There is a room in the back of the Ramapo Travel Plaza McDonald’s restaurant on Route 17 that is the only room in which Ramapo Travel Plaza McDonald’s employees are allowed to eat McDonald’s. “That must be the saddest room in the whole entire world,” my boyfriend said one night over a meal paid for by real, McDonald’s minimum wage earnings. “I can’t think of a more depressing purpose for a room.” He was right, the room was approximately six feet wide and seven feet deep, decorated solely with white, 8.5-by-11-inch papers bearing policies concerning what was included in a free employee meal, the criteria for being promoted from a minimum wage cashier to a minimum wage crew chief, and one printed photo of a manager with a man dressed as Ronald McDonald in a decrepit New Jersey mall. The tiles on the floor were the color of brick and occasionally someone would bring a stack of napkins from out front to put on top of, but never in, the empty napkin holder. “You should be damn grateful for that room,” I giggled. “Because if we could take the McDonald’s out of the room I would be bringing it back here and we would be eating that.”
A primary goal of working the front counter was to make it look nothing like the back room. If the manager said, “make sure your station looks spotless,” I always felt the subtext was, “make this place so clean that they’ll never even guess about that weird fucking room in the back.” I never thought there was much sense in that request, the customers were either truckers who wouldn’t mind the break room or were Manhattan dwellers on their way home from a summer house who shouldn’t have been eating McDonald’s anyway. The floor behind the front counter was the same brick-colored, tile floor, only differing in the way that, with the exception of the corners, it was swept more often. The front counter was a good place to get yelled at for leaning on something, as the manager of Ramapo Travel’s Carvel, Sbarro’s, and Lavazza Coffee section, Louise, truly thought she was clever in the development of the phrase “cleaning not leaning” and applauded herself by stating it often. She disappeared often, preferring to inhabit the break rooms or flirt with coworkers in the McDonald’s kitchen. As soon as she was out of earshot, my favorite coworker, a small Hispanic woman named Virginia would squeak out, “perezosa lady.” Louise was a harsh woman who worked in the military before she worked at McDonald’s. She seemed to regard the authority aspect of her managerial McDonald’s job about as seriously as a military position and felt herself above doing any of the tasks that the minimum wage workers or other managers did. She took an interest in holding screaming matches with the sixteen-year-old crew chief and entertained the petty power plays that took place on the floor. With the exception of my second-favorite coworker, Robyn, no one really liked her.
It’s impossible to say where one could typically find Robyn, mostly because Robyn was all over the place. Robyn was fifty-four and always wore her hair in three braids tied together into one ponytail, earning her the nickname of “Crazy McDonald’s Grandma” by my mother. I have never met anyone who loved anything more than Robyn loved the Ramapo Travel Plaza McDonald’s. She cleaned the Carvel ice cream machine every Thursday with a concerning amount of tenderness and care and one day when the machine broke she was devastated enough to sulk for four days. She also liked to do things we weren’t allowed to do, like move all of the condiments from the storage room under the front counter and put half and half in cappuccinos instead of two percent milk for customers who preferred it. Robyn would dance Chubby Checker’s twist every time someone requested a chocolate-vanilla twist cone and gave away teeny tiny ice cream cones to customers with babies for free. Robyn would even hide in the storage room once her shift was over so that the manager wouldn’t make her go home. All of the new employees, myself included, adored her because she was entertaining and just as nice to new employees as she was to everyone, but the other workers all seemed to have a problem with her, which I never thought of as more than anything but a silly jealousy of how much customers liked her.
I was hired to work at the Carvel, Sbarro’s and Lavazza stations, and usually worked at all three in any given shift. Virginia worked with me, and she worked hard, late and often by herself when it got past midnight. Usually when she came in it was after having already worked a shift at Boston Market, where she received the same minimum wage salary that she did at our job. She had worked at McDonald’s for a couple of years, longer than most of the employees. Two months after I began work, on a day that Virginia didn’t start her shift until five, a manager decided to send Danielle, a girl who had been working the McDonald’s counter, to our side of the store to learn the Lavazza Coffee stand so that Virginia could have some help on my days off. Louise had been present all morning and, seeking to drift into the break room, requested that I teach Danielle the coffee stand. Danielle had worked on the other side of the store for about seven months, but had taken a month off for her finals at community college and a half of a month off to go on two vacations, one with her family and one with her boyfriend. I understood she had been trained to work at the coffee stand in the past but, as far as I knew, hadn’t been asked to work there again after her first day. “Joe trained me and he told me I could pick a drink that I wanted as reward for learning,” she explained to me, fair hands folded delicately on the counter. “So I put it next to the cash register and when I came back someone has thrown it out.” She exhaled dramatically. “I was so pissed that Joe told me he would make me another one.” She pushed a strand of her red hair behind her ear and put an extra espresso shot into the drink she was making, looking prickly when I pointed out her mistake. Danielle wore rings on every finger even though it was against the dress code and her hair was unbound for the most part, something Louise would have made a fuss about if she hadn’t been so quick to leave.
“Do you want to work the register?” I asked, my patience running short. “Sure,” she answered coolly, not catching my tone. The McDonald’s side had touch-screen cash registers with pictures of the food for the cashiers to choose from rather than having to memorize and punch in designated number combinations for orders. Our side wasn’t afforded this luxury, but there was a list of numbers printed, laminated and taped down onto the side of the cash register.
“What’s a small chai?” Danielle asked. I moved over to the cash register to show her how to put the order into the cash register, as it wasn’t listed on the sheet. Chai had an unordinary key combination, so I went over to show her how to enter it into the register. “Oh, also,” I nonchalantly added as the drawer opened, “the bills should all face up.”
I looked back to what I had been doing, not thinking it odd that I had received no acknowledgement in regard to the last statement. After I had made the chai and the customer left, Danielle hissed out my name.
“Justine,” she said bitterly. Surprised at her tone, I turned to face her, eyes meeting hers in what I found was an unflinching glare. “I have worked here for almost a year,” she said once she had my full attention. Her tone was unwavering, and she spoke slowly and deliberately, as though I wouldn’t be able to understand her if she didn’t. She continued with an air of condescension, “I know the way the bills are supposed to face.” She raised her nose in the air just slightly as she turned to push the register drawer shut.
Taken aback, I felt myself shrink. “I didn’t know if it was different on the other side.” I muttered, and, realizing she was not going to break eye contact, I spitefully turned away from her, refusing to meet her challenging gaze.
“Why would it be different on the other side?” she questioned boldly.
I didn’t answer her. Instead, I began washing the counter and glared at the brick colored floor. Danielle stood idly and leaned on the counter. As we continued to stand there, still in the positions we had argued in, I began to feel very small. No customers came for several minutes, and when the silence was finally broken I was startled.
I looked up, excited to see Virginia on the other side of the counter. “Where is perezosa lady? Isn’t she supposed to be training the new girl?”
Danielle, surprised, turned to Virginia. “I’m not new Virginia! Don’t you remember working with me?” Danielle asked accusingly, as though Virginia were being rude. “I’ve been here for a long time,” she emphasized.
Virginia cracked a wide, crooked smile but didn’t give an answer. “Perezosa lady said you can work on McDonald’s side, it’s time for my shift on cashier.” Danielle smiled back at Virginia, mistaking her cheeky grin for a genuine one and, with a flamboyant flutter of her fingers, walked back to the side with the touch-screen registers.
Virginia pulled Danielle’s untouched rag from the side of the cash register and began washing the spot she was in, started to wipe the surface of the register. “Why she giving you a hard time?” Virginia asked me. Unaware that she had heard the exchange, I turned to her, surprised and a bit relieved.
“Everyone thinks they better than everyone else here,” she sighed, absentmindedly. “Why she care? Don’t need a promotion. White, no babies to feed, lives with her mami y papi.”
The tension began to leave my body as my anger with Danielle began to leave my mind. I looked to Virginia, now not just my coworker Virginia but also immigrant, single mother, homeowner, Virginia. I exhaled shakily, embarrassed at my overreaction to such a petty spat.
“And still no perezosa lady.” Virginia sighed. I gave her a weak smile.
I left my job a couple of months ago, but the last time I was in town I stopped in at a quiet hour and leaned on the customer side of the coffee counter, cheekily showing off for Louise. Louise grinned at me, rolled her eyes and shook her head, wandering off like she usually did. Virginia came out from the storeroom behind the coffee stand, having heard my exchange with Louise.
“No help for you?” I asked, noting that Danielle had failed to take up my position next to Virginia. She grinned at me, explaining that Danielle hadn’t been asked back.
“Too many perezosa lady already,” she said and disappeared into the storeroom.
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