McMoments: Reflections of a McDoanlds Worker in Germany

What’s on my mind? The angry older German man, who stood before me yesterday, complaining about the increased price of his Big Mac McMenu, the lack of an illusory ‘paper’ that used to envelope the large portion of French fries (back when?), and by the way, ‘Why are you SMILING so much?!’ He scowled, taking his fully loaded, tough, red plastic tray and seating himself opposite from the service counter, as if his itch to be pissed about something needed further scratching by observing what he considered the robbery, cheapification, and mockery of his memory of McDonalds.

I wish I had simply said something like I used to say in America, like: Smiling? Because I’m insane but apparently still able to hold down a job. Want ketchup with those fries in the snappy upgraded packaging? Instead I said: Well, the price has gone up but so has my salary. I’m smiling because I’m happy to be alive. Glad you came by today. Hope we see you again soon.

I soon lost track of him, as the mid-day crowd of school kids, and mothers in search of the right color out of four Smurf Cottage for their kids’ in Happy Meals came in. The line of glad-to-be-out-of-school children formed a barrier of random balloon waving hyperactivity mixed with mothers on the verge of exasperation. Random construction workers and truck drivers zippered into the line, requesting cups of coffee, Coffee Choc Frappes, Gitter Kartoffeln and the savvy sounding retro comeback 1955 Burger. After wishing so many strangers ‘Have a nice day,’ I noticed the empty table, where the angry man had sat, was vacant. He’d even politely taken his tray to the lobby wagon, unlike so many teens, who tend to leave tables strewn with trays, packaging and smears of mayonnaise mixed with ketchup. I wondered what about the sunny day, with mild temps and a gentle breeze, full of hints of spring fever just around the corner, and the excitement that comes with each fresh spring, had set the anger man off. I hope I see him again, just to observe if things are going better for him next time.

I have a regular customer, also an older German man. He has wispy red hair and freckles and wears large metal glasses frames a la 1980s. I first met him when our store was new. He came in during a slow time and stood at the counter telling his story about having lived in East Germany. When the wall went down, he went to a McDonalds in West Berlin and ordered a Big Mac. He said, ‘That was the first white bread like that I’d ever eaten! I’ll never forget it!’ He was referring to the white burger buns, sprinkled with pale toasted sesame seeds. Over the years, he’s been a repeat customer, telling his tale of the wall going down and the Big Mac buns to new waves of McCo-Workers that tend to come and go. I love his story. In one of my own ‘Mad Men’ inspired advertising moments, I wish McDoanlds Münich would use it, with some shots of him today and use some younger red haired actor for his 1989 self, show an older McDoanlds (digitized), the wall going down, this guy ordering his first Big Mac, then flash to him entering a modern McDoanlds and ordering the same. Some of my McCo-Workers are former East Germans themselves. I think they would appreciate the advertisement too. 

For some, McDonalds is a temporary job, an after school job, a weekend job for university students, a job you don’t plan to hold for long. It’s a goofy job that you shouldn’t take too seriously and feel half ashamed to admit you hold, just because, McDonalds, in America at least, is the place you put in this sentence: See that homeless guy? Why does he just sit there all day under the viaduct? The least he could do is get a job at McDonalds! No one as readily suggests that a homelss person in America should apply for unemployment because (at least back in 2009) unemployment was only available for 18 months, after that, you had no more financial help from the U.S. government. You may have found yourself under a viaduct. 

Hmm. No one says: a job at Kentucky Fried Chicken, Chili’s, Hooters, American Sports Bar, Hard Rock Cafe, Starbucks, or Burger King even, no, the place to go is: McDoanlds. In America, at least. So, shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, don’t tell anyone where you really work, ok? Now why is that? 

Oh please. Lighten up! ‘It’s a job.’

A wise Turk told me this very thing not so long ago, when I was feeling, well, strangely ashamed of my job, having been told by a nosy German woman in an optical shop, who asked, ‘Where EXACTLY do you work’ (think Stasi) and following up with ‘but you need something for your BRAIN!’ She wasn’t offering a job. She wasn’t offering hints or connections. She was gloating over my apparent misfortune. Somehow this optician had found my shame button and punched it.

After eight years in Germany, having passed the basic language tests, having struggled in no state funded unemployment for two years after that, having tried tutoring English for a few Euros a month in pay, for having applied to libraries and bookshops and having intervews at a university and a cafe, a video store and even a taxi service that didn’t hire me, in my third year in Germany, I was working at my last and I admit, humiliating option: McDonalds. Internally, I deflated. Perhaps that was her goal, but it didn’t work, at least I didn’t let her see that it had worked in that moment. Until the Turk came along, and hearing the optical shop story, asked, ‘Are you ashamed of your job? Don’t be! It’s a job! I like coming here because you are the only friendly person who serves us here.’ That may be true. But I find myself not feeling at all friendly towards the 50-something generation, of German, middle class, with a snobby attitude about service workers. Come to think of it, I never liked people who treated service people with contempt, whatever country I was living in. I assume half of them are regularly insulted service workers themselves. 

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