Saturday, May 16, 2015

working the arches

McDonald's was my on-ramp to employment success.

The year was 1967 -- the summer between high school graduation and entering college.  And, as it turned out, one of my favorite summers.

I grew up in what would become known as the sub-suburbs of Portland.  We lived on a large lot in an unincorporated area of the county.  That means we were not burdened with the taxes and services of an incorporated city.  (I believe it is still the largest unincorporated area in Clackamas County.)

As a result, our area seemed more rural than urban.  While I was in grade school, a Fred Meyer department store opened several blocks from the house.  A Shakey's pizza parlor soon followed on the highway at the top of our street.

It was not until I was in high school that our first hamburger franchise opened.  A McDonald's. 

But not the McDonald's we now know.  The franchise had three strict rules: no pay telephones; no juke boxes; no female employees.  All three would attract the wrong type of non-customers: single young men, a louche group known for empty pockets.

McDonald's was a family restaurant.  And, even though Oregon's weather is not conducive to outdoor picnic tables, there was no indoor dining.

Being an employee was not new to me.  I had held down a job since I was in the 5th grade: pulling weeds at the bank, running a lawn mowing business, delivering the local newspaper, and "shagging" newspapers for a wholesaler.

But McDonald's was the first place I worked in a job that required extensive training and then allowed me to work as part of a team.  I have never been short of self-confidence, but the work taught me that diligence and talent can have immediate rewards.

The jobs at McDonald's were very hierarchical.  I started on the potato peeling machine and worked my way up the food chain to fries blancher, and then to the glorious position of french fry frier.

If I remember correctly, I then worked in milk shakes before I was assigned to the grill where I learned the subtleties of frying large numbers of hamburger patties while deep frying fish filets.  That grill taught me that my nascent lessons in cooking were paying off -- and would give me a life of independence in preparing my own food.

But all of that paled with the star roles -- working the window.  It was a perfect way to learn a lesson I have used my entire life: Dealing with the public is just another acting role. 

I loved being the face of McDonald's.  Greeting the public.  Adding a bit of magic to their day.  Interestingly, I remember nothing challenging about making change.  Nor should I.  My father taught me change-making when I was four.

I did learn one very important lesson, though.  The seduction of power.  One of my high school friends stopped by, and ordered a small soft drink.  Rather than ringing it up, I simply gave it to him.  An act of theft witnessed by my manager.

The manager called me back to the office.  I thought I was a dead man.  And I should have been.  Theft is theft.

But the manager, who was probably 25, was wise for his years.  He asked what I had done.  I was not so stupid as to compound my crime with a lie.

He then surprised me by asking if I wanted to work for the government.  I laughed, and told him: "Not unless I want to be disowned by my parents.  Why do you ask?"

"Because that is what you just did.  Like government, you took someone else's money, gave it to another person, and then expected gratitude in return.  This is not a government operation.  Now, get back on the counter."

He may have been the most clever boss I ever had.  For the rest of the summer, I bent over backwards to be McDonald's best employee.

I must have succeeded.  At the end of the summer, I was among the two employees who were asked to stay on for the fall full-time schedule.  I couldn't accept the offer because I was heading off to college in Portland.

But I have never forgotten what that summer taught me.  How talent is rewarded.  How learning to work with others and show up on time are universal prerequisites for succeeding in life.  How providing good food at a low cost to families is one of the great accomplishments of the American free market system.

I also earned enough money that summer to pay for a full semester of school.  Not only was it an era when a fast food job for teenage guys was considered honorable work, it was a time before the governmental-educational complex had done everything in its power to make higher education inaccessible to kids like me.

I owe a debt to McDonald's.  The company provided me with the memory of an almost perfect summer -- and helped make me what I am now.

I have never had problems with self-confidence.  But you knew that already.


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