Under the Golden Arches

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photo credit: iboy_daniel

Oh, God.

Did I really just do that? Did I really just hand in a job application at McDonald’s?

For a moment I picture myself hopping over that counter and strangling anyone in my way to get that piece of paper back.

I reach for the door, but then stop. I can’t leave this place without that stupid piece of paper. I take cautious steps toward the cashier.

“Did you need help with anything else?” she asks politely.

I want to say, “Yes. Yes, I do. I really need that application back. See, it’s all just a big joke, ha ha ha.” But instead I find myself saying, “Yeah, actually, can I get medium fries please?”

This happened two weeks ago, too. I walked inside determined to get an application. As I approached the counter, confident in my application-asking abilities, I blurted out, “So, um, can you do me a favor? Sorry. I’m really nervous…can I…can I have . . . a number 10, please?” I enter with the intentions of leaving with an application and end up leaving with a 10-piece Chicken McNuggets and a Coke.

As I munched on my “made with white meat” nuggets, I wondered how I could have gotten so frazzled. This is just a journalism assignment. This is my contribution to the world of literary journalism. This should have been a piece of cake.

Move over, Stephen Crane. This is a new type of experiment in misery.

*******

Out of all the ideas that might come to mind for a journalism assignment, how did I wrap my head around working at McDonalds? First off, I don’t do uniforms. Long ago I decided that no uniform would be in my future. I also hate working with food. I feel like I’m going to be the one who gives half the country food poisoning. Paranoid? Definitely. Feasible? Absolutely.

Most importantly, I swore to myself that I would never work in fast food. I would have to kill myself if I had to ask someone I knew,“Would you like fries with that?”

*******

The night I finally picked up my application, I spent what felt like hours just staring at it. I finally picked up a pen.

Before that pen hit the paper, I thought about the possibility of making it all up. But then I remembered the “legal” obligation of telling the truth – the requirement to sign your name at the bottom and swear you didn’t forge an identity. As much fun as it might sound to create a new persona, I suddenly imagined myself somehow jailed for lying on a McDonald’s application. Coming out of my daydream, I found myself writing my real name.

Availability. Hmmm, well, my weekends can be kissed goodbye. That’s a great college story to tell: my friends are all out drinking every weekend, and I’m stuck in a uniform asking people if they want fries with that.

Employment history. This is the part where I get cocky. I think about how this is a downgrade from even my previous crappy part-time jobs. Barnes & Noble, Head Cashier, counting deposits worth a couple thousand dollars. Is that not enough for you? Two years of tutoring, executive board positions that make a kick-ass resume. Is that enough for you? Am I qualified enough to serve Big Macs yet?

Oh, boy. Education. Did you know they ask for your grade point average? Can you not be too stupid to work at McDonald’s? What will that do to my ego if they can’t hire me because my GPA isn’t up to their standards? Maybe I should stop filling this out. I don’t think I could take this type of rejection.

Oh, no. Race. I hate filling this part out. I never know what to put. Sure, I’m a white female, but I’m also one-eighth Mexican. There isn’t a box for people who are one-eighth Mexican. I’m either Latino or I’m not. I feel like I’m lying if I put I’m Latino, so I move away from that box in my effort to keep telling the truth about myself.

*******

Hunter S. Thompson was on a constant search for the American Dream. With this assignment, I went on a hunt for it myself. I knew from the moment I committed to this idea, things wouldn’t work out how I imagined.

I haven’t heard back from McDonald’s yet. I’m getting worried. Maybe I didn’t take this seriously enough. I’m beginning to feel like I’ve lost sight of my initial goal. To write a story about working a minimum wage job. About how terrible it feels to do unskilled work. And how easy it is to overlook the people who do it. I’ve been in their place, but at a corporate bookstore, chit-chatting about books while wearing the enforced business casual attire. On the outside, it looks so much better, like I’m on the track to the good life. On the inside, it’s the same. Swap the button down shirt and pressed pants for a hat and apron, a book for a Big Mac.

*******

This whole assignment was a piece of cake until my first attempt at getting an application. I walked into McDonalds ready to try something new, a real journalism assignment. My confidence escaped me when I saw my boss behind the counter, taking orders. I tried to run out of there without her seeing me, but of course she noticed me.

“Hey, I never knew you worked here,” I say, not knowing what else to say.

“Yea I got the job here once I left the TV Station,” she says. “What can I get for you today?”

When I didn’t think things could get any worse, the words, “Are you guys hiring?” or anything similar, wouldn’t form in my mouth. I just stood there, staring at her for what seemed like hours.

Finally I quickly lied and told her I just wanted to interview some McDonald’s workers for a piece I’m working on, I almost set up a fake interview time with her before I lied, said I had to run, and made a break for the door.

Not only did I leave without an application, but I left feeling like I had done something horribly wrong. That awkward exchange of words made me realize I didn’t want to be in her shoes. I didn’t want people in my classes to talk about me as that girl who works in a McDonald’s. I was embarrassed for my friend, for my former boss. I can’t deal with that type of embarrassment on a daily basis.

*******

Let me be honest for a least a minute here. We can all sit back and pretend like we don’t judge people because of where they live or where they work, but we’d just be lying.

I went to find the American Dream and I found the antithesis of it. True, there is nothing inherently wrong with working at McDonald’s; I can guarantee that almost every employee there currently has more money in their bank accounts than I do. Yet, I still walk into a McDonald’s and think I’m better than the people working behind the counter, that I deserve more than a hat and apron.

My attempt at an epiphany has backfired on me. All I’ve found out from this little experiment is that I’m an asshole, and guess what, you probably are one, too. But that’s OK. We’re trained to be assholes.

We are trained to believe that we are special, we can do anything if we put our mind to it. This is great in theory, until you start believing that you are more special than someone else. It isn’t that you look down upon McDonald’s employees, it is just that you work harder than they do, therefore you deserve more. Employment isn’t just about getting a steady paycheck and being able to support yourself, it is about how many figures your paycheck is. Life isn’t about knowing that everyone else is special, it is about making yourself believe you are more special than anyone else. Oh, the ambiguity of the American Dream.

Confused? Alright, let me just lay it out there for everyone. The American Dream never existed; it is a load of shit. It is just a way for parents and teachers to make kids feel special – that if you dream it, you can do it. Well, congratulations, you’ve been fed bullshit all your lives.

The American Dream isn’t anything else but a ploy to make you think you’re better than someone else. While you live in your pretty house with your white picket fence, picking up McDonald’s for your 2.5 children because you’re too busy being successful, you’re judging your server. Trying to figure out their back story, figuring out what made them so lazy that they ended up here instead of living the good life. Blame it on drugs.

Think about that when you’re chowing down on your Chicken McNuggets. Doesn’t taste so good, does it?

Melissa Hernan

One thought on “Under the Golden Arches

  1. This article is hilarious, witty, and thought-provoking. It’s funny- my first job was in fast food (9 years ago) and sometimes now I still find myself judging too.

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