What my dad was trying to teach me

I was at In N Out for lunch a while back with two of my coworkers and they were talking about some of the different jobs they’d worked before coming to PATH. It made me think about a conversation I had with my dad a few years ago, when he was just first introducing the idea of me getting a job. I agreed that I should get a job, but I told him that under no circumstances would I work in food service. He asked why, and I didn’t have a good answer. I told him that maybe I could do waitressing; you know serve food and clear tables and all that, but there was no way I would ever work fast food. Especially McDonald’s. I can recall the disgust in my voice as I made that comment, and the fear behind it. “No,” I told him. “No, I’ll never work at McDonald’s. If I need money, there will always be other options.” He looked at me. “Really? There will always be other options?” And I wanted him to reassure me. I wanted him to reassure me that there would never be a chance I would have to be a fast food employee. I was from a stable middle class family. I was smart and had all A’s in school. I had lots of friends, and a supportive church community. Someone like me would never need to work fast food in her life. She would always have better options. And I wanted him to tell me that. But he didn’t. Instead, he told me, “If you needed the money, you would work at McDonald’s.”

I felt stung. I felt irritated. I felt like I was hearing the occupational equivalence of his mantra on hunger: (“Oh, you don’t like what your mom made for supper? You aren’t hungry enough. You don’t know what real hunger feels like. If you were really hungry, you would eat whatever was given to you.”)  Why couldn’t my own dad tell me I was too good to work fast food? Was he disappointed in me? Did he think I was a terrible daughter and deserved to be dramatically humbled? And why, oh why, was the thought of working at McDonald’s so repulsive to me?

What my dad was really saying to me was this: “Rowena. Don’t ever think of yourself so highly that you are above working at McDonald’s or in fast food.” But clearly, I was already there. Where does this stigma come from, that people who work in  fast food restaurants are at the bottom of the food chain? (no pun intended) Where do we get this idea that the people who work in fast food places are somehow less qualified, less intelligent, less worthy? Because now that I work almost full time, and live in a community where parents work multiple jobs, I’m starting to recognize a few things:

  1. Working all day and all week is exhausting. I shadowed Marji one day in her contract area downtown and she used her phone to track how much we walked. We walked 7 miles that day, and I was so exhausted that I fell asleep on the bus ride home. Working a full 8 hours is one thing; working at a job that requires you to stand or walk for the majority of those hours is extremely tiring.
  2. A lot of people who work entry level, or minimum wage jobs work more than 8 hours. A lot of them have to work 2 jobs. By the end of the day, their bodies are spent. They are brain dead. And even so, in many cases, they are barely paid enough to make ends meet.
  3. A lot of them have families. And so after working those two shifts, they come home and try to help their kids with homework, tuck them into bed, clean around the house, etc. They never get a break.
  4.  That irritable waitress? She may be finishing the end of a 8+ hour shift. She may be going to another job after this one. Maybe she had horrible tips today and knows she can only afford to meet rent this month but can’t afford to buy her daughter any new clothes for school. She was hoping maybe there would be a little extra.

And I think, more than anything, that I’ve realized how much respect I have for people who work in minimum wage jobs. You read that correctly. Respect. Lots of it.

Think about all the stereotypes that you hear about fast food employees:

“You don’t have to be educated to flip burgers.” “You don’t deserve $15 dollars an hour if you work at McDonald’s” “I feel bad for adults who are stuck working alongside high school kids in fast food. They have to know their life isn’t going anywhere.”

And maybe we tell ourselves that we don’t actually believe these stereotypes, but all the same, society has conditioned this mindset. I’m trying to change my approach to how I see fast food jobs and fast food employees based on my observations like,

“He went above and beyond to serve me.” “She looks exhausted, but she’s still smiling.” “My order is slightly off, but they are swamped with customers and short on staff, so it’s not a big deal.”

It is so EASY to judge people. It’s probably the easiest thing in the world to do. It’s as inherent as breathing, as sleeping. So I try to combat this instinct by recognizing my own judgement. Pausing. Backing up. Reevaluating and reminding myself that I don’t know their story. And frankly, their story isn’t really any of my business. I’d want to be treated graciously regardless. And that’s what I’ll try my best to give.

I like looking at houses in LA, particularly in Los Feliz and in the Hills. I like creating hypothetical situations, and choosing my dream home. I wonder a lot what kinds of jobs these people have, and where all their money comes from, and why it seems like there are so many wealthy people who live in LA even though the majority of Angelenos are working hard to make ends meet. I feel a little jealous sometimes when I read about local concerts and theatre events in the Sunday LA Times, knowing that even if I could get to the location with public transit, I can’t afford to spend that $30-$50 on one small, local show. That money is better spent elsewhere.

I feel a little resentful when I see how lavishly people who do have money can afford to have it all in excess when I would love to just have one piece. Maybe a few tickets to the opera; maybe a couple art gallery invites. And even then I’m somewhere in the middle because I don’t have to worry about surviving pay check to pay check like many others. I do have a form of stability here that others don’t. I may technically be living below the national poverty level, but I don’t consider myself to be poor.

It’s all relative.

I’m not living in high society, but I’ve never really wanted to. I may not be able to go to the Opera, but I’ve seen some fantastic shows at First Presbyterian Church. I can’t go out to eat very often, but when I do I appreciate the food more.

But it’s hard sometimes. A lot of people laugh about how “difficult” it must be for the Hollywood Dwellers with our perfect weather and our palm trees, but it is hard. Some days it feels like I’m the little child who knows the cookie jar is full  on the counter, but even with a chair, I can’t reach it. In this city full of stories, I feel the magnetic pull to want to be at the top. And I’m constantly reminded that I’m not. That I’m one of the thousands and thousands of faces that make up the average working class. With everything so bright and bold and beautiful in our faces, there is the daily wear and tear of knowing that it’s here right in front of us, but it’s not for us. You can look, but you can’t touch. You can see, but you can’t be.

So I’ve learned what it looks like to work hard to make it pay check to pay check, and I see what it takes to just survive here without any of the glamour to help, because this city will just as soon spit you out as it will take you in.

It may be likely that I’ll never need to work in food service. But you know what Dad? You’re right. If I needed a job, I would work in fast food. I would work at McDonald’s. I don’t think I’d be ashamed or afraid of it. And chances are, I’d meet a lot of really awesome people who work hard to get by. And there’s no shame in that. Just a lot of respect.




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