Raising three boys should be considered an Olympic event. My mom’s approach revolved around a military-like discipline and a penchant for repeating mantras like an over-wrought motivational speaker. She hated laziness and often lit a fire under the three of us when we slacked off. She also had (and still has) a 1950s view of the world that translated into clean living – no drinking, no drugs, and no sex.
Her intensity instilled a work ethic in all of us that, to this day, still persists. If you ask me what I bring to the table in any job, I’ll tell you that no one works harder, and I mean it. My mom would be disappointed otherwise, and you don’t disappoint your mother.
I had my first “job” when I was nine years old when I spent the summer working with my maternal grandfather. He owned a construction business and had landed a contract renovating schools around the district. I spent that summer cleaning up construction debris at the schools. The menial work wasn’t too hard, but it was enough for a small nine-year-old. He paid me generously for my work that summer, and I remember being so proud of earning my own money. That was my first taste of hard work paying off.
I spent the next several summers working for him or my uncles in various construction-related jobs. As I got older, the jobs got harder. It was during those summer and winter breaks when I was knee-deep digging some trench or hauling rebar across a construction site that I realized I’d never escape the working class misery that weighed on my dad if I didn’t stay in school. That was all the motivation I would ever need.
After I turned 14 years old, I landed a part-time job at a local grocery store stocking shelves and bagging groceries – I considered this my first real job since it was outside the family. I worked with several older boys and a throng of gossiping cashiers, which introduced me to the forlorn world of workplace melodrama. I hadn’t seen anything yet, but even at my most naive and oblivious, I found the manufactured drama equal parts amusing and annoying.
When I turned 16 and obtained my driver’s license, my exploration of the landscape of mind-numbing, menial work led me to the local McDonald’s. The restaurant sat on a crowded strip of fast food joints that fanned out from a Walmart just outside of downtown Canton. At the time, that stretch of road represented the best Canton had to offer, which was not much. Canton lacked any entertainment options back then for teenagers other than driving a circuitous route among the fast food restaurants and honking at your friends or attractive members of the opposite sex as you drove by.
Working at that McDonald’s opened my eyes to a different world, a rather seedy one that I had never seen before. The motley crew of teenagers and desperate working adults made for an interesting interaction behind the scenes. The only real adult at the place, the lead manager, was a grumpy, older guy named Randy, whom I quickly grew to dislike. He treated us all like we were trash because his experience with fast food workers had extinguished his brittle faith in humanity. He became the common enemy we all loathed.
Looking back, I can’t say I blame him. His managers struggled to be adults, and us teenagers were, well, just teenagers – sarcastic know-it-alls who had no vested interest in the job other than getting some spending money for our next day off. We all hated our jobs. I still worked hard, but I hated it. I spent most of my time working that smelly, greasy grill slaving over hyper-frozen meat patties as they quickly melted into globs of semi-edible meat for the next customer in line. In my year or so of working there I could never rid myself of that terrible grill odor. My uniform reeked. Sometimes, I’d catch a whiff of the grill on my hands on days when I wasn’t working and I’d want to retch. Good times.
Nevertheless, there were some interesting characters at the restaurant. One buxom manager, Mindy (not her real name), often came to work jacked up on something. She’d wear her long-sleeved uniform in the sweltering summer to hide the needle pricks on her arms, and she’d deliver her instructions in that slow, careful demeanor of the town drunk. She looked to be in her late forties, but I don’t think she was really that old.
She dated a scrawny, pot-smoking maintenance guy who struggled to hold down a job, but in spite of their relationship, she’d get awfully close to the rest of us young guys who worked her shift. One minute she’d be making out with the maintenance guy in the break room and in another she’d be sitting too close to you with her best assets propped forward behind a shirt that was just a tad too tight and hadn’t been buttoned up completely.
After close when it was just us workers in the wretched throes of another late night, she and the maintenance guy would break out the joints and who knows what else. I’d never actually seen illegal drugs until I worked at McDonald’s. Despite the ready availability of illicit drugs, I didn’t accept any offers for a puff or anything else, not because I was some self-righteous moral crusader, but because even then, I understood my genetic propensity to develop addictive habits, and I feared losing control. That road led to nowhere, and I had to get on the next road out of town.
Mindy always got extra flirty when she was hopped up, but even for a teenager with raging hormones, she was a complete turnoff, a hot mess of something that was a beacon for imminent personal disaster. She made me uncomfortable when she got so close I could smell the smoke on her breath and the taint of grease that emanated from her uniform after a long night serving putrid fast food.
While Mindy was giving us a lesson in what not to do when you become an adult, the usual teenage curiosities pulsed beneath the surface. Anytime you mix teenage boys and girls together in an environment like that something is bound to happen. Not long after I started, a girl named Rachel (not her real name) began working with me on Friday and Saturday nights. She worked the front counter and I worked the grill. By this time Keith had joined me at the restaurant and often manned the grill with me. We fed off each other and became something of a wannabe comedy team back there making light of our atrocious working conditions and the ridiculous customer demands that often came our way.
Since Keith and I both hated our jobs, we didn’t care what we did or said back there. The kids working the front counter laughed but mostly rolled their eyes at our boisterous act, while the supposed adults-in-charge ignored it. Rachel found it humorous, and she often egged us on, which admittedly, didn’t take much to do. She’d make some snarky comment, and we’d go into a frenzy of comebacks that hopefully weren’t heard by the customers up front.
Rachel was cute, but she wasn’t particularly attractive to me. She smoked, which I hated, and she spoke in that backwoods way that I had grown tired of by the time I reached high school, but it eventually dawned on me that she liked me, and as teenage boys are prone to do, I took advantage of it. For a brief time, we became a couple. She doted over me at work, and we’d meet in the break room at work or the halls at school and hold hands or sneak a kiss like typical, googly-eyed teenagers. Rachel took our relationship more seriously than I did as I stayed true to handbook for immature teenage boys.
Needless to say, that relationship didn’t end well. It culminated with both of us losing our innocence, but quickly fell apart when Rachel caught me fawning over another girl. Shortly afterwards, she quit working at McDonald’s and I avoided her at all costs in the hallways at school, and we never spoke to each other again. It was definitely not one of my proudest moments. Boys have a tendency to learn life’s lessons in the hardest way possible. It’s a cycle that has persisted for eons, and the cycle certainly didn’t end with me. There’d be more stumbles ahead, the momentary lapses in budding judgment that form the foundation of experience. Such is life. No one had said it would ever be an easy or admirable path.