Why working fast food and retail was good for me

One of my former high school classmates is concerned. Her seven-year-old’s life ambition is to work at McDonald’s.

I told her not to worry. I didn’t work at McDonald’s, but I spent 2 1/2 years working another, nearly defunct fast-food chain, and that motivated me more than anything to go to college. And then, working two years off and on in retail motivated me to finish college.

At 16, I applied for a job at my favorite fast-food chain. It was in decline at the time, but I didn’t really know that then. What I knew was they were hiring, and if I was going to work somewhere, I might as well like the food.

I blew them away at the interview, and I’d barely made it back home when I got the phone call offering me the job.

I had a lot to learn, but it wasn’t long before the district manager declared I was the smartest guy in the whole district. Himself included. I worked with a lot of interesting people. Some were my age. Some were much older than me.

One was even smarter than me. She was hired a year or so after me. She was an honest-to-goodness, card-carrying MENSA member. She talked like William F. Buckley Jr., including the accent. I understood about half the things she said, but at least I understood half of it. She talked to me more than anyone else she worked with, not that I was much of a challenge for her. But intellect is hard to find in fast food, so I guess you settle for what you can get.

At the end of the summer, she quit. I told you she was smarter than me.

Most of the people I worked with, and for, were much less successful. A lot of them came and went. We were high turnover. Management liked it that way.

On a couple of occasions, I nearly got turned over. One time, a shift supervisor called me lazy in front of a customer. (I wasn’t.) The customer said, “Well, you’re the one leaning against the door while he gets my order ready.” He didn’t like that at all. Pretty soon, he was challenging me to a fight. Knowing there was no way to win in that situation–I could stay and get beat up, or fight back, still get beat up, and get fired on top of that–I took a nonviolent approach. I wiggled my way out of the corner he backed me into, ran across the parking lot, and found a cop.

The shift supervisor wanted me fired over that. I wanted him to spend the night in jail. Neither happened.

The other time, I fell victim to a professional quick change artist. He was slick. He ordered a 50-cent cup of coffee. He paid with a rolled up $20 bill, which he tried to pass off as a single. He acted surprised when I handed him back $19 and change. So he had me change back for a $20.

At that point, I should have closed the drawer and asked him to leave. I know that now.

Being 17 and naive, I tried to keep up with him. And I thought I was doing a pretty good job, until he tried to get me to give him a $100 bill. I didn’t have a $100 and I knew it. And at that point, I called him on his attempt to shortchange me, and called a manager over.

The manager watched him mosey out the door, and we proceeded to count down the drawer. It was short beyond the allowable limit. He had taken me.

He couldn’t fire me on the spot, but he told me that would probably happen the next day, and sent me home.

I went home, told my parents what had happened, then retreated to the basement. I fired up the computer and wrote my account of what happened, including what the manager did wrong. And to defend myself, I also gave a nice account of other goings-on at the store. If I was going down, I was going to take the store’s poor management with me.

The letter quickly found its way to the corporate office in Ohio, and it wasn’t long before I was getting calls all hours of the day. Including when I was at school. Corporate was amazed to find out the letter that was causing such a stir had been written by a 17-year-old.

“With all due respect, your corporate policy sucks,” I told one executive. She asked what I thought they should do.

“Train your employees.” After all, they were trying to fire me for handling a situation improperly, but nobody had ever told me how you were supposed to handle that situation.

One day, while all of this was going on, the vice principal of the school took me aside. “What’s going on?” he asked. He knew something was bugging me. I told him the story.

“Imagine yourself a single mother with no education, not even a high school diploma,” he said. “You’d be completely at the mercy of those people.”

I didn’t agree with the man all that often, but he was right about that. And I resolved to never be at the mercy of those people again.

A year or so later, after all the store management churned, I told one of the new managers if he was bored, my file was probably the most interesting reading in the whole file cabinet. An hour or so later, he came out and told me I was right.

I quit in early August 1993. I was starting at the University of Missouri. The company was in bankruptcy, and the store closed about six weeks later. I visited one last time before it happened. By the end of the year, the chain had pulled out of Missouri entirely. I understand the chain is still in business, barely, but confined to a dozen or so locations in and around Ohio. Ironically, I’m traveling to the city it used to be headquartered in next week. On other business.

I have a fiery streak, and it was visible then, at least as much as it is now. My manager at my second-most recent job told me once that I could be difficult to deal with, but that was because I care, and given the choice, he’d take the guy who cares. Every time.

I worked retail for two summers and spring/holiday breaks as well, while I was in college. I sold computers. I had a mixed relationship with management there too. Some of the managers liked me because I knew my stuff and could sell a ton of product, as long as I believed in it. Some of the managers hated me because they couldn’t tell me what to do. I wasn’t going to steer a customer toward a Packard Bell computer just because some manager wanted to move a bunch of Packard Bells. I had more integrity than that. And one manager hated me just because I was white and had some college education.

I worked hard and I sold a ton of Compaq computers in my time there. And there was only one time a customer ever stumped me with a question. He brought in a weird cable and wanted an adapter to connect it to a modern PC. I now believe it was an IEEE-488 cable. What? Exactly. I don’t feel bad about that, because I guarantee there wasn’t anyone else who would have known what that cable was either.

But if they needed a memory card for an obscure IBM clone computer, or needed to know if a certain piece of software or peripheral would work with their old computer, I was your man. I either knew whether it would work, or it would take me about two minutes to figure it out.

I was good at what I did, but I didn’t like being controlled. I didn’t like that I wasn’t paid on commission, but the managers got bonuses based on monthly sales. So in effect, store management got commissions on my work.

But mostly, I didn’t like what one of the managers did to me the day after Christmas.

His name was Steve. He called me at home and said he needed to talk to me. In person. I asked if it could wait for my next shift. He said I needed to come in immediately. So I drove 20 minutes to see him.

He told me I was being laid off. The store was getting rid of its Christmas help.

Never mind I was going back to school in five days and probably would only work a couple of shifts anyway. Never mind my dad had just died and I really needed the money from those last few shifts. Never mind I’d always done everything they asked me to do. None of that mattered.

I saw him the day before I left for college, when I went in to pick up my final check. “How’s it going?” he asked with a fake game show host grin on his face.

“I’ve been better,” I said.

“What’s wrong? Are you sick? Are you hurt?”

“I’m leaving for college tomorrow, and I really needed the money from working this week. But none of that matters to you.”

On various occasions, the managers who did like me tried to talk me out of going back to school. Stay with the company, they urged. Look at them. Look at what they’d done without a college degree.

Yep, look at them. The best of them are probably still managing stores, somewhere. One of the managers who didn’t like me got demoted. And Steve, the manager who laid me off, got fired for sexual harassment.

I graduated college in May 1997, with a bachelor’s degree from one of the most prestigious journalism schools in the world. The same school hired me, fresh off my stint in retail, to unbox 400 IBM PC 330s and install memory, network cards, and operating systems on them. I understood the job was temporary.

When that job was done, they found money to keep me around. I worked for them part-time, off and on. A semester before I graduated, they offered me a full-time job with benefits, as a network administrator, and allowed me to work around my class schedule.

Today I’ve worked full time in some form of information technology or another for 13 years. I’m also a published author on two continents.

I’m successful. Not as successful as I want to be, but successful. I don’t necessarily have everything I always wanted, but my family and I definitely have everything we need. I’ve had some ups and downs, but the last two times I’ve quit a job to move on, someone’s tried to talk me out of leaving. And both companies tried to lure me back months afterward–one successfully.

Not wanting to sell junky consumer electronics again and really not wanting to sell processed sandwiches and fries again has something to do with all that.

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