Thursday, September 4, 2008

Right Livelihood: Or, I Love My Job

“Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be someone who needs the cafe."
"Hombre, there are bodegas open all night long.”
"You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant cafe. It is well lighted. The light is very good and also, now, there are shadows of the leaves."
A Clean Well-Lighted Place
Ernest Hemingway

Roughly a year and a half ago, I decided that it was time for me to take an “outside” job. But it couldn’t be just any job; it had to be close to home, and have flexible hours so I could share child care with my husband, and have a flexible time-off policy so I could travel on “Quaker business,” and not require me to buy lots of fancy “professional” clothes, and I had to be able to start right away. Hmmmm…. What sort of job would fit these criteria? Hmmmm…. Oh, yeah, I know! McDonald’s!

So I drove on down to my local McDonald’s, which just happened to be the nearest “big” employer in town. Two days later, I started my new career. And I discovered a job I love.

I suppose that a word about McDonald’s food is in order—yes, the most popular items on the McDonald’s menu contain bunches of fat, salt, and/or sugar. Yes, I see a lot of people eating way too much for their health. That’s one of the reasons that I don’t tend to ask folks if they would like to add anything to their meal, or if they’d like to “Large Size” their meal. Official McDonald’s policy, according to my training, is to ask customers, at the end of an order, if they would like to buy additional food that I have noticed they might want. Mostly, I think people order plenty enough. I do occasionally suggest a new menu item to a customer who seems a potentially good fit, and I do sometimes ask if the customer would like a drink, if they haven’t ordered one. But offer to add fries to make it a Value Meal? No. Offer to change the order to a larger size? No. (Unless it is a regular customer, who usually orders a Large Size meal, then I’ll check to make sure they still want it Large Size, even if they haven’t actually specified.)

But don’t even get me started on that “Supersize Me” idiot. It is entirely possible to eat all of one’s meals at McDonald’s for one month, and not gain weight, or get sick. Did he buy a Fruit and Walnut Salad with an orange juice for breakfast? Did he buy a side salad with a yogurt for lunch? Did he buy a grilled chicken snack wrap for dinner? It was his job as the person ordering the food to make decisions about what he wanted to eat. Not mine, as the order-taker. I have learned that lesson, much to my amused embarrassment. I remember one early morning (it was probably about 4:30am), explaining to a trucker that I thought the new McSkillet Burrito tasted really good, but that it was nearly 600 calories, so I only ate it occasionally as a treat. He smiled down at me, and said, “Do I look like I worry about calories? Gimme two.” So OK.

But other customers do worry about calories. One of my regular truckers only orders a sandwich about every other time he stops by. Other times, it’s just a coffee. He explained to me (the overnight shift is conducive to conversation) that he used to buy a Value Meal every time he stopped for a meal at night, but he found himself gaining too much weight. So, he decided to just stop eating so much. Lo and behold, he began to lose weight. He was so pleased. Or the trucker who walked in one night, and asked me what we had that was easy to eat while he was driving and wasn’t “all fatty and junky.” After a bit of thought, I came up with our apple dippers. I showed him the bag of sliced fruit, and he was tickled. “Do all McDonald’s have these?” Well, yep. Or the trucker who came in one night mostly because he was bored and lonely, and hassled me good-naturedly for 20 minutes about how terrible the McDonald’s menu was, and how it was All junk, and how he couldn’t get anything decent to eat… and I finally suggested a plain grilled chicken breast… and he made me explain to him how he could order it at other McDonald’s “so the idiot behind the counter can find it.” And he went off to his bunk happy, clutching his carry-out grilled chicken breast. “I’m so glad I came in to hassle you!” were his parting words. G’night. Hurry back.

It is so easy to make someone’s day better… way out of proportion to the monetary value of what McDonald’s provides. There is something about providing someone with food that makes them remember the exchange, for better or for worse, as an important part of their day. I know that travelers feel that way, because I have heard traveling McDonald’s stories from friends and acquaintances… everyday annoying horror stories, that they have remembered for years. I can only assume that the travelers I serve experience the same. I Know my regular customers feel that way, because they tell me so. One night a few weeks ago, one of my regulars (who I had never actually exchanged personal pleasantries with), pulled up to the drive-thru window, and exclaimed, “Oh, thank goodness, it’s you!” And he went on to tell me his everyday annoying horror story of a few nights before. And there’s my regular office worker, who has been coming through my drive-thru window virtually every morning for a year and a half now…. he finally started smiling at me about 6 months ago, and a few days ago, I even heard him laugh!

Soon after I began working, I started to make a point of touching the hand of each person briefly, either as I was giving change, or as I was handing them their food. It seemed important to make that human contact with each person. I’ve probably touched a thousand hands since I started working at McDonald’s… some hands more than once, of course. I suspect that that is the only human touch some of my customers get all day.

It’s the human contact I love so much about this job. I have never worked anywhere that had as diverse a group of employees, or as diverse a clientele as McDonald’s. It’s a microcosm of the United States… even the people who don’t like to eat at McDonald’s walk in the door on my shift… there’s just not a whole lot open in my part of the state at 3:00 in the morning. My McDonald’s is on an interstate freeway, so I get to talk to all sorts of travelers and truckers. The truckers often come in regularly; we have a big parking lot for trucks, and I have been told by one of my regular truckers that they choose not to stop at any of the other food places for a hundred miles up and down the freeway, “cuz ya’ll take care of us here.”

The travelers are often never seen again. Last year, I waited on an Australian with jet lag (which, he explained, was why he was driving at 2:00 in the morning—no point in lying in the motel staring at the ceiling!). Last week, I waited on an African (maybe Somali?) family… the wife and little girl had beautiful henna tattoos on their hands. As I handed him his coffee, the husband told me, “I really need this.” A long trip? I asked. “I’ve been driving since New York,” he said, “but I started out this morning in Africa. I just have to stay awake long enough to get home to Indianapolis.” And there are the traveling couples on the frayed end of their trip, snapping at each other or not talking…. I try to give them a kind word if I can. Most of them know that it’s just the trip fraying nerves, and they appreciate a little friendly acknowledgement of their temporary difficulties, and whatever little extra attention I give them. But I remember one gentleman… his wife had just walked out of the restaurant in some discontent, and I turned to him and said, “It will all get better.” “No, it won’t,” he said. “When we got married, my momma took me aside and told me that she would go ahead and shoot me whenever I’d had enough.” He smiled ruefully as he took his food….”I’m about ready.” Once, a poor traveler spent the night quietly propped in an inconspicuous booth. It was a cold night, and there aren’t a lot of options at our particular freeway exit. So I pretended not to notice him, and let him get what sleep he could. In the morning, before I left, I bought him a little breakfast and dropped it off at his booth, where he was nursing his cup of coffee and looking pretty shaky. As I pulled out of the parking lot, I saw that he was standing at the onramp, thumbing for a ride West. I hope he got safely where he was supposed to be.

Travelers. Perky ones. Tired ones… lots of tired ones! Sad ones. Hopeful ones. Shaky ones. Students with all their worldly goods packed into a two-door car. Mommies and Daddies with little ones in arms, trying to reason with toddlers at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning (I can often stave off a full-blown tantrum by buying the little one a bag of cookies, although once I had to rummage around in our Happy Meal toy supply for The Red Car… thank you, God, for making sure there was One left!). People crossing the state. People crossing the continent. People crossing the world.

And then there’s my local regulars. My truckers, of course, who are sort of a combination of traveler and local regular. The interstate freeway to them is like one long hometown Main Street, and they pick and choose their stops for hundreds of miles along it, the same way us non-truckers pick and choose where to run errands in town. Some of them travel hundreds of miles each night, and stop at my McDonald’s for a bite to eat every day. Some of them come by only once, like the elephant handler with a semi full of elephants and ponies bound for the next town on the circus route….

Some of my local regulars stop by every day too. Nurses, teachers, police officers, strippers, bartenders, coal miners (the ones on the way to work are often much paler than the ones on the way home), dish washers/bus boys (their money is often damp), waitresses, executives (there’s some very nice smelling aftershave being sold in upscale stores nowadays), students, road workers…

And that doesn’t even mention the semi-regulars: the drunks who make McDonald’s part of their evening routine, and the folks out for an evening at the races or the game or mudding, and the hunters (I once asked one of my regulars if he was going hunting that day, since he was in camouflage. “Naahhh,” he said. “City folks go hunting. I’m going huntin’!” And had a good ol’ time too, I heard the next day.)

From the working poor to the wealthy elite, I see ‘em all. And they all appreciate a kind word and a smile, and a little attention.

Sometimes they need a little extra attention. I remember one woman who stopped by for something to eat on the way home from the hospital, where her father was dying. For at least ten minutes, I listened to her mostly unintelligible explanations of how he came to be dying in the hospital, and how she had spent the day there, trying to get answers from hospital staff.

And then there was the woman who came to the drive-thru window one night, and said, “I have sort of a weird order. It’s kind of special. It’s for a last request.” And she told me what it was, and I figured out a way to order it for her, and explained it to the grill person, and made sure she got the special order she’d asked for. Now, I don’t know what sort of “last request” she was talking about; I don’t know of any prisons near us, offhand, that were executing anyone. Maybe she was an acting student practicing. Who knows? But she gave every impression of someone holding themselves together through sheer force of will, and her voice cracked when she took the food and said, “You’re a Godsend.” I sent her along with a prayer.

If we ever have enough money coming in that I don’t have to work, I’ll miss ‘em all. The ones who make me laugh, and the ones who call me Darlin’, and the happy drunks who offer to marry me, and the ones who complain about the fat in the food even while they’re ordering it, and the executives who share their weekly travel itinerary with me (so I’ll know when to expect them)….. it’s a great job. And I haven’t even started to tell you about my co-workers!

“Work at everything you do with all your heart. Work as if you were working for the Lord, not for human masters.” Colossians 3:23


Robin M. said...

This reminds me of a quote I have on my wall that says that the Benedictine life "simply consists of doing the ordinary things of life carefully and lovingly, with the attention and the reverence that can make of them a way of prayer, a way to God."

May you know God's blessings in proportion to how you are God's blessing.

Regina Clare Jane said...

Oh, Shawna- this was a lovely post. I really appreciated you sharing about all these people you meet... it seems like even the smallest of kindnesses can truly turn someone's day around- or night!
I really admire you. So often we take for granted what we do in life and where we work and the impact we can have on people in even the smallest of situations... this was a great reminder to always go the extra mile.

Heather said...

Shawna, this was a revelation to me. When I first read that you worked at McDonald's, I foolishly thought that it was an unlikely job for a woman of God. Now I see that you are right where He needs you to be!

Thank you for opening my eyes, and long may you be there to bless your customers. I'm sorry I allowed myself such a knee-jerk reaction.


Gil S said...

Thank you so much for this post.

My sons [aged 26 and 29] are travelling round the world at the moment. They have reached Australia so far and intend to get to America some time early next year. I expect they will visit McDonalds when they get there and I just pray that one day they will walk through your door!

Bless you


Shawna said...

Thanks, Robin. That's a great quote. Thomas Merton wrote that his abbot (the head guy at the monastery... is that the abbot?) once told him, "You'll either make this place better by your presence, or you'll make it worse." There are no other options. It seems that there are no other options in life, either!

Thanks, Regina. Yep, I might as well try to make a hundred people's day a little better. (It's easier on the nightshift, of course, to pay attention to each customer. Our pace is a little slower... we're not really Fast food any more, just Moderately Paced food.)

Hi, Heather! I had never thought that I would work at McDonald's either! But from a logical point of view, it made sense at the time. And right from the start, I was feeling useful... My first week there, one of the teenagers who worked there asked me, "You know about this stuff--what about this 'sin against the Holy Spirit' that can't be forgiven?" Oh, my. So I learned quickly that it seemed like the place to be.

Hi Gil! When your sons get to America, let me know. If they come through Ohio, they have a place to stay. If they're at all Quakerly, we can give them "the tour" of some of our local historic sites, and hopefully they can stay for worship. (If you look at, that big ol' red brick building is our meeting house.) If they're not particularly Quakerly, we can still give them a place to do laundry, and I'll treat them to an "American" meal at McD's!

cath said...

The McDonalds in my neighborhood has an open mic night. I would gladly trade that for the kind of customer service you provide.


Diane said...

Hi Shawna,

What a wonderful post. McDonalds should hire you as a spokesperson. When I think of all the people I know--including my daughter's all-knowing teenaged friends from Maryland--who would "never" work at McDonald's, I'm reminded of how the holy spirit liberates us and allows us to throw away the script so that we can live joyfully doing what God wants us to do. And it sounds as if you are doing exactly what you are supposed to be doing.

Shawna said...

Hi Cath,
I think an open mic night would be fun. Ya'll are obviously more sophisticated than we are. Around here, all we have are "bingo afternoons."

Hi Diane,
I have been guilty of anti-fastfood-snootiness in my day, too. And you don't really appreciate how challenging a McDonald's job is, until you've worked there a while. It's a challenge to do it well.

Not everybody cares about doing it well, of course... sometimes teenagers are hired and fuss about the quality of work they are supposed to maintain, "It's only McDonald's!" they say.

"Only McDonald's!" I exclaim. "Why, McDonald's feeds the entire nation! Do you know how many people come through this restaurant every day? Do you know how many people's days you can make or break, based on whether you have done your job well?!" They laugh at me, of course... but the older ladies who work with me all nod their heads.

But I would not make a good spokesperson for McDonald's, because I think some of their policies are downright boneheaded (just for example, I would really love to see options for the side dish with a Value Meal... instead of just fries, wouldn't it be great to be able to have a side salad, or a yogurt parfait, or an apple dippers....).

I'd rather be a spokesperson for McDonald's customers and employees! Kevin wants me to write a guidebook about McDonald's Food someday, for people who want to have the convenience of a McDonald's restaurant, but who also want to eat a relatively healthy diet ("relatively" being the key word here!). I think That would be a fun project!

Annie said...

I started my Novena for Faithful Citizenship this morning. The reflection was how could I show respect for others, especially my neighbors. Then I came here and read this post. You have given me a wonderful example to follow and a lot of food for thought. God Bless.

Shawna said...

Thanks, Annie!

Of course, I only write about the times I've been successful.....

Leslie said...

I'm late finding this, having just discovered you last night...but I wanted to say how delighted I am that you touch your customers hands!
I worked at McDonalds about a decade ago, the only place hiring in the tiny town I'd chosen to raise my kids in. I had just been studying Ashley Montague's "Touching: The Human Significance of Skin" and I decided to spend my days on the front line touching every hand I could. Within a short time 'regulars' were getting in my line even when other lines were much shorter. I'm sure they had no idea why they preferred my line...but for many people I suspect my hand on theirs was the only touch they got all day. It felt like I was serving God when I did that. It makes me happy to hear that you're out there 'handing' out blessings!

Shawna said...

Hi, Leslie! That sounds like a very interesting book... I will have to read it. I am glad that you took up the task of blessing folks with a touch, too. It makes me feel less "loopy"!

I had to quit working there when Kevin started driving truck cross-country... I didn't have anyone to keep an eye on the kids while I was at work anymore. I may go back part-time in the Fall when Golden starts kindergarten. It was good work.