Friday, September 9, 2016

The Year of the Chicken

How has it been more than a month since I’ve written anything? That seems insane.

Perhaps you’ve been wondering where I’ve been and why you haven’t had any dumb Frozen theories or Final Fantasy close readings to delve into. Perhaps not. That’s fine, too.

Well, I got a job. A real, adult job. A 9-5 with vacation time, weekends off, the works. Unfortunately, that means I don’t have all day to stare at my computer desktop before convincing myself that should click on Microsoft Word, because that’s all it takes to get started. Just do it. It’s not that hard. Why don’t you click it? Click the button, you hack. You can’t call yourself a writer if you don’t write. Do it. Do it! CLICK THE BUTTON!

Starting a new job makes me think of all the old jobs I’ve had. I can name a few good things I took from each of them.

All except one, that is. The worst job I’ve ever had.

To set the stage, I had just moved away from New York City. I love New York. Every overpriced, gaudy, piss-scented, inch of it. It’s a great place with a million things to do, eat, and drink. There’s never a dull moment. Plenty of broke ones, but not dull.

I didn’t want to leave New York. Unfortunately, my friend/roommate was moving out west with her brand new degree, my cash flow wasn’t enough that I could move again on the fly, let alone pay more in rent, and the girl I was talking to at the time and I made plans to live in Orlando and explore more of a relationship. To do that, I would need money, and New York wouldn’t allow that. So I needed to go somewhere much cheaper where I could save up and head south.

That somewhere was the town I grew up in in the Florida panhandle.

Some of you are thinking “Ooh, Florida!” and I want to squash that enthusiasm right away. This is the moist, unshaven armpit of America, tucked right between the meaty flabs of Pensacola and Panama City Beach.  A flat coastal town that is more “Lower Alabama” than “North Florida.” A stretch of land that is better suited as a hurricane buffer to northern civilization than an entity of its own.  It is equal parts meth addiction, racism, and military douchebaggery. It’s where the ignorance of America’s second-worst state meets the lawlessness of its craziest state. As if Mordor and Mordor’s sister had a baby and dropped it down the stairs. Voted the 83rd best small town in America in 2015.

And, I mean, Orlando isn’t much better, but here we are.

I moved back with my parents for the first time in seven years. Just imagine that for a moment. You go to college away from your family, live in the most exciting city in the world, free to do whatever you want, and then travel back to Bumfuck, FL, where the biggest event to happen annually involves some jets flying overhead, to live with your parents. I love my family, but this was a test of character. Additionally, this was post-college, and all of my friends were gone. Some were still in New York, and others were traveling or moving across the country. I was essentially alone. The only thing keeping me going was the thought that I’d be in Orlando, away from all this crap, soon.

I started getting to work with job applications, assuming my clout as a New York city boy manager whose last job pulled in over one million dollars annually would easily help me land a gig at one of these hillbilly establishments where, if we were lucky, we’d see a few dozen people a day. I didn’t get any calls. I was getting desperate. The fact that I sold my car to move meant that I could only get a job within walking distance. It inhibited what was available in a big way. Suddenly, my simple plan to earn some quick cash didn’t look so surefire.

My mom suggested I work at the grocery store, but there was no way I was going to return to my first job, which I had in high school and got fired from, 10 years later with a college degree and life experience under my belt. I’d sooner kill myself.

Shortly after that, I received a call from the girl. She met someone. We were done. No more Orlando.
Shortly after that, I received a slightly worse call. The local gas station/fried chicken store wanted to interview me.

I’ll let that sink in.

With seemingly nothing to lose, I went to the interview. The interior of this fine establishment was pretty much exactly what you’d expect from a place that included the words “gas,” “station,” “fried,” and “chicken.” The d├ęcor seemed to avoid anything white, as to avoid the brown, sticky film that covered everything from showing. Every time you took a step, your shoes made a ripping sound like you’d trudged through maple syrup three days ago and couldn’t quite clean it all off. Everything looked and felt like the back of a used band-aid.

I wore a button-down shirt to the interview, because that’s what one does. It was the middle of summer in Florida, where I’ve described the humidity to be like “living in a bowl of soup.” Now add the greenhouse effect (thanks to the giant windows) and 3-4 deep fryers to that equation. In short, I got the job. I did the drug testing and tried to hope that things would turn around for me.

And yet still came back for a first shift.

The day went something like this:
Arrive and punch in. Now load up the 4-tiered frying cages with all manner or frozen matter, from chicken bits to breaded potato wedges to empanadas filled with raccoon meat or something, to a frozen stick of tomato puree and what they told me was cheese. Also available with pepperoni-flavored meat nuggets. Fry all those bitches up, because the breakfast rush is about to begin, and nothing goes better with a probably-sausage-and-egg sandwich than a pizza abortion trapped in a thick phyllo prison.

Now that everything is frying you should be developing a nice, thick, Nixonian-level sweat on your whole upper body. Don’t worry, the standard-issue polyester polo (known for their breathability) will ensure that you marinate in that lovely combination for the next eight hours.

Once those doors are unlocked, everyone will begin their morning breakfast rush, which, in the panhandle, means cigarettes and Coors Light. After the initial surge of one to two hours, it’s time for a break from the heat. That means you get to bag ice.

Most places have ice shipped in on a truck. Not this one. They had employees bag ice every day (usually without gloves) and fill up the outside cooler. This takes 2-3 trips. Be careful wheeling all that ice, though, because the condensation mixes with the aforementioned grease and makes a delightfully slippery floor.

Once your reprieve from the heat is over, get limber, because it’s time to stock cigarettes!
We’re living in a time when it’s well-established that there is no upside to smoking, and yet the southern legion scoffs at science, often sucking down a pack a day, like they’re toothless, broke Don Drapers with no sense of hygiene and a hatred of all things brown.

Don’t get too comfy, because the lunch rush is about to start. The fryers, which have been running and churning out all matter of artery-clogging treats all morning, are put to the test and stocked to the gills with dozens of frozen chicken parts. Just in time, too, because here come the regulars! The line stretches to the door and the employees know each swollen, sweaty mass by name. They get their twelve pieces and go on their way. But if you’re thinking of going to the bathroom, don’t think you’re free to do so. Every employee is required to stand in the 8x12 sales area slinging dead birds without any breaks, because it’s peak time, and god forbid anyone slow the food-to-face process. And more cigarettes, of course.

Now you can take your bathroom break and try to avoid eye contact with your own reflection, because you just can’t bear to see what you’ve become.

There’s a bit of a break before the lunch rush, so get to know your coworkers! There’s the single mother of two who is barely 20 with no high school education, the woman in her late 50s with a vague foot problem and no high school education, and the overweight guy who thinks he’s hot shit because he has the register key and no high school education. I don’t want to sound like a total elitist, but there is something to be said for people who do this work and are content with it. Who don’t care about striving for more. Whose only concerns are getting home in time to smoke a bowl, eat four or five pieces of the chicken they’re covered in, and, and glaze over while they watch a Sixteen and Pregnant marathon. I don’t have anything to say to these people. We can’t connect on a very basic level. There is a values dissonance, right or wrong.  

By the way, where’s the guy who hired me? Oh, he’s never really there, but he sure likes to review the cameras, so make sure you never stray from the registers at peak time.

Now load up the cages, because the dinner rush is coming, and this is even busier, and dinner means side dishes and side dishes means motherfucking pizza sticks.

I walked home after my first day, dragging the polo, which was now heavy with grease, and I cried right there in the street. This was easily the lowest point in my life so far, and everything was fucking terrible. Why did I bother with college? Why did I move away? What did it matter if I was going to be working with an amalgamation of every TLC reality show that ever aired? What the fuck is wrong with me?

I was a few months into life back in Florida and the Sunshine State and all the baggage that came with it was wearing me down. My time there was the most depressed I’d ever been in my life.
When I got home, I told my mom I couldn’t do it. It was awful, soul-crushing, and beneath me. She countered with “Well, it’s a job,” as if I should be thankful for what I had. As if I should just cruise along like everyone else there. I couldn’t do it. Sometimes you are too good for something. If I stayed there, on top of the rest of the crap and with no escape in sight, I have no idea what I’d do.

I went for a walk.

On the walk, I called the manager. I told him I was grateful for the opportunity, but it wasn’t a good fit. I lied and said I’d found something “more suited to my skillset.” He went off on me about wasting his time and money. How he never would have even interviewed me if he knew I was still going to be looking for a job. About how now he was going to have to start all over again and find someone else.
I told him to have a good night.

That year in Florida was probably the worst in my life. I’ve never felt so defeated and beat down. I kind of understood why some of those people woke up in the morning and smoked and drank things that would kill them sooner.

They say bad experiences build character. I don’t know how true that is, but it at least lit a fire under my ass to leave that terrible stare.


Also, you’d be shocked how quickly polyester burns when it’s soaked in chicken grease. It smells awful, though.