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Reader writer applies for job at Taco Bell

"Bye, Buddy.” "See ya, Hemingway.”

I am looking at a job application for Jack In The Box and trying to talk myself out of turning the thing in. I have enough Prozac to see me through this — it is a means to an end pure and simple, suck it up, just do it — and I need the job to pay for the Prozac that I’m going to need to do the job and so on.

How did this happen? I am 47 years old with no marketable skills other than guitar playing and prose writing. But Christmas was, as they say, just around the corner and, shit, so is Jack In The Box.

I can’t live on what I make even if I get this job, but maybe I can stop some of the financial bleeding and get a couple of Christmas gifts. Maybe I can use the experience in a big, realistic novel about America in the ’90s — sort of like Bonfire of the Vanities, only instead of a stockbroker, my character will be a fry cook. I will tell myself anything at this point to keep my head out of the oven.

The application in my jacket pocket, I walk home from Vons with my girlfriend, juggling bags of groceries. I pause in front of smiling Jack’s clowny countenance and say,“I’ve got to stop in here for a minute.”

“You’re going to eat something from E. Coli In The Box? You always tell me not to eat there.”

“I’m going to turn in a job application,” I say casually, as if the idea just occurred to me on a whim and I hadn’t been awake from 4:30 to 6:00 a.m., thinking about bills and eating Pepcid AC. “Why not?” I shrug.

“Why don’t you just do some more writing?” She suggests this as if I hadn’t thought of it: Why not just toss off an article or book proposal the next time you’re in the bathroom for 45 minutes? Actually, she doesn’t mean it that way, and I can’t be angry — so I get mad at her because I can’t be angry with her. Know what I mean?

“I’ll see you at home,” I tell her and carry my bags of cereal and frozen chicken into the restaurant.

Inside, I ask for the boss and inquire, “Are you hiring anyone?” The competent-looking woman in the blue managerial uniform is wearing one of those Madonna microphones around her jaw, and she takes my application saying, “We’re almost always hiring.” She smiles pleasantly but I imagine she is looking at me thinking, Why would an old guy like you want to work here?

Nervous, I blurt out, “I’ll cut my sideburns.” I realize how desperate I sound and add, “Shit.” I say it out loud but I don’t think she heard me. “Wait here,” she says over her shoulder, then turns. She gestures at me to move to one side, out of the way of paying customers. I turn and shuffle to the right. As I do so, I see, sitting alone at the front table and reading a paperback book while eating his lunch, television attorney Reed Langlois.

I am not kidding. Right in front of me is the guy you see on television at odd hours promising to bail you out of problems with bill collectors and the IRS. The “Debt Relief King” is right in front of me as I wait for the manager of Jack In The Box on Pearl Street in La Jolla.

As if in an out-of-body experience you hear about on the Sci-Fi Channel, I see myself crossing the distance to the table where the curly blond-haired lawyer is sucking on a soft drink, reading a paperback, and munching a sandwich. He appears unflappable, cool and secure in the knowledge that his finances are in order, his tax refund undoubtedly in the mail, and his credit card balance a manageable digit or two; his digestion is untroubled as he enjoys a sensibly frugal meal and a nonfiction bestseller.

Counselor Langlois is astounded at the outburst of this desperate gray-haired stranger with a bag of groceries, which have suddenly been tossed aside. He looks up with horror as I fall to my knees blubbering, “For Chrissakes, you gotta help me, Reed! I owe money!” I seize him by the lapels and shake him. His head whips forward and back like one of those dashboard dolls. “I don’t wanna work at Jack In The Box! I’ll do whatever you say....”

Luckily I snap out of it before I actually do any of this. The manager, a polite, pretty round girl in her early 20s, emerges from the back of the restaurant holding my application. She smiles at me tentatively and gestures me to a table by the window.

Her name is Edna. She finds it interesting that I’m a writer and play in a rock band.“Do you ever play around here?” she asks.

I nod and mention Java Joe’s and the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art. She is more impressed by Java Joe’s.

“That’s where Jewel used to play,” she says.

“Yes,” I nod.

“What’s the name of your band?” I tell her and she looks a little gaseous. She’s never heard of us. “Well, it seems to me you’re overqualified to work here.” I should never have mentioned the museum gig. Or maybe she just means I’m too old. Of course, she can’t say that. It’s against the law. Age discrimination.

“No no. I’m really not qualified at all. Honestly. I’ve never worked in a fast-food restaurant. I have no idea what I’m doing.”

“Well, I’m looking for someone who will stay on. How long would you work here?”

“Probably just for the holidays. I don’t want to mislead you.” I’ve probably blown it, but she seems so nice it wouldn’t be right to tell her I have long-term fast-food ambitions with the corporation. She tells me she has two other applicants she is considering and she’ll let me know.“Would you cut your sideburns?”

“Sure,” I say and mean it.

Edna never calls. I return a few days later after cutting my sideburns back several inches. “See, I cut them?” I smile at her over the counter. She tells me she still hasn’t made up her mind.

“So there’s still a chance?” I am pathetic.

“There’s a chance,” she says but her smile is regretful.

A Help Wanted sign on the flower stand next door gives me pause, but I know nothing about flowers and seem to have a knack for killing them, if anything. I don’t even bother.

The next business over is “Pearl Wash.” I can wash cars, all right. I’ve washed plenty of cars, just not for 30 years or so. The fact that Pearl Wash is manned by a platoon of mostly Mexican guys that might not welcome an old hippie Italian/gringo doesn’t dissuade me. I can already picture myself, shirt off in the sun, getting in shape burnishing Jags and BMWs, bopping to norteño music with my homies, the carnauba wax glistening on my flabby pecs. I ask for an application. Abe, the manager, looks me up and down and warns me,“It’s hard work.”

“I can do hard work,” I assure him.

“For how long?” He grins.

“How long is the shift?”

“Eight to five with a half hour to an hour for lunch.”

“Sure. Just give me a chance.” I grin back at him, but I’m already feeling my back give out. I can just see these swarthy young bucks laughing, cracking Geritol jokes. “Try me out.” God, I’m begging.

“Maybe I’ll call you.” Abe doesn’t sound convinced. I feel like I’ve just tried to pick him up in a bar, and he’s too polite to say he doesn’t find me attractive.

Abe never calls. Fine. There’s lots of jobs. I can wash dishes at the International House of Pancakes down the street. How can I not get that job? The economy is doing great. Jobs are everywhere. I grab an application, fill it out, and return. They never call. I refuse to be discouraged this easily. With newfound determination I walk into Taco Bell, and this is where I get lucky.

Anyway, I meet Lucky. The solid, gentle juggernaut of a man leans across the counter and presents me with an application in a meaty hand the color of devil’s food cake. He also wears one of those Madonna microphones in order to take orders from La Jolla’s only remaining drive-thru window (the girl at Jack In The Box wore hers to communicate only from the counter to the kitchen) since the local ordinance back in 1969, I believe. Lucky fixes me with one eye (the other is slightly lazy, maybe even glass) and extends his free hand in an offer to shake. He tells me to return the application early the following day. I am buoyed with prospects: I decide I will be promoted to the drive-thru window position at the earliest opportunity. Within months I will no doubt be perceived as assistant-manager material.

Lucky is not there the next day or the day after that. He leaves a message for me, however. He says he will call, but two days go by and there is no call. I begin to feel hurt and foolish. I was certain that Lucky and I had shared a moment back there over a handshake The following day I drop in at Taco Bell and Lucky apologizes, explaining that he had been off for two days. I tell him no prob- lem. I will not make the same mistakes I made at Jack In The Box and the car wash. My air is that of a man on the go, with great expectations, places to go, peo- ple to see, I was just in the neighborhood and thinking about a Number 7 Value Meal and....I am asked if I can start tomorrow, Christ- mas Eve. I look at my watch as if I’m unsure. “Tomorrow? I can come by, sure.”

“See you at 11:00 a.m.”


I will never make fun of anyone working in a fast-food joint again, and neither should you. This work is relentless and demanding. It is scientific, exacting, and at times, hard on the back. Mexican Pizzas alone are the result of precision teamwork, rigorous preparation, and multiple tasks — they do not appear at the drive-thru window by magic, that’s for sure.

My first day I pretty much sit outside at a table, smoke cigarettes, and read the Systems Operation Manual and its sequel, Receiving, Storing, and Preparing Food. I am given two lengthy tests on this material in the Trainee Workbooks. After four hours I have a good theoretical knowledge of the Frymaster, the Rethermalizer, and the Consistency Template for beans. Watching the Christmas Eve traffic on La Jolla Boulevard, the surfers and lifeguards coming and going from the Marine Street beach, the tourists from all over the world and schoolchildren alight with the promise of Christmas, I am struck with the solemn charge the Pepsi-Cola Company (owner of Taco Bell) has given its employees. The general public is blissfully unaware of the pains taken with, for example, the ground beef in their burritos: the 30-minute preparation time until the hearty, nutritious meat product — precooked and packaged in Mexico by workers so dedicated they put in twice as many hours for half the money we make up here — is “evenly broken up with no lumps: not tough, mushy, or chewy.” The color consistently a “...medium brown with red and orange tones from spices” and maintained at a steady, bactericidal 190 degrees. Indeed, the public does not pause to think of these things, and we at Taco Bell don’t feel that you should have to.


The day after Christmas is my second shift, and this time I’m doing actual work. Way too much of it. Dressed in my white T-shirt with that frightening little lemur-faced Chihuahua saying “Yo quiero Taco Bell!” and a corporate-issue jalapeño- pepper baseball cap into which I have stuffed all of my hair, I am ready to work the cash register — only not quite.

I quickly learn that almost no one orders food the way the computer wants us to. I must constantly modify, for example, a Burrito Supreme (which is a bean and cheese burrito with onions, sour cream, and tomatoes) to a Burrito Supreme minus onions or with extra cheese — I must punch in BS — ON + CH — which renders the thing, you see, not a Burrito Supreme at all. The same with Gorditas and Fajitas, often confused (one has Fiesta Sauce, the other Southwestern Sauce; for Supremes add sour cream and tomatoes) with extra steak or chicken, no peppers or onions, three-cheese combo instead of just cheese, raspberry iced tea is ICED TEA + RED. No Coke, Pepsi. For lemonade you have to press ICED TEA + BLUE or something like that. The permutations are endless and things can get backed up and con- fused very quickly, especially since no one speaks English very well except me and Lucky.

Esterania, a shy and smiley girl with striking eyes, rescues me from the cash register and suggests I wash dishes instead. This goes pretty well for a while; the simple rhythm of detergent sink, sanitizer sink, and rinse sink is pretty self-explanatory, but I screw this up as well. After an hour I have washed, rinsed, and sanitized cubing knives,“burger sauce stripper tools,” “modular keepers,” “false-bottomed corn and bean salsa containers,” lids and pans from the steam-table line, spatulas, cinnamon twist basket fryers, and a dozen plastic sour cream and guacamole guns, which I have not, apparently, cleaned thoroughly enough: a pocket of soapy, watery green or white glop from previous use remains in the vacuum advance chambers. I am busted and the lunch rush is cranking up to disturbing proportions. I am yanked from the sinks and placed “on the line.”

Miguel, Rene, and Esterania do what they can to explain to me how to fill and wrap tacos, burritos, bake Mexican pizzas in 35 seconds, cut them into fours, distribute green onions and shredded lettuce evenly so that all flavors are experienced uniformly in every bite. It is not long before I am cursing in Spanish and shift manager Carmen explains to me that pinche is not a Spanish word. I am to reach with both hands for a full pinch of lettuce, a quarter pinch of either three-cheese or regular cheese, a quarter pinch of tomatoes or onions, and I am chanting “ Pinche cebollas, pinche tres quesos ...” etcetera. Within minutes I am breaking taco shells, wrapping them in burrito paper, put- ting pizza sauce on cinnamon twists, mixing orders, bagging dining-room meals and sending drive-thru orders to the window on “for here” trays. I am now Lucille Ball in that I Love Lucy episode where she is trying to keep up with a conveyor belt full of chocolates by stuffing them into her mouth. I am eating shards of tortillas, licking frijoles off of my fingers, and filling iced tea requests with Mountain Dew. Lucky pulls me from the line.

Lucky is a formidable-looking guy. He’s got to weigh in around 250 or so and has a rolling gait that implies both an irresistible force and an immovable object. His manner is that of a benevolent drill sergeant: patient and precise, but unquestionably a guy you don’t want to piss off. “We’ll put you at the drive-thru register next week. You only have to make change, drinks, and ask people if they want hot, mild, or fire sauce.”

What he is saying, basically, is, Don’t worry, we’ll find something you won’t fuck up. In the meantime he turns me over to Juan, who has me mop the floors. Every hour at Taco Bell, whether it’s needed or not, the floors are cleaned and surfaces are wiped down (red Handi-Wipes for the dining room, blue ones for the prep and storage areas, or “backstage”). While mop- ping, I have a little time for my mind to wander.

I am thinking about a North County cocktail party I am invited to attend New Year’s Eve. I am dressed in a tuxedo with a drink in my hand. A blonde babe in a black evening gown, encrusted with diamonds, is taking note of the trim form beneath my cummerbund. I am in good shape from hefting boxes of frozen chicken and ground beef, slinging a mop and scouring the Frymaster. When she asks me what I do for a living I tell her, “I’m with Pepsi-Cola, restaurant division. La Jolla.” She purrs and drapes herself on my arm as I critically note the consistency of the bean dip and make a witty remark about the caterer’s not “knowing beans.”

“Don’t drag the bucket all over the restaurant,” Lucky is yelling across the room. “Just take the mop and carry it back and forth!”

My next shift involves chopping green onions, filling backup trays of meat, beans, and cheese, loading the guacamole and cream guns, and placing tortillas in the warmer. I write the prep time, the time expected on the line, and expiration time (after consulting the wall chart) along with my name and the date on all of these things. Next task is the Frymaster.

I am instructed by Miguel on loading the vat with a white Crisco-like lard substance (though it is not lard; no one really knows what it is) and dipping taco salad shells, tortillas, and cinnamon crisps (little churros) for exactly the right amount of time: respectively, 30 seconds, 25 seconds, and, if I recall correctly, one minute. It is an arcane form of artistry, getting those taco salad shells into exactly the right configuration. Several failures are involved. I quickly eat as many of the rejects as possible while Lucky is in the office. But these are giant tortillas and I’m now standing in a generous deadfall of large crumbs and shards. I quickly grab a broom and go to work on the floor around my ankles just as Lucky comes out of the office and nods at me with approval.“ When you’re done with that, fry up the cinnamon twists. Miguel will show you how.”

After frying the hard little pastries that look exactly like uncooked fusilli pasta (which blow up to resemble pork rinds), dusting them with cinnamon sugar, and then bagging them in plastic, I’m back on the register under Miguel’s supervision.

I wait on a few customers, punch in their orders, make change and drinks — nothing too difficult. I am surprised to see so many Mexican families coming in for this food. Don’t get me wrong, it’s decent food, inoffensive certainly, and it will prob- ably keep you alive, but as Mexican food goes, it is about as ho-hum as you can get — and the portions are tiny. Still, it’s wonderfully cheap and I guess that’s what we’ve got going for us.

One elderly man comes in and jokes with Juan about the newness of the $20 bill he is paying with. Something about how the bill is good because he just made it himself. Juan laughs dutifully but I doubt he has any idea what the guy said. The customer studies the menu — though, Miguel tells me, the man comes in every day and should long ago have memorized its contents. The old gentleman seems to be relishing his decision and anticipation, enjoying his one-sided English banter with Juan and Miguel, who do not mind; the store is empty. Even if it were not, the two younger men would take as much time with him as he wanted. It occurs to me that this is a very important social ritual for the customer, something Juan and Miguel understand implicitly.

Everyone is working much harder than I am, and I am working harder than I want to. My fellow employees are indulgent with me but cannot conceal a mild amusement that an old gringo is working here. Everyone knows gringos can’t work worth a shit. Not really. And I sense their curiosity, an unspoken question in the fried, foody air: Shouldn’t you be golfing or something?


The second to the last day of December I am, against all logic, promoted to the drive-thru window during the lunch rush. I am in a kind of toll booth with a cash register and a soda dispenser, boxes of hot sauce, napkins, straws, forks, and drink holders, all at the end of a conveyor belt on which food orders crawl toward me. Outside a parade of cars is snaking around the building, pulling up next to my window, their drivers extending fistfuls of cash.

“One large Slice.” Hand them the covered drink with a straw. “That will be $3.85. Hot sauce, mild, or fire sauce?” Punch in the amount they’ve given me, no need to worry about figuring change, the computer does it. I’m on a roll, I’ve got a rhythm going, smiling and bopping with the varieties of music swelling and fading from advancing dashboards. Two very young guys with Metallica cranked on the car stereo are shouting “No hot sauce!”

“No problem. Six-fifty altogether!”

“What?”

“Six-fifty!”

“Cool.” Hands me the amount in nickels, dimes, and pennies.

“Thanks. Rock on, dudes!”

“What?”

“Rock on!” I grin at them from beneath the brim of my cap, my head nodding to eighth notes. They exchange a look that can only mean, That is so sad, dude.

Carmen shows up to bail me out of a few tangled orders, which result in major traffic blockage on La Jolla Boulevard. Car horns and car stereos vie with the squawking of the drive-thru intercom, the low humming of the conveyor belt, and the dinging of an electronic bell every time a new car pulls up to the window. I can’t hear myself think. Good thing I don’t have to; the computer is a genius.

Oh no. I recognize the approaching pickup truck with the camper shell. It is the drummer in my band, Buddy Pastel Jr. He pulls to the window and does a double-take.

“Hiya, Buddy,” I grin at him.

“Hey, Hemingway. Heh-heh. Guess that writing thing didn’t work out, huh?”

“Well, actually, I’m still working on...”

“Yeah, whatever. Give me my chicken fajita and coffee, will ya? I gotta get goin’.”

“Here’s your change. Would you like an ice cream taco with that?”

“No.”

“Okay. Bye, Buddy.”

“See ya, Hemingway.”

I decide to take that telemarketing job I called about this morning: You want to make $ IF YOU ARE A TOP PERFORMER WE WON'T STOP YOU!! Come work for us and set your own hourly pay. We offer a plush working environment with NO ceiling sales. We will show you how our product and your talents will not only make

you money but will give you a career!”

That afternoon I leave my cap on Lucky’s desk and buy a Taco Bell dog for my girlfriend at an employee discount ($1.61). When you squeeze it, it says, “Yo quiero Taco Bell .”

The next morning I call Lucky and tell him I have another job, but I don’t want to leave him in the lurch, I’ll come in if he needs me. He quickly says, “Oh no. That’s okay. I understand. I’ll have a check for you on Tuesday. Good luck.”

“Bye, Lucky.”

I hang up the phone and notice for the first time the back of my Taco Bell T-shirt as it is draped over a chair where I tossed it. Beneath the shoulderblade area it reads “Want some?

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I am looking at a job application for Jack In The Box and trying to talk myself out of turning the thing in. I have enough Prozac to see me through this — it is a means to an end pure and simple, suck it up, just do it — and I need the job to pay for the Prozac that I’m going to need to do the job and so on.

How did this happen? I am 47 years old with no marketable skills other than guitar playing and prose writing. But Christmas was, as they say, just around the corner and, shit, so is Jack In The Box.

I can’t live on what I make even if I get this job, but maybe I can stop some of the financial bleeding and get a couple of Christmas gifts. Maybe I can use the experience in a big, realistic novel about America in the ’90s — sort of like Bonfire of the Vanities, only instead of a stockbroker, my character will be a fry cook. I will tell myself anything at this point to keep my head out of the oven.

The application in my jacket pocket, I walk home from Vons with my girlfriend, juggling bags of groceries. I pause in front of smiling Jack’s clowny countenance and say,“I’ve got to stop in here for a minute.”

“You’re going to eat something from E. Coli In The Box? You always tell me not to eat there.”

“I’m going to turn in a job application,” I say casually, as if the idea just occurred to me on a whim and I hadn’t been awake from 4:30 to 6:00 a.m., thinking about bills and eating Pepcid AC. “Why not?” I shrug.

“Why don’t you just do some more writing?” She suggests this as if I hadn’t thought of it: Why not just toss off an article or book proposal the next time you’re in the bathroom for 45 minutes? Actually, she doesn’t mean it that way, and I can’t be angry — so I get mad at her because I can’t be angry with her. Know what I mean?

“I’ll see you at home,” I tell her and carry my bags of cereal and frozen chicken into the restaurant.

Inside, I ask for the boss and inquire, “Are you hiring anyone?” The competent-looking woman in the blue managerial uniform is wearing one of those Madonna microphones around her jaw, and she takes my application saying, “We’re almost always hiring.” She smiles pleasantly but I imagine she is looking at me thinking, Why would an old guy like you want to work here?

Nervous, I blurt out, “I’ll cut my sideburns.” I realize how desperate I sound and add, “Shit.” I say it out loud but I don’t think she heard me. “Wait here,” she says over her shoulder, then turns. She gestures at me to move to one side, out of the way of paying customers. I turn and shuffle to the right. As I do so, I see, sitting alone at the front table and reading a paperback book while eating his lunch, television attorney Reed Langlois.

I am not kidding. Right in front of me is the guy you see on television at odd hours promising to bail you out of problems with bill collectors and the IRS. The “Debt Relief King” is right in front of me as I wait for the manager of Jack In The Box on Pearl Street in La Jolla.

As if in an out-of-body experience you hear about on the Sci-Fi Channel, I see myself crossing the distance to the table where the curly blond-haired lawyer is sucking on a soft drink, reading a paperback, and munching a sandwich. He appears unflappable, cool and secure in the knowledge that his finances are in order, his tax refund undoubtedly in the mail, and his credit card balance a manageable digit or two; his digestion is untroubled as he enjoys a sensibly frugal meal and a nonfiction bestseller.

Counselor Langlois is astounded at the outburst of this desperate gray-haired stranger with a bag of groceries, which have suddenly been tossed aside. He looks up with horror as I fall to my knees blubbering, “For Chrissakes, you gotta help me, Reed! I owe money!” I seize him by the lapels and shake him. His head whips forward and back like one of those dashboard dolls. “I don’t wanna work at Jack In The Box! I’ll do whatever you say....”

Luckily I snap out of it before I actually do any of this. The manager, a polite, pretty round girl in her early 20s, emerges from the back of the restaurant holding my application. She smiles at me tentatively and gestures me to a table by the window.

Her name is Edna. She finds it interesting that I’m a writer and play in a rock band.“Do you ever play around here?” she asks.

I nod and mention Java Joe’s and the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art. She is more impressed by Java Joe’s.

“That’s where Jewel used to play,” she says.

“Yes,” I nod.

“What’s the name of your band?” I tell her and she looks a little gaseous. She’s never heard of us. “Well, it seems to me you’re overqualified to work here.” I should never have mentioned the museum gig. Or maybe she just means I’m too old. Of course, she can’t say that. It’s against the law. Age discrimination.

“No no. I’m really not qualified at all. Honestly. I’ve never worked in a fast-food restaurant. I have no idea what I’m doing.”

“Well, I’m looking for someone who will stay on. How long would you work here?”

“Probably just for the holidays. I don’t want to mislead you.” I’ve probably blown it, but she seems so nice it wouldn’t be right to tell her I have long-term fast-food ambitions with the corporation. She tells me she has two other applicants she is considering and she’ll let me know.“Would you cut your sideburns?”

“Sure,” I say and mean it.

Edna never calls. I return a few days later after cutting my sideburns back several inches. “See, I cut them?” I smile at her over the counter. She tells me she still hasn’t made up her mind.

“So there’s still a chance?” I am pathetic.

“There’s a chance,” she says but her smile is regretful.

A Help Wanted sign on the flower stand next door gives me pause, but I know nothing about flowers and seem to have a knack for killing them, if anything. I don’t even bother.

The next business over is “Pearl Wash.” I can wash cars, all right. I’ve washed plenty of cars, just not for 30 years or so. The fact that Pearl Wash is manned by a platoon of mostly Mexican guys that might not welcome an old hippie Italian/gringo doesn’t dissuade me. I can already picture myself, shirt off in the sun, getting in shape burnishing Jags and BMWs, bopping to norteño music with my homies, the carnauba wax glistening on my flabby pecs. I ask for an application. Abe, the manager, looks me up and down and warns me,“It’s hard work.”

“I can do hard work,” I assure him.

“For how long?” He grins.

“How long is the shift?”

“Eight to five with a half hour to an hour for lunch.”

“Sure. Just give me a chance.” I grin back at him, but I’m already feeling my back give out. I can just see these swarthy young bucks laughing, cracking Geritol jokes. “Try me out.” God, I’m begging.

“Maybe I’ll call you.” Abe doesn’t sound convinced. I feel like I’ve just tried to pick him up in a bar, and he’s too polite to say he doesn’t find me attractive.

Abe never calls. Fine. There’s lots of jobs. I can wash dishes at the International House of Pancakes down the street. How can I not get that job? The economy is doing great. Jobs are everywhere. I grab an application, fill it out, and return. They never call. I refuse to be discouraged this easily. With newfound determination I walk into Taco Bell, and this is where I get lucky.

Anyway, I meet Lucky. The solid, gentle juggernaut of a man leans across the counter and presents me with an application in a meaty hand the color of devil’s food cake. He also wears one of those Madonna microphones in order to take orders from La Jolla’s only remaining drive-thru window (the girl at Jack In The Box wore hers to communicate only from the counter to the kitchen) since the local ordinance back in 1969, I believe. Lucky fixes me with one eye (the other is slightly lazy, maybe even glass) and extends his free hand in an offer to shake. He tells me to return the application early the following day. I am buoyed with prospects: I decide I will be promoted to the drive-thru window position at the earliest opportunity. Within months I will no doubt be perceived as assistant-manager material.

Lucky is not there the next day or the day after that. He leaves a message for me, however. He says he will call, but two days go by and there is no call. I begin to feel hurt and foolish. I was certain that Lucky and I had shared a moment back there over a handshake The following day I drop in at Taco Bell and Lucky apologizes, explaining that he had been off for two days. I tell him no prob- lem. I will not make the same mistakes I made at Jack In The Box and the car wash. My air is that of a man on the go, with great expectations, places to go, peo- ple to see, I was just in the neighborhood and thinking about a Number 7 Value Meal and....I am asked if I can start tomorrow, Christ- mas Eve. I look at my watch as if I’m unsure. “Tomorrow? I can come by, sure.”

“See you at 11:00 a.m.”


I will never make fun of anyone working in a fast-food joint again, and neither should you. This work is relentless and demanding. It is scientific, exacting, and at times, hard on the back. Mexican Pizzas alone are the result of precision teamwork, rigorous preparation, and multiple tasks — they do not appear at the drive-thru window by magic, that’s for sure.

My first day I pretty much sit outside at a table, smoke cigarettes, and read the Systems Operation Manual and its sequel, Receiving, Storing, and Preparing Food. I am given two lengthy tests on this material in the Trainee Workbooks. After four hours I have a good theoretical knowledge of the Frymaster, the Rethermalizer, and the Consistency Template for beans. Watching the Christmas Eve traffic on La Jolla Boulevard, the surfers and lifeguards coming and going from the Marine Street beach, the tourists from all over the world and schoolchildren alight with the promise of Christmas, I am struck with the solemn charge the Pepsi-Cola Company (owner of Taco Bell) has given its employees. The general public is blissfully unaware of the pains taken with, for example, the ground beef in their burritos: the 30-minute preparation time until the hearty, nutritious meat product — precooked and packaged in Mexico by workers so dedicated they put in twice as many hours for half the money we make up here — is “evenly broken up with no lumps: not tough, mushy, or chewy.” The color consistently a “...medium brown with red and orange tones from spices” and maintained at a steady, bactericidal 190 degrees. Indeed, the public does not pause to think of these things, and we at Taco Bell don’t feel that you should have to.


The day after Christmas is my second shift, and this time I’m doing actual work. Way too much of it. Dressed in my white T-shirt with that frightening little lemur-faced Chihuahua saying “Yo quiero Taco Bell!” and a corporate-issue jalapeño- pepper baseball cap into which I have stuffed all of my hair, I am ready to work the cash register — only not quite.

I quickly learn that almost no one orders food the way the computer wants us to. I must constantly modify, for example, a Burrito Supreme (which is a bean and cheese burrito with onions, sour cream, and tomatoes) to a Burrito Supreme minus onions or with extra cheese — I must punch in BS — ON + CH — which renders the thing, you see, not a Burrito Supreme at all. The same with Gorditas and Fajitas, often confused (one has Fiesta Sauce, the other Southwestern Sauce; for Supremes add sour cream and tomatoes) with extra steak or chicken, no peppers or onions, three-cheese combo instead of just cheese, raspberry iced tea is ICED TEA + RED. No Coke, Pepsi. For lemonade you have to press ICED TEA + BLUE or something like that. The permutations are endless and things can get backed up and con- fused very quickly, especially since no one speaks English very well except me and Lucky.

Esterania, a shy and smiley girl with striking eyes, rescues me from the cash register and suggests I wash dishes instead. This goes pretty well for a while; the simple rhythm of detergent sink, sanitizer sink, and rinse sink is pretty self-explanatory, but I screw this up as well. After an hour I have washed, rinsed, and sanitized cubing knives,“burger sauce stripper tools,” “modular keepers,” “false-bottomed corn and bean salsa containers,” lids and pans from the steam-table line, spatulas, cinnamon twist basket fryers, and a dozen plastic sour cream and guacamole guns, which I have not, apparently, cleaned thoroughly enough: a pocket of soapy, watery green or white glop from previous use remains in the vacuum advance chambers. I am busted and the lunch rush is cranking up to disturbing proportions. I am yanked from the sinks and placed “on the line.”

Miguel, Rene, and Esterania do what they can to explain to me how to fill and wrap tacos, burritos, bake Mexican pizzas in 35 seconds, cut them into fours, distribute green onions and shredded lettuce evenly so that all flavors are experienced uniformly in every bite. It is not long before I am cursing in Spanish and shift manager Carmen explains to me that pinche is not a Spanish word. I am to reach with both hands for a full pinch of lettuce, a quarter pinch of either three-cheese or regular cheese, a quarter pinch of tomatoes or onions, and I am chanting “ Pinche cebollas, pinche tres quesos ...” etcetera. Within minutes I am breaking taco shells, wrapping them in burrito paper, put- ting pizza sauce on cinnamon twists, mixing orders, bagging dining-room meals and sending drive-thru orders to the window on “for here” trays. I am now Lucille Ball in that I Love Lucy episode where she is trying to keep up with a conveyor belt full of chocolates by stuffing them into her mouth. I am eating shards of tortillas, licking frijoles off of my fingers, and filling iced tea requests with Mountain Dew. Lucky pulls me from the line.

Lucky is a formidable-looking guy. He’s got to weigh in around 250 or so and has a rolling gait that implies both an irresistible force and an immovable object. His manner is that of a benevolent drill sergeant: patient and precise, but unquestionably a guy you don’t want to piss off. “We’ll put you at the drive-thru register next week. You only have to make change, drinks, and ask people if they want hot, mild, or fire sauce.”

What he is saying, basically, is, Don’t worry, we’ll find something you won’t fuck up. In the meantime he turns me over to Juan, who has me mop the floors. Every hour at Taco Bell, whether it’s needed or not, the floors are cleaned and surfaces are wiped down (red Handi-Wipes for the dining room, blue ones for the prep and storage areas, or “backstage”). While mop- ping, I have a little time for my mind to wander.

I am thinking about a North County cocktail party I am invited to attend New Year’s Eve. I am dressed in a tuxedo with a drink in my hand. A blonde babe in a black evening gown, encrusted with diamonds, is taking note of the trim form beneath my cummerbund. I am in good shape from hefting boxes of frozen chicken and ground beef, slinging a mop and scouring the Frymaster. When she asks me what I do for a living I tell her, “I’m with Pepsi-Cola, restaurant division. La Jolla.” She purrs and drapes herself on my arm as I critically note the consistency of the bean dip and make a witty remark about the caterer’s not “knowing beans.”

“Don’t drag the bucket all over the restaurant,” Lucky is yelling across the room. “Just take the mop and carry it back and forth!”

My next shift involves chopping green onions, filling backup trays of meat, beans, and cheese, loading the guacamole and cream guns, and placing tortillas in the warmer. I write the prep time, the time expected on the line, and expiration time (after consulting the wall chart) along with my name and the date on all of these things. Next task is the Frymaster.

I am instructed by Miguel on loading the vat with a white Crisco-like lard substance (though it is not lard; no one really knows what it is) and dipping taco salad shells, tortillas, and cinnamon crisps (little churros) for exactly the right amount of time: respectively, 30 seconds, 25 seconds, and, if I recall correctly, one minute. It is an arcane form of artistry, getting those taco salad shells into exactly the right configuration. Several failures are involved. I quickly eat as many of the rejects as possible while Lucky is in the office. But these are giant tortillas and I’m now standing in a generous deadfall of large crumbs and shards. I quickly grab a broom and go to work on the floor around my ankles just as Lucky comes out of the office and nods at me with approval.“ When you’re done with that, fry up the cinnamon twists. Miguel will show you how.”

After frying the hard little pastries that look exactly like uncooked fusilli pasta (which blow up to resemble pork rinds), dusting them with cinnamon sugar, and then bagging them in plastic, I’m back on the register under Miguel’s supervision.

I wait on a few customers, punch in their orders, make change and drinks — nothing too difficult. I am surprised to see so many Mexican families coming in for this food. Don’t get me wrong, it’s decent food, inoffensive certainly, and it will prob- ably keep you alive, but as Mexican food goes, it is about as ho-hum as you can get — and the portions are tiny. Still, it’s wonderfully cheap and I guess that’s what we’ve got going for us.

One elderly man comes in and jokes with Juan about the newness of the $20 bill he is paying with. Something about how the bill is good because he just made it himself. Juan laughs dutifully but I doubt he has any idea what the guy said. The customer studies the menu — though, Miguel tells me, the man comes in every day and should long ago have memorized its contents. The old gentleman seems to be relishing his decision and anticipation, enjoying his one-sided English banter with Juan and Miguel, who do not mind; the store is empty. Even if it were not, the two younger men would take as much time with him as he wanted. It occurs to me that this is a very important social ritual for the customer, something Juan and Miguel understand implicitly.

Everyone is working much harder than I am, and I am working harder than I want to. My fellow employees are indulgent with me but cannot conceal a mild amusement that an old gringo is working here. Everyone knows gringos can’t work worth a shit. Not really. And I sense their curiosity, an unspoken question in the fried, foody air: Shouldn’t you be golfing or something?


The second to the last day of December I am, against all logic, promoted to the drive-thru window during the lunch rush. I am in a kind of toll booth with a cash register and a soda dispenser, boxes of hot sauce, napkins, straws, forks, and drink holders, all at the end of a conveyor belt on which food orders crawl toward me. Outside a parade of cars is snaking around the building, pulling up next to my window, their drivers extending fistfuls of cash.

“One large Slice.” Hand them the covered drink with a straw. “That will be $3.85. Hot sauce, mild, or fire sauce?” Punch in the amount they’ve given me, no need to worry about figuring change, the computer does it. I’m on a roll, I’ve got a rhythm going, smiling and bopping with the varieties of music swelling and fading from advancing dashboards. Two very young guys with Metallica cranked on the car stereo are shouting “No hot sauce!”

“No problem. Six-fifty altogether!”

“What?”

“Six-fifty!”

“Cool.” Hands me the amount in nickels, dimes, and pennies.

“Thanks. Rock on, dudes!”

“What?”

“Rock on!” I grin at them from beneath the brim of my cap, my head nodding to eighth notes. They exchange a look that can only mean, That is so sad, dude.

Carmen shows up to bail me out of a few tangled orders, which result in major traffic blockage on La Jolla Boulevard. Car horns and car stereos vie with the squawking of the drive-thru intercom, the low humming of the conveyor belt, and the dinging of an electronic bell every time a new car pulls up to the window. I can’t hear myself think. Good thing I don’t have to; the computer is a genius.

Oh no. I recognize the approaching pickup truck with the camper shell. It is the drummer in my band, Buddy Pastel Jr. He pulls to the window and does a double-take.

“Hiya, Buddy,” I grin at him.

“Hey, Hemingway. Heh-heh. Guess that writing thing didn’t work out, huh?”

“Well, actually, I’m still working on...”

“Yeah, whatever. Give me my chicken fajita and coffee, will ya? I gotta get goin’.”

“Here’s your change. Would you like an ice cream taco with that?”

“No.”

“Okay. Bye, Buddy.”

“See ya, Hemingway.”

I decide to take that telemarketing job I called about this morning: You want to make $ IF YOU ARE A TOP PERFORMER WE WON'T STOP YOU!! Come work for us and set your own hourly pay. We offer a plush working environment with NO ceiling sales. We will show you how our product and your talents will not only make

you money but will give you a career!”

That afternoon I leave my cap on Lucky’s desk and buy a Taco Bell dog for my girlfriend at an employee discount ($1.61). When you squeeze it, it says, “Yo quiero Taco Bell .”

The next morning I call Lucky and tell him I have another job, but I don’t want to leave him in the lurch, I’ll come in if he needs me. He quickly says, “Oh no. That’s okay. I understand. I’ll have a check for you on Tuesday. Good luck.”

“Bye, Lucky.”

I hang up the phone and notice for the first time the back of my Taco Bell T-shirt as it is draped over a chair where I tossed it. Beneath the shoulderblade area it reads “Want some?

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