The day I turned sixteen, I picked up my blue-and-gray striped uniform and started working at McDonald's. From that day until I left for college two years later, I clocked in for three nights a week and three weekends a month. In my sleep, I confirmed drive-thru orders. In the shower, I tried to scrub off the filmy coating of vegetable oil that accumulated over the course of an eight-hour shift.
I was basically assigned to the drive-thru because 1) I could speak English and 2) I could do more than three things at once. It was far better than being assigned bathroom duty or the never-ending task of wiping down trays, but the problem with the drive-thru was that I had exactly sixteen square feet in which to operate, and one or two coworkers in that space at all time, with a carful of hungry customers breathing down my neck at the window.
At the time (and probably, still), McDonald's customers could fill out a comment card about their experience. Was the food hot? Order correct? Employees friendly? It seemed a rather unfair system, since we couldn't rate the customer back. (Was the customer rude? Was the customer able to read the menu? Did the customer pay for a Value Meal entirely in pennies?) In fact, all we could do was smile politely, if tightly, and keep up the pretension that the customer was, indeed, always right.
One day I showed up for work, and Monica, who worked the 6 to 2 shift, cornered me. "Oooh, Paula - you got carded," she said. Her eyes were full of a mixture of sympathy and superiority. In the hierarchy of this particular franchise, Monica might have been a step below a shift manager, but this was only semantics.
Now being carded was serious business, but unfortunately, I had trouble with Monica's thick accent, and what I heard was, "Oooh, Paula -- you've got karma."
I wondered about this for the next few hours of my shift, in between asking, "Would you like to add a hot apple pie to your order for only 99 cents?" and restocking paper cups. What did it mean that I had karma? My understanding of the concept was basically limited to "what comes around, goes around." Had I offended one of my co-workers, somehow pissed off a customer? I couldn't recall spitting in anyone's Coke or serving food that had hit the floor. It must mean, then, that I had done something wonderful, and the universe was going to reward me. It was true - I was an excellent employee: always on time (my mom's doing), professional (I didn't get involved in disputes with my coworkers, mainly because my attempts at speaking Spanish were universally mocked), and I had one of the best drive-thru accuracy records on the crew. Of the 40 billion served, I was probably personally responsible for several million. Yes -- good things were surely coming my way.
When I clocked out for my ten-minute break, the store manager cornered me. "Paula, we need to talk in private," she said. Private in this environment meant wedged between the cook station and the walk-in freezer, where we stacked half-empty boxes of promotional Happy Meal toys.
"Okay," I said, wiping my greasy hands on my pants.
"You probably heard that you got a card."
A -- card? Not... karma? The sympathetic looks of my coworkers suddenly made sense.
"Do you want to read it?" She asked, and then handed it to me before I could say, "No, no thanks."
What I read was basically a diatribe against my hair - it was ugly, it was dirty, it was a horrible representation of this fine dining establishment.
I swallowed. I have had the same hair for much of my life - blonde, long, generally in a ponytail, washed every night of my life no matter what was happening, and basically, I've always considered it my best feature. I handed back the card wordlessly.
My manager studied me carefully. I think this was actually the first time she had ever looked at me, other than to notice that I had or hadn't completed a task. "You always wear your hair like that, right?"
"Yeah." Baseball caps were part of our mandatory uniform, so there weren't too many hair options available. Every day when I started my shift, I tucked my blonde ponytail into the back of the hat and that was it.
"Well, Paula," she said, ripping the comment card in half, then half again and again, until dozens of shredded pieces floated from her hand into the trash basket. "I think we should just forget all about this."
"Thanks," I said, and wandered off to the employee lounge, where I spent the final two minutes of my break shaking, wondering what cruel person had taken the time out of his or her busy schedule to humiliate a seventeen-year-old girl. It probably wasn't a person who went straight from school to work and home again to write essays and cram for tests, and yes, try to wash the residue of grease out of my hair. It probably wasn't a person who banked 75% of her paycheck to cover private college tuition. And if there was any fairness in the world, it probably wasn't a person who had good things coming.
Talk about karma, indeed.
Paula Treick DeBoard