By Eric Scot Tryon

Baseball. Apple Pie. Sparklers on the 4th of July. Americana, right? But along with these whimsical Rockwellian images, there lies the rank underbelly of our grand country: Working retail. Better yet, working fast food. And even better yet, what says good ol’ US of A more than working the cash register at your local McDonald’s? I had the privilege of working for clown-faced Ronald when I turned sixteen and fell into capitalism’s Catch-22: No one will hire you without experience, and you can’t get experience if no one will hire you. Luckily, McDonald’s is the gateway (ah, those golden arches) to the teenage dilemma of how to pay for gas and movie tickets.

In the summer of ’94, I traded in my flannel and Luke Perry haircut for a thick magenta (“it’s not pink!” I repeatedly told my friends) polo shirt and crooked-billed baseball hat. Each day, as I was forced to turn down slip-n-slide parties and bonfires at the beach, I asked myself what I was getting out of this. Sure, they gave me a whopping $4.25 for each painful hour, but where was my reciprocity for the torture I endured? Where was my tiny moment of revenge on the fast food world? It certainly didn’t come when I had to crawl on my stomach on the slimed bathroom tiles under the stall because miraculously the flimsy door was still locked from the inside. And it certainly didn’t come every Sunday at 5 a.m. as I battled frostbite, stuffed in the giant freezer for an hour, an angry delivery guy with a handlebar mustache throwing 50 lb. boxes of frozen French fries at me. And lord knows it didn’t come when a large older man couldn’t retrieve his overstuffed wallet from the back pocket of his denim pants that were easily as old as he was. In the middle of a packed lunch hour, he turned around, stuck his butt towards the counter and asked me to “give an old guy a hand.” What else could I do but reach my tiny fingers in the crusted back pocket of his jeans to yank and dislodge the wallet that had not seen daylight since the summer of ‘47. But through all of the humiliation, I gritted my teeth, gained a few zits, and collected my four and a quarter with a smile.

Until one afternoon, when with the help of my McCo-worker Eddie and his inherent clumsiness, I finally got a day in the sun. I was just finishing the order of a frazzled, frumpy woman in sweatpants who studied the menu as it were a 10th grade geometry problem. “Where are the tacos?” she asked. After I politely told her that this was McDonalds and we didn’t sell Mexican food, she proceeded to get upset. “But I came here yesterday and got a bean burrito!” And it wasn’t until I gave up and told her “Oh, sorry, we just ran out of tortillas” that, disgusted with our inadequacies, she resigned herself to a Big Mac, large fry, and super-sized Diet Coke.

As I handed the woman her change and thought to myself how another Big Mac was exactly what she needed, Eddie, a lanky awkward kid about my age, went out to refill the ketchup dispenser that sat alongside the napkins and straws on the counter in the middle of the lobby. As the podgy woman left with her Big Mac, still mumbling something about Baja tacos, an older woman, small and frail, stepped to my register. She was maybe seventy, and wore a thin white blouse, purple polyester pants, a string of pearls, and her cumulous cloud of white hair made her look like everyone’s grandmother. Americrandma.

As Eddie began to take apart the dispenser to replace the giant plastic bag of ketchup, the old woman ordered a filet-o-fish and a small coffee. I could have punched in her order before she even opened her dentured mouth. There was something about fried fish, too much tartar sauce, and hot coffee on a ninety degree afternoon that had all senior citizens drooling at the mouth.

And just as she was fishing through her small embroidered purse to find the exact change – “I know there’s one more nickel in here somewhere” – I spotted Eddie fumble the enormous bag of ketchup; it repeatedly escaped his open palms like a slippery stubborn trout and finally landed with a Smack! as it hit the cheap, slick tile. I flinched as a wave of red came flying towards me, but yet I felt nothing. Something had shielded me from the blast. Eddie cried out, “Oh shit!” and the three of us froze.

The old woman looked to the floor and saw what I’m sure was a splattering of ketchup about her. She then glanced over her shoulder to investigate what had happened. “Oh dear,” I heard her say to Eddie as if it was he who required the sympathy.

It was in this next moment that the woman went from just another grandma ordering a fish filet and coffee to becoming a Hall of Famer in my retail career (her inquisitive face forever encased in oak and glass with soft direct lighting and an engraved plaque). She ever so gingerly turned around, giving me her back. Her back was completely covered in red. Ketchup dripped in gobs down the frail shoulders of her thin once-white blouse, saturating it so much so that it stuck tightly in clumps to her skin underneath. It was a real Wes Craven special effects job. As I stood astounded at the slasher-film condiment carnage she was showing me, she turned her head back towards me over her shoulder, not an easy maneuver at her age, and with the innocence of a young child asked, “Did any get on me?” She asked as if it were a yes or no question. She asked as if the answer was probably no, but she was a thorough woman and just wanted to make sure. She asked as if it was her favorite blouse and even the slightest hint of ketchup might upset her.

But before I had the chance to answer, this perfect moment – the goopy red blouse, her look of innocent curiosity, the overpowering stench of ketchup, and Eddie, quiet in the background, half stunned, half fighting fits of laughter – was interrupted with chaos. The manager, now hip to what had happened, came storming out from behind the counter firing out apologies like a over-zealous gunner on the back of a military jeep. He was shooting her every the-customer-is-always-right cliché in his manager’s handbook. And at just about this same time, her seventy-five year old nerve endings were finally sending signals from her back to her brain. I imagined she could feel the coldness of the condiment soaking through her shirt, now pressed against her skin along with the new weight of her blouse. And with this new found knowledge came the transformation. She was no longer the sweet little old lady who wanted to bake oatmeal cookies and knit Christmas sweaters. She became a woman scorned, demanding immediate restitution! “This is unacceptable!” Her voice was no longer soft and airy, but throaty and mean, and she kept repeating that word over and over, “Unacceptable!” as if we could reverse what had happened. “I won’t stand for this! This is unacceptable!” Yet, all I wanted to do was point and arch my back in a belly-aching laugh. The meaner she got, the funnier it was. How could anyone take her seriously with a back full of processed tomato paste? It stank and dripped and flew off like red beads of sweat in her fit of unacceptableness. Our branch manager, Reed Walcott, a petite sensitive man, went straight into damage control. He sent poor Jessica, a shy girl who hated the job even more than me, into the bathroom with the woman to… well, I don’t know what could have been done to that poor woman’s back, while he began filling out the numerous gift certificates, coupons, etc. He even resorted to adding free Happy Meal toys. (Nothing says “I’m sorry I doused your back in ketchup” like a wind-up plastic hamburger that spins in circles.) As for me and Eddie, we got the best job of all. We were given her keys and a pound of napkins and told to go protect her car seat.

The sun was out, the air was sweet, and a breeze trickled by every few moments to remind us that we were in fact outside and not under the florescent lights and greasy heat lamps. Eddie sat in the passenger seat of her old red Toyota Corolla, while I kneeled beside the open driver’s door. We meticulously lined her seat with the half-sized, single-ply napkins that sported the happy golden arches. We took our precious time, and between laying down each napkin, we swapped turns reenacting what had happened, acting it out with loud voices and flailing histrionics. It got more and more hilarious each time we told it: the splat of the bag, the flying wave of ketchup, the look on her face, the droop of her blouse. Eddie and I never really hung out, but for those fifteen minutes, we were the best of friends. And being in the parking lot, laughing under the sun, reliving the incident, more than made up for that entire summer of hell. After all, nothing says America like using the plight of others to feel better about yourself. For every time I had a heckling friend or burrito-craving customer, all I had to do was retreat to my happy place and hear that soft unassuming voice: “Did any get on me?”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

that shirt was too pink.