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The library I used to work for was on the edge of town. Before the edge of town, the houses would crumble, be covered in VACANT signs, orange and angry. There were missions with lines wrapped around the block and if you timed it right, you could get one meal every day along the main drag. Bleached bread, perpetual stew, anything with calories. Sometimes the local charities would use the churches or public libraries to distribute coats to children. Midwest winters can be brutal if you aren’t prepared. I wasn’t the first year I was here and it made sense to me that parents stood in line for hours to get free coats, school supplies. I watched people struggle to find jobs, and I held on to my jobs, scoured the Internet for two years before my “something better” came along. But, anyway.

I’m still not used to the flatness here, the lack of topography. The river smells when it’s warm, the humidity drains vitality away, the brain takes on slowness. These things are worse, somehow, at the edge of town which is a mash of trailer parks and bail bonds, restaurants with faded signs. Cobweb businesses with newsprint American signs: UNITED WE STAND that were cream and yellow with time and somehow like nicotine stains to me. Big box stores, and fast food. There was nothing healthy to eat near the library except the Subway inside the Wal-Mart, which required going into the Wal-Mart at all. The McDonald's was much closer, and my regular patrons went there every day between waiting for their time on the computers to come up. I was busy enough between two jobs and the unreliable public transit that I rarely had time to pack a lunch. McDonald's it was, or faint. I couldn’t faint at work again. It happened once before. I was—without hyperbole—working myself to death, and although I am no longer in that position, I have the kind of cholesterol where the nurse takes you aside for a discussion. Except this didn’t happen: they handed me a paper and I left the office.

Sorry. McDonald's. As I was saying.

I recognized lots of people at the McDonald's. The same group of senior citizens: men with veteran’s caps who call all women darlin’ or sweetheart in a way that makes it okay. There was the guy who sat in the same corner with his iBook blaring Glenn Beck, whose eyes bulged when he told his friend, “I don’t give a shit. I’m gonna git dirty with that bitch and make her give me my crossbow back.” The woman with the borderline low-rise pants to show off her tattoo: finger lickin’ good. Sometimes people would sleep in the booths. And then there were random people I never saw again, like the man in line ahead of me that day.

A woman spoke to her coworker in Spanish—many of the staff were bilingual, and the man yelled across the lobby, “SPEAK AMERICAN.” I suppose he was impatient. There were new people on the line and the beepers that fire when an order takes more than a minute to process were singing, monitors flashing. He started yelling about illegals. This happened often at this McDonald's and I was usually too tired to react.

“She’s just trying to talk to her staff and get your order out.”
“Well they ain’t legal. The government pays them a bonus to hire illegal aliens.”
“They can’t work here if they aren’t legal.”
“Well, they’re taking jobs away from the high school kids.” [Of note, this was not true. Most of the high school kids were already working or taking care of younger siblings in this neighborhood]
“They didn’t apply. If I were you I’d be nicer to the people making your food.”

This isn’t my proudest moment. I didn’t write this to feel better about myself. I have a hard time interacting with people. The world is too loud for me, full of urgencies that aren’t. I don’t think someone who works in fast food needs me to defend them; mostly I want this story out of my head. I want many things out of my head. That’s why I’m here sometimes.  I think McDonald's is a weird intersection of the desperate and the necessary and the strange. There’s something about value here, the reliably bad: a quarter pounder with cheese is the same in New Mexico as it is in Michigan. Same with a Starbucks mocha. And yet, I was there with the crossbow man and the guy who hated illegals, even if they were perfectly legal. I wasn’t better or different. But I wonder sometimes how the reliably bad affects us politically, in fundamental ways: McJob, burger flipper, fry cook. I was a liberal arts major so I’ve heard all the jokes.

I don't know that it's "just" working fast food, anyway.

Originally posted to science of staying awake on Wed May 16, 2012 at 02:08 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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