Early for a Saturday afternoon grocery pick-up, Karry suggests a quick lunch. I offer Panera, among the few destinations one of us likes and the other at least tolerates.
En route the big hat catches her eye, and in a spasm of poor decision making, she audibles.
“What about Arby’s? You’re always talking about it.”
This is true. I talk a lot about Arby’s. Even though it’s been years since I visited one.
I don’t give her the opportunity to reconsider, and we almost screech tires into the parking lot.
We. Are. Home. — my adolescent brain whispers.
Note: I don’t keep my adolescent brain tucked away somewhere, like, in a box in the attic, next to my before-and-after middle school orthodontic molds. No, my adolescent brain has its mail delivered to my middle-age skull, much like a man-child still living at home with his parents. Incidentally, I don’t keep my before-and-after orthodontic molds in the attic, either. I keep them on my bookshelf that leads upstairs.
Karry makes me put them away every time we have company.
On the day I got my braces at Dr. Sepic’s office, I remember Mom letting me pick the spot for lunch.
In instant agony as the good doctor’s handiwork began its slow, radical re-shifting of my mouth’s tectonic plates, I chose Arby’s.
Beef n’ Cheddar generously doused with the unfortunately named yet unfairly delicious Horsey Sauce; large Curly Fries with a sidecar of cheese; Dr. Pepper … all of which proceeded to treat my shiny new mouth metal like a fraternity house basement.
I vividly remember what a sobering and literal pain in the mouth it was to scrub the remnants of thinly sliced roast beef from my new wiring. I busted out the tiny pipe-cleaner-like brushes Dr. Sepic gave me as a parting gift, quickly found the experience akin to cleaning a bathroom with a toothbrush, and realized then and there that every single thing about middle school was going to suck.
That said, the fleeting pleasure of a Beef n’ Cheddar? Very much worth the pain.
Flash forward to the summer after my freshman year in college. I was in no great hurry (the preferred pace of my teenage years) in foraging for a summer job. By that time, most of the plumb gigs, like my friend Jon’s seasonal job at the Sewer Authority, which paid well and came with no supervision, were already snatched up by the more proactive and better connected. I was getting desperate.
In a spasm of poor decision-making, I filled out an application at Arby’s. I had no relevant experience, but I like to believe that what they saw in me was great potential. A high ceiling. Intangibles. And thanks to Dr. Sepic’s work a few years prior, really nice teeth.
I got the gig. Food prep. Minimum wage.
Let it be said that one’s first fast food foray in the late 80’s cannot be summed up in monetary terms.
The measure of the experience, much like my subsequent caloric intake in the summer of 1989, was incalculable.
I was a sponge, or at least the tall sloppy mop with the big head that doesn’t really pick stuff up but spreads it around to make it less visible.
I was baptized at the bun toaster.
Dunk your bun halves in the liquid hired to play the role of “butter” in this community theater production, toss ‘em against the stainless angled wall and let gravity have its way until they emerge, perfectly toasted, in the bottom tray.
Next was The Slicer (cue Angel Chorus).
In those days Arby’s had a pretty simple menu. They didn’t hang their supersized cowboy hat on having The Meats.
Nope. They had the “meat” – a boneless 20-pound pressed, shaped and processed hunk of beef-ish-ness. They also had bags of frozen chicken and fish patties, though I can’t recall either ever being ordered during the summer of 1989.
I remember the first time I donned the requisite chain mail glove, the cool steel armoring my fingers, and promptly testing its mettle against the slicer’s unforgiving blade. I felt as invincible as any Arthurian Knight wearing a name tag and making minimum wage possibly could.
From there I learned the precise — and I mean precise— measurements for all of the offerings.
Junior – 1.5 ounces.
Regular – 3 ounces.
Beef n’ Cheddar – 3 ounces.
Super – 4 ounces
Giant – 5 ounces.
Once my supervisor called me out when my Beef n’ Cheddar pile registered 3.1 ounces.
“Too much,” he said.
I remember my exact reply.
“God forbid we give the people a little more of the thing they want.”
Vox Populi, Vox Dei.
OK, so maybe I was a little over the top. Chalk it up to the feeling of chain mail against my skin.
But my righteous indignation in my still forming adolescent brain was as pure as Lancelot’s. Even though I was working for The Man, I always saw myself as one with the people. Though just a couple weeks into my role, I knew in my heart what I would come to formally learn a couple semesters later in business class: the first rule of successful selling is to believe in the product.
Oh, and I believed deeply in everything Arby’s.
I compensated for my microscopic hourly wage on my discounted lunch breaks, making myself the most ungodly sandwiches. I ignored the ounce requirements like speed limits on the meat Autobahn, adding bacon and obscuring the pile of thinly sliced roast beef under multiple pumps of melted cheddar. Curly fries for days.
I was three weeks in when I asked my manager to order me a left-handed fry scooper. I’d begun to feel the right-handed world of the assembly line an inhibition to my full potential. When it arrived, I wrote “Excalibur” in Sharpie on a piece of masking tape and adhered it to its handle. Like Arthur, I only drew my magical weapon when absolutely necessary.
Here’s how deeply I believed. One day I noticed that the guy training me had a freakishly long nail on his pinky finger. So long it curled at its end. When I asked him about it, he smiled and told me he used it to clean the shake machine.
Wow. What dedication, I marveled.
I was so awed by his commitment, I relayed the anecdote to my friends.
“That’s his coke finger,” said Bill, apparently the more worldly among us.
“He uses it to snort cocaine,” he explained.
Now it all made sense. I mean, why he was so attuned to precise measurements at The Slicer.
I still like to think he only did bumps before busy lunch rushes.
Anyway, Coke Finger trained me for my first closing shift. He spent a couple days walking me through all the steps — the cleaning of all the kitchen stuff, the mopping, the bathrooms, the stocking, the garbage. I was overwhelmed with all the details. Seeing how freaked out I was, he graciously wrote out step-by-step instructions for me. Two hand-written pages, front and back.
When the time came I followed them religiously, and sought him out my next shift to see how I did.
“Dude,” he said. “It took you four hours,” showing me my time card, and warning me that I’d get in trouble for costing the company extra money.
That said I’m confident that store had never been so clean.
Incidentally, I still have Coke finger’s hand-written closing instructions. Keep ‘em next to my orthodontic molds on the book shelf.
From there I dedicated myself to shaving time off my closing speed, although other aspects of the job humbled me.
I remember a particular weekday lunch rush. With my chain mail glove on my right hand and wielding Excalibur in my left, I flung buns at the toaster with abandon, kept The Slicer at full throttle, filled the baskets of fries full. It wasn’t enough. The orders came in faster than I could handle ‘em. In the heat of the rush, Coke Finger tapped me on the shoulder and ordered me to go bus tables, like a manager yanking an overmatched, young reliever with the game on the line. I was crushed.
In response I stopped cutting my pinky nail.
No need, since I was never trained on the shake machine.
To be honest I was deathly afraid of it, owing to my one unfortunate encounter.
I was working in the back when a lone customer strolled in. For whatever reason the counter servers had abandoned their post, most likely out for a parking lot smoke. I sheepishly walked to the front and asked the customer for her order. Jamocha shake. A most righteous choice. I suppressed the urge to high five her.
I took her money, and turned to the shake machine. Relying solely on my instincts and cunning, I filled the silver cup, placed it under the agitator, found the on switch … and proceeded to launch an I-Love-Lucy-grade Jamocha fireworks explosion that left me and everything within a 10-foot radius covered in soft serve shrapnel. I’d caught some in my eye, so it took me an extra couple seconds before I could find the off switch.
Shaken, it took me a few more seconds to collect myself. When I did, I turned, opened the register and wordlessly gave the customer her money back. She politely pointed out the ice cream on my forehead. I spent the rest of my shift cleaning up the aftermath of my Shakenado.
My incompetencies aside, I immersed myself into the full Arby’s experience, and managed to pick up a few tricks of the trade along the way.
Like how to apply the proper English when sending wrapped sandwiches down the chutes so that, instead of bumping to a stop at the other end, their rotational motion launched them over the bar, sending the counter girls scrambling to catch the suddenly airborne projectiles. We measured our success rate by the number of swear words elicited from the girls up front.
I also found the staff drama as delicious and thick as the melted cheddar.
A cadre of my co-workers were not the biggest fans of the franchise owner, and decided to stage a coup. After much deliberation, they hatched a scheme for his removal. The entirety of their plan consisted of this: they would forge a letter from a disgruntled customer complaining about the owner’s incompetence. As a result, they believed that the owner would quit.
Though their reasoning was a few curly fries short of a combo meal, I applauded the ambition of any revolution rooted in such passive aggressiveness.
In the waning moments of a slow Sunday evening shift, I spied my colleagues huddling around a table composing The Letter. In all fairness, that’s an awful lot to expect of a single screed. Think of what it must’ve taken Martin Luther to compose his 95 Theses, Tom Paine to scrawl Common Sense. Understandably, my co-workers were scuffling at the task. “He is a …a … a …,” said the Thomas Jefferson of the group, pen to his chin, petitioning the Meat Muses for the inspiration that might shame the owner into, you know, completely abandoning his career.
“Detriment,” I offered as I walked by with an armful of dirty trays.
All heads turned.
“Oooh, good one, College Boy!” Jefferson remarked, asking me for the spelling.
For the first time in my life, I felt one with the proletariat.
Finally, I’d made a meaningful contribution to the team.
A smile involuntarily broke across my really nice teeth.
I hold the door for Karry as we return to scene of my … prime.
Belly up to the counter. A 21st century me stands in front of the register, invites our order. I feel a pang of jealousy, assuming he’s been trained on the shake machine.
Though the Arby’s menu has expanded exponentially since the days of my youth, my adolescent brain automatically orders the Dr. Sepic combo. Karry tries to play it safe with a Regular.
We take our seats. I pluck off the gloriously toasted top of my onion bun and proceed to make it rain Horsey Sauce. As I draw my first bite, I am genuinely giddy.
Meanwhile, Karry remembers she is not a Curly Fry girl and gifts me her remainder.
I take my time. Savor each bite.
After a good 15 minutes, my teenage reverie is broken by middle-age reality.
Upon its arrival, my lunch proceeds to treat my stomach like a fraternity house basement.
Then and there I realize that every single thing about my Saturday afternoon is going to suck.
For the rest of the day, I can hear my gastrointestinal track agonizing over each word in the coup letter it’s drafting in hopes of ousting my brain for its incompetency.
After 30 years, the fleeting pleasure of a Beef n’ Cheddar?
Still very much worth the pain.