I spent March 2008 writing down and studying everything on the booklet, hammering all the theory in my head, and then, like in any other field, I mixed it up with a lot of practice. On the days that I was off at Staples, I would arrive at McD’s early to get into the kitchen and learn how my fellow coworkers (Joel, in this case, he was more than happy to teach me) made those burgers everyone seemed to love. Just like the fries at the front, everything was timed. Burger patties had to be cooked in less than two minutes, then placed in one of those heating cabinets they have on the prep table. Suppose you have never worked in the kitchen at a fast-food restaurant. In that case, all you have to do to picture the cabinets is to imagine sets of black, metallic heating structures that resemble the small plastic cases your mom used to keep her meds and other paraphernalia.
Albeit small, the booklet was dense, packed with all the information needed for the job, just like Javier had said. The easy stuff, and what I liked the most, was the dressing attire. I was going to be wearing a tie. Just thinking about it made me feel important. But then there was the service. You have to pretend the customer is always right in places like this. It is one of those lies you tell so often, and for so long, part of you starts to believe it, pretty much like the existence of God. And just like I was never able to embrace the mythology of an allegedly laudable being, I couldn’t pretend the customers were right all the time. One out of ten times, they were right. That’s it.
Trying to get past my disagreement with those aspects of the job, I focused on the cooking times and procedures, from how long it took to grill up the meats, fry up the chicken nuggets, to when it was acceptable to throw everything away. There were even some buckets under the prep table, where cooks kept the expired foods that had to be logged into a sheet rightfully entitled ‘Food Waste’ at the end of the day. That was one of the less fun things to do. I went through the meat pieces, wearing latex gloves, counting every gooey item, as the smells from the bucket attacked my nostrils.
I soon became the talk of the place, and the way people looked at me was different. I wouldn’t call it jealousy. It was more akin to that look you have when watching a dog performing tricks you couldn’t care about. Yes, that’s right. I felt like a dog jumping and barking for a public indifferent to my failures and successes.
But I wasn’t about to let that stop me.
One Tuesday afternoon, a day that I wasn’t scheduled to work, I came to the restaurant to just sit there and study the booklet. I also brought a yellow pad and a pen. I saw Celestino. He was sitting in the lobby, at the table near one of the exit doors, a table I used a lot before I even considered working here. In front of him, a Big Mac was patiently waiting to be eaten. Celestino sent a message to someone on his phone. He then put the phone aside as I sat down in front of him. After we pumped fists, he paid a little more attention to his burger.
“We had a meeting yesterday,” Celestino said, “and Javier was talking about you.”
“A meeting?” I said, recalling that the day before Celestino and Javier had gone to a meeting at The Annex, a room located next to the restaurant in downtown Santa Barbara, the one place I went to have my orientation when I got the job.
“What’s the difference between that meeting and the one you guys have here every Thursday?”
Celestino was about to sink his teeth into the burger but decided to answer my question first. “That meeting is with all the store managers and assistant managers and supervisors.” He stopped, then added. “And Monte. He is the one who gives the meeting. Whatever we discuss there, we then talk about with you guys here in the restaurant.”
“Interesting,” I said, letting him have a bite before I formulated my next question. “So Monte is the chief executive officer?”
“No. He is the CEO,” Celestino said, barely masticating the meat, passing it down with effort rather than pleasure.
I couldn’t stop myself from smiling. “That’s what I said.”
Celestino stopped chewing his next bite and thought about it. “Oh yeah. That’s right.”
He continued eating, and I decided to change the subject. I had a feeling that my smile was making him feel stupid, but that wasn’t really what I was planning. Hell, half the time I didn’t know what I was planning in those days. I swam in a sea of fiascos so deep I always wondered why I never drowned.
“So tell me,” I said, giving him a chance to show me something I probably didn’t know. “Who’s the owner?”
“David Patterson,” Celestino said. “He doesn’t come that often.”
He gave a glance at the entrance. People were coming in by the loads. I thought he would jump out of his suit to help the crew. However, Marlen, Blanca, and Juanita had everything under wraps, along with a couple of cashiers I never cared about, because they soon were going to leave, just like everyone else did. I was the only cashier who had spent some time here, but I didn’t know if I should be proud of that or not.
“See that showcase over there?” Celestino asked.
Celestino pointed at the middle of the lobby, at the showcase I had seen many times before but somehow decided to ignore. It displayed a couple of blue football jerseys from a local high school team. There was also a baseball, a basketball, a bat, a couple of trophies, and somewhere in the middle, a photo of two happy-looking men, one older, the other younger. The older gentleman, well-dressed in business attire, smiled proudly at the camera while the younger fellow next to him held an egg on top of the older man’s head.
“Yeah, I see it,” I said, looking at the bottom of the photo and the words ‘Egg McMuffin,’ which is one of the most famous McD’s creations. An Egg McMuffin sandwich was also depicted under the name.
“David is the younger,” Celestino said. “His dad was the one on the left. He came up with the idea for the Egg McMuffin.”
“How did he come up with it?”
Celestino swallowed and said, “His favorite breakfast was the Egg Benedict, so he wanted to come up with a similar idea.”
“Egg Benedict?” I asked. “I have never heard of that.”
“It’s very expensive,” Celestino said. “You don’t see that in restaurants people like us go to on a regular basis.”
“So, he created a sandwich for the hoi polloi?”
“The hoi polloi. It just means ‘the common people.'”
Celestino let that sink in. “Mm, never heard of that word. But yes, that was what he created.”
Then I noticed something I wasn’t paying attention to. Celestino was talking about the owner in the past tense. When I asked him why the expression on his face grew solemn.
“He died recently.”
“Last month,” Celestino said. “I told you about it.”
He probably did. But I didn’t remember. I was then the one who felt stupid. Unlike me, Celestino’s face didn’t show a mocking smile. However, the look was too familiar, since it was the same way my mother looked at me when I was unable to memorize the multiplication table.
After washing down another poorly-chewed piece of Big Mac with his coffee, Celestino said, “We had a meeting that day when I told you.”
“Last month,” I said, trying to remember, and then the memory hit me like a cold shower in the back while wearing Adam’s clothes.
That man was the Important Someone who had died when I was bitching and whining about my essay and wondering why my professor didn’t like it. I felt small and pathetic at that moment. I had thought I was more in tune with my surroundings, but Celestino had just made me realize I was about a thousand light-years to be a decent human being.
“Fuck,” I said. “I forgot about that.”
He shrugged. “I can’t blame you. He wasn’t coming anymore. A lot of the new managers didn’t even meet him.”
I had questions about my test but decided to put my selfish needs aside for a moment. “What was his name?”
“How did he die?”
“Old age,” Celestino said. “One day he didn’t wake up and that was it. Monte and David didn’t give us all the details, but we knew he was sick for a long time.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“We have to keep moving forward,” Celestino said stoically, but deep inside, I could see he really cared about Randy Patterson.
I nodded as he continued eating his burger.
I imagined that my conversation with Celestino was meant to happen. “It was study time,” I had said to myself that day before walking out of my house. As it turned out, I wasn’t only learning about the job, but I was also acquiring knowledge on the man who started it all here in Santa Barbara and Goleta. And yes, I had heard his name before, at the orientation I went to when I got the job, but I was not diligently focusing on learning anything. It was time to change that.
When Celestino finished his burger, he started quizzing me, as if reading my mind, knowing that was my intention when I first came and sat there with him. “How long does it take for the 10:1 patty to cook?”
My eyes when straight to my notes, but that particular answer was not in the first sheet in my yellow pad. Instead, I was looking at what they call Holding Times. In other words, the time it takes for a piece of meat to be held in one of the cabinets before being thrown away. The one thing that I did remember was that there were two kinds of patties at that time: 10:1, the traditional small patty that was used for cheeseburgers, hamburgers, and the Big Mac. Also, there was the 4:1 patty, used exclusively for the Quarter Pounder and the Big & Tasty.
“Don’t look at your notes,” Celestino said. “Monte is expecting you to memorize everything.”
“Are you asking me?”
I froze a little; my confidence was nowhere to be seen. “I remember 112 seconds. There are 112 seconds for something.”
He sighed. “Yes, 112 seconds is the total time for a hamburger to be ready. But what I am asking you is how long does it take for that meat to be cooked.”
So I was way off. I went back into my head to try to retrieve the answer. Many numbers started dancing in my head. I just had to snatch them and put them where they belonged. If the total prepping time was 112 seconds, it stood to reason that the cooking time had to be less than a minute.
God, no wonder people get sick with this kind of food.
“I’m waiting,” Celestino said.
“44 seconds,” I said, with a smile on my face. “And I am not asking this time.”
He smiled too. “Good job.”
“Gimme another question,” I said, already warming up to this.
“Cooking time of the 4:1?” he asked.
“That’s 82 seconds.”
“Total prep time of a hamburger?”
I stopped and thought. “That’s 112 seconds, you just told me.”
“Yes, it is. I just wanted to see if you’re paying attention.”
“Ok, gimme another one.”
“Total prep time of a Quarter Pounder?”
“Because it takes longer to cook the meat?”
“Are you asking me?”
“No, I’m telling you.”
“No, it sounded like you were asking.”
I sighed. “Yes, I guess I was.”
I saw where this was going. Celestino wanted me to toughen up and answer the questions with confidence. He’d been here long enough, so he knew how the bosses were.
“It won’t happen again,” I said.
Right on cue, Marlen came forward and stood next to Celestino.
“Hey guys,” she said, looking down at the notes. “Are you getting ready for the test, Gabriel?”
“What would you say is the most difficult thing to learn?”
“Learning all the temperatures and holding times.”
“I’m asking him about the cooking time for the beef patties,” Celestino said.
She looked at him. “And how is he doing?”
She looked back at me, smiling.
Celestino shrugged. “I don’t know. I think he’s gonna fail.” He tried to be serious while saying that, but a faint smile betrayed him.
“What’s the cooking time for the chicken nuggets?” Marlen asked.
I had to know that one since we cooked the chicken tenders, the nuggets, and the fries in the same friers. And I knew they all cook in a similar number of minutes. But I wasn’t entirely sure.
“Um,” I said. “Nuggets, you said?”
“Three minutes, just like the fries,” I said.
She shook her head, so did Celestino.
Blanca came and joined the group, leaving Juanita alone with the two cashiers, one cleaning the front counter and registers, the other taking an order for a gay couple who couldn’t keep their hands off each other.
“What are you guys doing?” Blanca said to us, but her eyes were a bit too focused on the couple.
Marlen said, “Gabriel thinks that the cooking time for the fries and the nuggets is the same.”
Blanca looked disappointed. “Oh, man. You’re gonna fail.”
“But,” I said. “I thought…”
“Write this down,” Celestino said, and I grabbed the pen faster than a cowboy pulls his gun. “Nuggets: 3 minutes, 45 seconds. Fries: 3 minutes. Nuggets take an extra 45 seconds to be cooked.”
I wrote all that down so quickly I couldn’t understand my handwriting.
“You should be a doctor,” Blanca said.
Marlen and Celestine agreed.
“What about the chicken tenders?” Celestino asked.
“Oh, that I know,” I said.
“Really?” Marlen asked.
“Yeah, because it takes longer than everything else, and every time someone asks for chicken tenders, we have to tell the customer to wait longer. Right?”
Blanca nodded. “Yep, you got it. So what is it?”
“What is what?” I asked.
“The cooking time,” Marlen said.
Having all of them look at me at the same time was hard. They said that when I had my meeting with Monte and Gabby, the feeling would be worse. I was glad these guys were training me, so I didn’t feel like I was dying when the time came for the real test, which was supposed to be next month. Before that, I needed to meet with Gabby. Javier said our meeting was scheduled for the next day, and I was looking forward to that.
I already had the answer they were waiting for but thought it would be fun to make them wait a bit longer. “Four minutes and forty-five seconds,” I finally said.
And they all smiled.
“How are you doing with your test?” The next day, Roberto asked me as he was changing the price tags and piling them up in a red shopping cart. It was midday, and the place filled up with customers all of a sudden. I wondered if any particular sale was going on that I didn’t know about, but it turned out everything was business as usual.
“I think I’m gonna ace it,” I said while getting some notebooks off the boxes and placing them on the shelf. We were working on aisle 2, where the notebooks and journals go. I broke the boxes and tossed them in the same red shopping cart. Whatever I couldn’t break with my bare hands, I would use one of those yellow blades they gave us. I didn’t like them because I would sometimes rip or cut something.
“You have to learn temperatures, cooking procedures, and all that jazz?” Roberto asked, but it sounded more like a statement than a question. It was interesting to see him have a conversation and focus on accurately changing the price tags. Who said that only women were good at multitasking?
“That’s right,” I said to him, but at the same time, I looked at the shelf, looking for the spot where I needed to place the notebooks I was holding.
The schematics and shelf placements often changed at this job, and sometimes the person in charge of changing those new sheets was unable to do it on schedule, making it harder for me to know where anything went. Besides, I was the janitor, and the only two reasons I was doing this job were because I had done it before, and they didn’t have anyone else working at the moment.
But I was next to the master, so it didn’t take long for him to point me in the right direction.
“Down there,” Roberto said, pointing a finger on the bottom right-hand corner. “If you don’t know where something goes, look at the brand. They all go together in the same place.”
I looked at the notebook brand I was holding and the brand of the notebooks on the bottom right-hand corner. It was the same brand, but…
“What?” he said, as though he were reading my mind.
Roberto tilted his head down, and his stare rested on me for a brief moment that felt eternal. His glasses slid forward a bit in a comical manner. “You don’t believe me, do you?”
I didn’t know whether I was frightened or amused. “Well, it could be any other kind of notebook. How many varieties do we have of this brand?”
He smirked. “That’s a smart observation, but need I remind you who is in charge of putting all these price tags around?”
I conceded and put the notebooks where he said.
He then said, “So?”
He gave me that look again. “We were talking about your test.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said, grabbing hold of where the conversation was when I was suddenly interrupted by the necessity of doing my job. “I have to study temperatures, holding times, and all that jazz.”
He noticed I used his same exact words, made a guttural laugh, and carried on with the conversation. “What do you like more about the job?”
I gave him a quizzical look. “Well, I haven’t gotten the job yet.”
“But you will,” Roberto said. “Besides, you have seen what they do, and I am sure you already know what you like and what you don’t like.”
I gave it a thought. “For starters, the money.”
He pursed his lips comically and lifted his right eyebrow. “Obviously.”
And when I was about to tell him what else I liked and didn’t like, the voice in the sky stuck her nose in our conversation.
“Customer assistance on aisle four,” the voice from the speakers said, a voice I’d heard some many times I was beginning to listen to it in my dreams.
“Go,” Roberto said. “You are the only one on the floor.”
“I thought they hired more people,” I said, unnecessarily, just because I felt like whining. I knew they didn’t have more people.
“When you tell them that you’re leaving, they are not going to have any other choice but to hire more people.”
I made my way two aisles up as I put the blade in my pocket. In my head, I was reciting what I had learned for the test. Being a McDonald’s manager was now the priority, even though I was on the clock at Staples. Somehow, it felt like cheating. If Staples were a girl, she would have cut me in pieces with the blade that rested inside my pocket.
I wouldn’t have blamed her.
When I turned left and walked along aisle four, my eyes focused then on the well-dressed woman with a black ponytail who stood beside the pen and pencils. She held a pen of her own against her face, gently touching her nose, as she scanned the wall and tried to find the one she wanted. Her right foot tapped the floor in what looked like morse code, tapping three times, then stopping and tapping two more times. She went on and on for a while, looking as though she was about to give up.
I studied her profile from afar, her black business suit kept everything to the imagination, but if you looked a bit longer, it was easy to imagine whatever your mind allowed you to conjure up. At first, she seemed vaguely familiar, making me wonder where I had seen her before, but as I came closer and closer, I was almost sure we did meet somewhere else.
She turned, looked at me, and smiled, the same way you smile at anyone who is about to make your life easier by helping you find your favorite brand of pens and pencils. Yes, she was the person I thought. She was my boss, the good-looking Latina I had to impress to get the job as a manager.
“Hi, can you help me find this brand,” Gabriela Vazquez said, holding a pen relatively close to my face.
Of course, she didn’t know who I was, and my fragile ego was about to throw a tantrum all by itself, but I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt for two reasons. First, she only saw me a couple of times while I was wearing a hat and a blue shirt, whereas now I was wearing a red shirt, and all my hair was moving freely on top of my head. Second, and most importantly, who the fuck did I think I was to feel that famous?
“Of course I can,” I said, and my pitch came out almost like a whistle, which indicated I was nervous.
But why was I nervous? Maybe because I had been thinking about this woman a lot lately, not in a sexual way, mind you, but I guess it didn’t matter. The mere fact that she had been in my head for a while but now came out and was here, talking to me, was enough to keep me star-struck for a second.
She noticed my hesitation and unnecessarily prologued eye contact. “Is everything alright?”
I took a deep breath. “Yes, it is. it’s just that I was processing my thoughts, trying to remember where that brand is.”
She squinted, looking to her left. “But you can always look at the wall,” she said. “They are all here, aren’t they?”
Then I had what I thought was a brilliant idea, but my delivery was weaker than decaf coffee with a splash of milk. “Here is the thing. The, um… the display changes every week, so we have to remember repeatedly where things go. So, um, it just… changed recently.”
I could see that she didn’t buy it but decided not to say anything. “Let’s take a look together.”
I blinked rapidly. “Yes, Let’s,” I said, then added. “Can I just see your pen to, um, try to find the brand quickly?”
She squinted. “But you just said-”
“Yes, ma’am, I know what I said, but I just recalled that they actually put all the same brands together in certain places. Kind of like segregation.”
When the words came out, I realized it was the most inappropriate thing to say. However, she smiled and nodded.
She handed me the pen. I took it and began to scan the wall. The truth was I had no idea where that brand was, but I thought of what Roberto had just told me and looked as hard as I could, trying to find the brand Gabriela Vazquez needed. Meanwhile, I debated whether I should make small talk or not, tell her who I was and that we had a meeting in a couple of hours, but my lips froze, leaving only my eyes in working order as they continued scanning the wall.
“Found it!” I finally said, feeling how my numbed jaw moved as pieces of imaginary ice melted away and leaked off my face. I unfroze.
She couldn’t hide her excitement. “Great,” she said, looking at my name tag and smiling, maybe because I was her namesake.
“Can I, uh… help you find something else?”
“No, Gabriel,” she said. “That’s all for now. Thank you for your help.”
“You’re welcome. Anytime.”
She walked away, and I managed not to look at her behind. I started moving pens around for no reason, distracting myself with the job. I am glad I didn’t stare because she looked back, stopped, and said, “I’ll see you at the restaurant in two hours. We have a lot to talk about.”
My pupils dilated. So she knows who I am, I thought.
“Sure thing,” I said, my legs shaking as I walked away.
Photo by Monsterkoi.