Six months and no submissions later, our cash reserve was depleted. My wife and I sat down to plot our financial course, and it was clear that I had to get another job. Carrie is well-paid in her capacity as a programmer, and we might well have been able to get by. But worldcon was coming, and our mutual passion for Cajun take-out was a difficult addiction to break. And it certainly didn't seem fair that she went off to work each day while I sat around, not writing.
I made a number of applications. Things were pretty tough right then, and there were a lot of people doing graduate studies in Madison who wanted to work at Kinko's copies on the side. There might have been some other possibilities if I held out longer, but essentially, my only choice was to take a job in food service, which I had not done since the year I had graduated from high school.
And the food I ended up servicing was at Taco Bell.
Now, you may well turn up your nose at Taco Bell, but you have no idea how much worse it is than you imagine. Taco Bell is part of the vast Pepsi-Cola restaurant empire, which also includes Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken, and this network has been designed to get as much as possible out of each facet of the fast-food buying population. Pizza Hut is meant to cater to the middle and upper-middle class family, an inexpensive way to feed a family, but still receive sit-down service. Kentucky Fried Chicken is focused on the lower-middle class, a long-standing American institution, and a cheap way to get a lot of food fast, with at least the impression of wholesomeness. And then there is Taco Bell, food so cheap that the under-class can afford to fill up there -- grease, salt and carbohydrates for under two dollars.
How can Taco Bell provide this service for so little? They save money in a lot of areas. One is employee wages; Taco Bell has the lowest starting wages of any major fast-food chain. And since employees last less than 60 days on the average, very seldom do employees have to be paid anything more than starting wages. In addition, there are a lot of corners they can cut in the production and presentation of the food, but we'll consider more of that later.
My first concern was that other money-saving measure, wages. When I applied for the job, the manager told me that the only shifts he had available for line service were from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. In addition, the hourly wage offered for those positions was pitifully low. When I blanched at this information, Dan (the manager) was quick to point out that he had another job that I might consider, one that was somewhat more challenging, and which paid a higher wage. The position was that of morning fry monkey.
The fry monkey was the guy who came in at six in the morning, fired up the deep fat fryer, and cooked all of the taco shells, nacho chips, salad bowls, tostada shells, Mexican pizza crusts, and cinnamon twists that the restaurant would go through in an entire day. There were some other maintenance and cleaning responsibilities attached to the job as well, but they were secondary to turning out a sufficient volume of 'product' in a timely fashion. The job was hot, repetitive, and messy, but the benefits included working at your own pace, and not having to communicate with the rest of the workers under most conditions. There was also the higher wage to consider, which was more than I had made in the hobby store after six years. I accepted the job, and went home to shave my beard for the first time since 1986.
It rapidly became clear why it had been difficult to find someone to do the job. Every other day, the fryer had to be drained, and the oil filtered. Then the fryer had to be scrubbed with hot water and solvent, flushed repeatedly, and the oil returned to the machine. Every two weeks, the oil was dumped, and new oil melted from a fifty-pound block of shortening.
After cleaning, the oil was brought to something like 370 degrees Fahrenheit, and I began the frying. I was instructed in this procedure by a senior employee named Chuck. Chuck had been working at Taco Bell for over three years, an unheard-of duration. Had he been a professional soldier, instead of just a reservist in the Guard, he would surely have been a lifer.
Chuck's first object lesson was that the oil was dangerously hot. I started to tell him that I had dealt with a deep frier at another Mexican restaurant some ten years before, but before I could finish, he said, "Look, I'll show you." He picked up the steel nacho basket that had been in the hot oil some 45 seconds before and pressed one of its bars against the underside of his left forearm. When he took it away, there was a line of dead-white flesh where it had touched him, and this would later turn into an angry red scar.
"That's very impressive, Mr. Liddy," I said. He didn't get the joke. We moved on to the taco shell racks.
Chuck had performed my job for over six months, so he had very definite ideas about how it should be done. The racks had to be loaded by hand in a certain fashion, dropped into the hot oil for a certain period, removed and drained, and shaken in the same fashion every time. There was a particularly difficult trick to tilting the hot shells out of the rack so that they could be stacked and not broken, and I was hopelessly slow to pick this up. But Chuck's meticulous nature was matched by his stolidity, and when I smashed a whole rack of shells, he would simply take another and show me the proper way to tip them out.
The most challenging part of the job physically was learning to work with my right hand encased in a thick rubber glove. The demands of production were such that there was no question of waiting for the shells to cool enough to handle them bare-handed. In fact, going from fryer to warming cabinet to line, the shell was never supposed to fall below 120 degrees. So in order to handle them safely, I had to wear a very heavy insulated glove. After a few months, I got good enough that I could button my shirt while wearing the gloves. I have quite an appreciation of how hard it is for astronauts to perform delicate operations during space-walks!
Beyond the physical demands of being a fry monkey, there were also challenges in adjusting to the social milieu of Taco Bell. The low wages, lack of benefits, and punishing demand for speed and efficiency in line servers create an incredible rate of turnover in the staff. Those who lasted for more than a month acquired a kind of hard-bitten cynicism, and the ability to perform tasks as prescribed, while still holding the entire process in extreme contempt. New employees came on line, failed to meet this standard, and were fired or quit in disgust. After a while, those of us who had been there more than a month began to regard them as a rifle company in a combat zone would replacements. Best not to learn their names; they'll be dead soon enough.
The people who did last for any period of time were pretty strong personalities. Amanda and Tony were teen lovers who used to regularly slash each other with razor blades as a part of foreplay. Steve shared a house with them, and in his role of assistant manager, used to regularly get so disgusted with the night crew that he would send them all home and did the cleaning himself. Often, we would find him mopping up from the previous night when we came in for the morning. He eventually quit to move to New Orleans and attend Ninja school.
And then there were employees remarkable for their level of dysfunction. A girl named Jennica was fired after she came in an hour-and-a-half late and claimed it was because she had to wrap a birthday present. Jim was a dish washer who suffered from grand mal seizures, but insisted we ignore them; twice a day I would hear a thump from the sink area, and look over to see Jim's feet protruding around the corner, twitching and knocking against the tile. The other employees just stepped over him.
As I became more adept at frying, it took me less and less time to do the daily allotment. Dan set me to doing other things that had to be done for set-up. This was when I began to grasp just how unpleasant the food served at Taco Bell really is. The condiments, fresh vegetables and cheeses, weren't so bad. They were delivered by local produce and dairy jobbers. But the things we got from Pepsi food service made army rations look good. The ground beef and chicken arrived frozen in large plastic bags, and were plunged into boiling water for half an hour before serving. The chicken had a viscous beige sauce poured over it before it was served, which was especially repellent.
Beans came dried, and were also steeped in boiling water to make them palatable. Nacho sauce came out of a huge can, and often sat for many hours in the warmer before being served. All meat and bean products were too expensive to discard if not served by the end of the evening, so if excessive amounts were made, we would add them to fresh product an unknown number of days later. But by far the worst component was the pico de gallo sauce, used on fajitas. Squeezed from a pouch and thinned with water, I would not have been surprised to learn it was embalming fluid mixed with slivered gherkins.
And despite our knowledge of just how ghastly the food was, we ate the stuff! It was free; we could have a meal every time we worked a four hour shift or more. Given what we were paid, it was inevitable that we be selective about what we remembered once we passed to the other side of the counter.
Everybody had different ways of dealing with the stress and humiliation of the job. Tony liked to play hardcore tapes at thunderous levels during the prep shift. Chuck used to hold dripping bags of garbage over the windshields of the manager's cars. I began putting little satiric posters on the bulletin board in the break room, entitled 'The Fry Monkey Informational Series'. These included things like 'Jobs even worse than yours', 'Ten ways to accessorize with flour tortillas', and 'Taco Bell Zen Koans'.
One thing that united all the workers was our contempt for the general manager of the Madison-area stores, Mark. We chronically fell below the level of rush-hour production that corporate standards called for, and Mark's response was to stand in the kitchen and shower abuse on the line crew. When we heard that the company was going to sell the stores, and Mark would be replaced, we rejoiced.
We were singing a different tune shortly thereafter, when it was revealed that the franchises had been sold back to the Taco Bell corporation. Taco Bell is currently in the third year of a five-year plan to eventually outstrip McDonalds in number of wholly-owned restaurants in the continental United States. One way they are doing this is by re-acquiring the franchises they sold ten years ago, and bringing them back into the corporate system. So we all came to work one day and found that many things had changed. Our radio had been spirited away, never to return, and the dining room Muzak was now piped into the kitchen as well. We were no longer allowed to eat in the dining room in uniform. Weights of all food items, a key to maximizing profit, were monitored fanatically. And because the long-standing employees were infected with non-corporate procedures, a new manager arrived to ease us out of the schedule.
This was pretty easy in my case, since, for several years, corporate procedure had been to use pre-fried products; I was perhaps the last manual fry monkey at any Taco Bell in the upper midwest. I had been superseded by a delivery truck. And before I could decide if I would make the step to line crew, it turned out we were infected with something else.
I was at home struggling with another unsuccessful short story, when my dad called. "So," he said, "have you had your shot yet?" He had been watching television, and saw a story on how a patient in University Hospital with hepatitis had been traced to our store. It turned out that the new manager brought in to reorganize us had brought some little friends with him as well. It got even more bizarre; he turned out to be wanted by police in Florida for robbery and check fraud, and he slipped from sight in short order.
We all trooped over to the health service and had Gamma Globulin shots. I never heard of any other illness traced back to us, but understandably, business suffered. Two thousand dollars worth of refrigerated product was discarded, and so was most of the crew.
By then it felt like a blessing. I had lasted long past the point when most employees either became management or flame out. Every now and then, I fondly recall the trance-like state I would enter while frying, and bring myself out of it by considering how close I came to staying on as a manager. When the idea of that mindless work seems attractive, I recall my favorite Taco Bell Koan:
The Manager asked Amanda, "Why do you wear combat boots and a ring in your nose; why do you dye your hair black? Don't you want to become part of management?"
And Amanda replied, "Kill me."
- - - - - - - - - -David Thayer wrote us that "Andy's article about hot and fast food left me in a cold sweat. I partially paid my way through college working one summer in a hotdog chain. Had the minimum wage labor not been mind-deadening enough, at the end of August a teenager, his eyes dilated by drugs, appeared at the take-out window with a nickel-plated revolver. The district manager missed the point when he offered me a raise the next day not to quit."
Some of the other articles in M15 included articles involving army food and hospital food, by David Thayer and Sharon Farber, respectively, articles of fan historical interest (involving food) by Dave Kyle, Dave Rike, and Roger Sims, articles about contemporary fandom (involving food) by Ahrvid Engholm, Ian Gunn, and Alan Stewart, and articles that are a bit more difficult to categorize (but still involving food) by Bruno Ogorelec, Allyson Dyar, and Ted White.
The lead-off article in the issue was actually a reprint -- Walt Willis gave us permission to republish an excerpt from his monumental trip report from 1952, "The Harp Stateside." The segment we chose was at the westernmost point of the trip, where Walt had to contend with shoes that were swimming toward Hawaii, a hot nut fudge sundae of transcendental malevolence, and a hamburger topped with everything.
Bottom illustration by Brad Foster
All other illustrations by Stu Shiffman