugs. This was SO unlike Hash that Big Swa jokingly started calling him Hash Man. He also sometimes got Hash Brown, Ace (his initials) or ‘Atch – the French pronunciation of “Hash”. I used these names when introducing these guys to my folks: “‘Big Swa’? Is he Indian?” (he isn’t). “‘Hash Man’?! I don’t like the sounds of that!”. The third member of our gang was Saltarr, the Malekian Warrior. I don’t know where the ‘warrior’ part came from but “Saltarr” was a manipulation of his surname.

Everybody we worked with had to have a nickname. I was the one who usually gave them out – although I never got one. I did collect random name tags, though. Some I found here and there and I also would ask people for their name tags for my collection when they quit. This collection of name tags began a museum of sorts in my locker in the change room – a museum that would get me into trouble years later. I began to wear these various name tags during shifts. I would also make my own name tags. For some weekend maintenance shifts, I was “Eddie”. One time I was working ‘window’ – or the counter, taking orders – and a customer looked at my name tag and said “is your name really ‘Jerry Lee’?!” Once a ditzy co-worker looked at my name tag – which said “Ahab” – and scoffed. But she pronounced it “aHAB”. We in the back area used her pronunciation to scoff at her: “‘AHAB’! Like ‘AHAB a speech impediment’!”

A few of my name tags. Also a couple of my swipe cards – I was 107 for most of my time there. In the background is a flag that flew from our pole out front.

Another good friend was Stevie Ray – although he was only 16, he played the guitar and loved the blues. Stevie and I and our families are tight to this day. Face Man was a ‘himbo’ – he was great looking but dumb. Dice Man loved Andrew ‘Dice’ Clay. Ruby – well, his last name was Ruby. (My dad: “‘Ruby’? Who’s she?”) Good story featuring my man, Ruby: every now and then we would have a meeting the whole crew needed to be at. Another store would come in and work at our store and we’d have our meeting. One time when our meeting let out, Ruby and I swapped cars and bombed around the parking lot of the place the meeting was being held at. Now, we had a manager at this time who was going to school to be a police officer. This manager came out of the building and saw us tearing around – me with no lights on in the gathering dusk because I couldn’t figure out how to turn them on in Ruby’s Celica. I shoot by the door and this cop-manager starts running behind me yelling “Stop!! Police!” After many years, Ruby and I are in touch again. One of the positives of social media.

Heater was a master fajita maker – ‘fajit-er’? He also got Jimmy, which wasn’t his name. Coney Island Whitefish Boy was one of my favourite nick names – his real name was Lincoln. Lincolny. Coney. “Coney Island Whitefish Boy” is a song by Aerosmith. He’d be working in the back area and have these sneezing fits. He’d sneeze and would blast out his nose all over the food. We used to say it was like using the gun that the Big Mac sauce tube was in. Bouncer, another good friend, was eager to please and would bounce all over the place, taking care of everything. Also, he fell down the stairs to the basement on one of his first shifts (he bounced). Side note: it was Bouncer who came in while I was working one night in November of 1996. He said he had just seen a movie maybe I would like. He was right: “Swingers” changed my life. (check out my post on this event: Uno wasn’t much help when you worked with him. He could only do one thing at a time. Zero was even worse than Uno was – he couldn’t do anything. But Zero was a massive guy with huge shoulders. To his face, he got ‘Sir’ a lot. The Riddler’s last name was Reidel. Todd had a really short haircut so he got Buzz. One winter day, Dave came back inside from a check of the parking lot (“lot check”) and was covered in snow. One of the guys in the back area who had only a little English giggled and said “Snowman” so thereafter Dave was The Snowman. The best though was a quiet little fella we all liked name of Adam. He would never say anything so I called him Harpo, after the Marx Brother that played mute. His high-pitched voice and crazy laugh reminded me of Squiggy from “Laverne and Shirley” so he got Squiggy sometimes. His work shoes were these cheap-o dress shoes with zero grip on the soles. He would go sliding around the back area while working – Slider. He came with a group of us when we made the mistake of going to see Poison and Warrant together in concert. Seemed an odd choice for a quiet guy like Squiggy. What seemed stranger was the t-shirt he bought at the concert. It depicted a crazy demon-looking thing riding a hot rod. It said “Road Dogs from Hell” on it which earned him another ironic nick name: Road Dog. He was so not a ‘Road Dog’ but thing is the guy took karate or something and his little chest was like iron. You’d playfully poke him and sprain your knuckles.

The year we won the McDonald’s baseball championship. We would drive up to games blaring “We’re Not Gonna Take It” by Twisted Sister. The trophy is in the middle there – covered by someone’s jock. Heater/Jimmy, Big Swa, Riddler, Hash Man, Face Man, Buzz, Snowman and I are in this picture.

I stayed at McDonald’s too long. All of these people eventually got better jobs somewhere else. With most, unfortunately, when we weren’t together regularly in the trenches, it was a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Life goes on. When I finally moved away from Kitchener, I attempted to make return visits and to keep in touch. Big Swa, Hash and Saltarr and I were good friends, even after they had left me in the back area. Once I left town, we still stayed in touch and were together to celebrate weddings and children arriving. Eventually, though, it should come as no surprise that our friendship faded. Life certainly takes over. It becomes harder to maintain relationships when you are dealing with marriage, children, school, work, homes, vehicles, etc. I have been able to keep in touch with two or three of the other players, though, mostly through social media. Whether people are a part of my life now or not, they still have that sheen to them. The memories of the people, the friends, the co-workers are cherished like old movies or songs. After all, I quite often say that things glow all the brighter when they pass into “memory”.

Next Up: A Legend in My Own Mind…