When I was 14 years old and, therefore, a year short of the age at which you could then get your license in the state of Mississippi, I wrecked my mother’s car. I was sober and it was daylight, but when I backed the big old Buick station wagon out of a friend’s driveway, it somehow swung into a tree. Like everyone else in the Mississippi Delta, I’d been driving since the age of 11 and I thought I was a pro. Clearly, I was not. My parents were out of town, so the first thing I tried to do was get the car fixed before they returned, an endeavor which turned out to be an impossibility because, one, it was a weekend and no body shop could do the work in time, and, two, I wouldn’t have been able to pay for it in the first place.
So I did what I thought was the next best thing. Â I got a job. A menial job that would make me appear so noble that I would avoid getting grounded over the unauthorized use and subsequent wreckage of the Roadmaster. I went to work behind the counter at our local McDonald’s. I had a friend who worked there and she’d told me that the manager was a “nice guy” and he didn’t mind hiring girls who were slightly below the age that the federal government wanted them to be. (We will not dwell on his possible motivation—at that moment I was grateful.)
When my parents arrived home, I was decked out in my two-toned blue zip-front polyester suit embroidered with a golden arch and then I showed them the car. Unamused by both dent and outfit, they grounded me anyway. Worse, I was forced to use my initial earnings to pay for the repair. I was furious that my ruse didn’t work. But then a funny thing happened—I started to love working at McDonald’s. I loved the camaraderie and the jokes and the hustle. I didn’t mind that every time I went into the walk-in cooler I came out with hair that smelled like Big Mac sauce. I didn’t mind greeting the customer with a smile and suggesting a hot apple pie at the end of an order like we had been told over and over again to do. I didn’t mind covering for the alcoholic manager who mixed Bourbon into one of the Coke dispensers and I still hope I didn’t serve one to an unsuspecting toddler or member of AA.
I paid for the car and then I was free to buy my own LPs and 8-tracks (this was a long time ago) and clothes (including am incredibly chic brown velvet suit and some Charles Jourdan shoes I wish I still had) and anything else I might want. I realized that working was an excellent way to gain freedom from your elders. By this time I also had a driver’s license and drove myself to work. After a year, I was ready to move on, which was a good thing, since the owner of the franchise had to pay a whole lot of money to the feds once he discovered his manager was hiring underage employees.
I still really, really love a McDonald’s burger—Big Mac sauce is to me like Proust’s madeleine. It reminds me of high school and my navy blue Mustang convertible and the Bonnie Raitt 8-tracks I listened to every night on my way home from manning the counter. I learned a lot of stuff in my own private “Hamburger College” not least of which is the importance of keeping it together no matter what it is that you do. I don’t ordinarily quote Snoop Dogg, but he happens to be on the money: “If it’s flipping hamburgers at McDonald’s, be the best hamburger flipper in the world. Whatever it is you do you have to master your craft.” This is also why I get almost ridiculously irritated when I walk into a fast-food enterprise and I am not greeted with a smile. Or worse, no one suggests to me that I add a hot apple pie with my order, ma’am. I don’t want one, of course, but I do know the rules and if I can follow them, anyone can.

About Julia Reed

Julia Reed is a columnist at Garden & Gun magazine and a contributing editor at Elle Décor. She also contributes to The Wall Street Journal, Architectural Digest, and The New York Times, and makes frequent appearances on MSNBC. She is the author of five books, including But Mama Always Put Vodka in the Sangria, Adventures in Eating, Drinking and Making Merry and One Man’s Folly, The Exceptional Houses of Furlow Gatewood.

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