I’ve had some pretty crappy jobs. I don’t regret any of those experiences, though. Crappy jobs build character.
My first “real” job when I turned sixteen was at Long John Silver’s. For the uninitiated, Long John Silver’s is a fast-food chain that mostly sells seafood products. There was also a pirate theme attached to the company, which I enjoyed.
The overwhelming majority of the food(?) served at Long John Silver’s was deep fried. There were 50-pound cubes of shortening (processed, solid, industrial vegetable oil) that we would put into vats and heat to 350 degrees to make liquid oil for cooking.
All the fish, chicken and shrimp products were dipped in batter, then deep fried for the appropriate amount of time to cook them juuuuuust right.
Sometimes the hot oil would spit at the cooks while we were cooking. I had minor burns all over my hands and arms all the time, but that was part of the fun. The pain was worth it for $4.25 an hour.
After some practice, I got pretty good at making hushpuppies. Hushpuppies are essentially golf ball sized pieces of fried bread. The name hushpuppy comes from the pirates and fishermen who would fry some bread mixture in the leftover fat of their frying pans to feed to their dogs to shut them up. You know, to “hush the puppies.”
(In no way am I suggesting that Long John Silver’s is serving dog food to people. This is just a history lesson.)
We would pre-make the hushpuppy mix and then use what looked like a tiny ice cream scoop to scoop the mix in little ball shapes to be fried in the vats of 350 degree oil. At the peak of my Long John Silver’s career, I was able to make 63 hushpuppies in one minute. I was a legend.
One of the non-seafood products at Long John Silver’s was chicken. The chicken wasn’t sold as chicken fingers or chicken nuggets or chicken patties, it was sold as chicken planks. Get it? Like walking the plank?
There was a chicken promotion at one point during my Long John Silver’s career. The chicken promotion launched around the same time there was an outbreak of Mad Cow disease in the UK in the mid-90s. As part of the chicken plank promotion, the company headquarters sent each Long John Silver’s location a chicken suit and one of those big poster board signs you can wear that had some marketing message about the chicken plank sale. I think the chicken planks were like $0.99 each and that was a good deal in those days.
To the surprise of no one, I was chosen from the collection of employees to be the primary chicken costume person at our location.
On my first chicken suit shift, I stood on the median of a fairly busy four-lane road by a stop light (Sorry, Mom!). My thinking was people would have a difficult time escaping me if they were stopped at a red light. That turned out to be correct.
After scaring children in the backseats of their parents’ cars for a few hours, I grew tired of flapping my wings at the stop light. I decided to step it up and plant myself in front of the McDonald’s, where people would turn for the drive-thru.
There was a McDonald’s location two doors down from our Long John Silver’s location. This was great news because McDonald’s sells beef. Many people were wary of beef products because of the Mad Cow noise, but I had no qualms about using fear appeals and sensationalism to get attention (just like your favorite nightly “news”).
As cars would turn into the drive-thru lane, I was waiting for them. There was no way to avoid me once they had committed to the turn. Gotcha, suckers!
It wasn’t interesting enough for me to stand there like a chicken statue, flapping my wings. I mean, a guy in a chicken suit will get some attention wherever he goes (except maybe San Francisco or Los Angeles), but I decided to be a bit more aggressive about it.
My strategy to get attention was to keep myself hidden from the drivers until they rounded the corner. As soon as they could see me, I would lurch toward the driver side of the cars shouting, “Mad cow! Mad cow!” as I flapped my wings, trying not to get hit by any other cars in the process (the visibility from the chicken mask was good, but not great).
Mind you, part of the lurching and chasing was on McDonald’s property at this point, so I was technically trespassing.
My manager came down the street to retrieve me about twenty minutes after I began my lurching-driver-attack-shout move. The McDonald’s manager had called my manager to complain. Apparently, the McDonald’s manager thought I was totally insane and didn’t have the courage to come outside and approach me himself. The thought of that ridiculous situation brings me joy to this day.
Before I turned sixteen, I had limited options for work. The Midwest has a heavy agricultural focus and there were plenty of farming-type jobs available. Also, farming jobs are usually crappy jobs.
That part of the Midwest is racist, so the migrant farm worker population was not very big. The local yokels have a tendency to let “outsiders” know they aren’t welcome in not-so-subtle ways like this and this and this.
Who’s going to pick up the slack if there aren’t any migrant workers that can be exploited for below-market wages? Teenagers, of course.
There’s this thing called detasseling corn. Most people outside the Midwest have never heard of it. For a few weeks in July or August every year, it’s opportunity time for people who are tall enough to reach the tops of corn stalks, but not old enough to get a proper fast food job (child labor laws being what they are). That creates a sweet spot for motivated 13-15 year olds.
Detasseling is a way for the corn growers to create hybrid strains of corn. Think of it as CRISPR babies, but for corn. What could go wrong?
Detasseling corn is universally known as a crappy job in the Midwest. There are other farm jobs that are also crappy, such as shoveling manure, or supervising teenaged detasselers, but detasseling is surely in the top ten crappiest farm jobs.
All corn has both male and female components so they will pollinate themselves if left alone for too long. Two strains of corn are planted in the same field and the rows are carefully marked for the future. One of the strains will serve as the “male” and the other as the “female.”
When the corn has almost grown to maturity, the job of the detasselers is to remove the tassels (where the pollen lives) in the male rows and throw them on the ground before the pollen is released, leaving the female corn tassels intact so they can pollinate all the corn in the field and pass along the “right” genes.
There are plenty of crappy jobs in the world and I don’t want to make it sound like I’m complaining here. I’ve been fortunate in my life to get into a place where I don’t have to think too much about crappy jobs these days. That hardly seems fair, though. Just because I don’t have to work crappy jobs to survive doesn’t mean I should forget what happened along the way.
Crappy jobs aren’t all sunshine and unicorns for most people. People experience dramatic CHANGE when they are forced to do that sort of work. Sometimes it changes them for the better! The negative experiences can create changes that improve the lives of them and their families because they find some motivation. That’s an ideal outcome, but perhaps not so common.
More commonly, people are forced into crappy jobs because they have no other options. That creates sour, bitter people who get stuck in a pit of despair for all eternity. They don’t see a way out and they don’t feel like they have any choice in the matter, so they continue working crappy jobs and basically give up hope. The longer they work crappy jobs, the more despair they feel. That’s the saddest outcome imaginable and it creates a downward spiral that’s not good for anyone (including you, possessor of a non-crappy job).
My experience with crappy jobs was a good one. I am lucky because I have people in my life who have accomplished great things and provide great perspective. Luck is an extremely under-reported and under-appreciated element of life for many people in my demographic. We like to take all the credit for our “achievements,” but it’s easy to score a home run when you’re born on third base and have never had to steal bases for a living. A slap across the face might do us (privileged white dudes) some good every once in a while.
As always, please feel free to leave a comment if you’d like to chastise me or share a joke. I’m happy with either one. I appreciate all comments because I think it’s healthy to listen and learn, especially when people have opposing views. I wish everyone would adopt that attitude, so I’ll start with me.
On a related note…
Sometimes I just start writing and see where it goes because I have access to good coffee and a comfortable seat. Today was one of those days.
As I accessed my memories about Long John Silver’s along the way, I remembered a common occurrence that still blows my mind to this day. There wasn’t a good place to insert it in this post, so I’m going to cheat and share it at the end.
There were many, many obese people who visited Long John Silver’s when I worked there. That shouldn’t be a surprise.
The largest “combination” meal order for an individual was the #4. There were family-sized orders that were bigger, but that’s a level of gluttony we didn’t see in those days. I haven’t worked there since I was 17, so maybe family-sized orders are now acceptable for individuals. It would be sad, but not surprising, if that was the current state of affairs.
The #4 was two pieces of fish, three chicken planks, fries, cole slaw, hushpuppies and a drink (plus some crumblies, which were the fried batter that didn’t stay attached to the fish and chicken while they bathed in the hot oil).
Summary: It’s a lot of food for one person.
Can you guess what the majority of customers who ordered the #4 chose as their drink?
When you count the calories in the #4, the total without any ketchup or tartar sauce or ranch dressing or a properly sugar-laden drink is 1700 calories. Topping 2000 calories in one sitting is totally achievable, even for the health-minded folks who ordered Diet Pepsi.
It has been a few decades since I’ve worked at that place and the sheer number of people ordering the #4 with a Diet Pepsi was a traumatic part of that experience.