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.
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.
Next Up: The Dream Is Over…