Fast Food

Fast food seems to be a theme in a lot of what I write. In Iconoclast, a text-based MUD I wrote most of, I spent an inordinate amount of time implementing an assortment of fast food restaurants around the city of New Aurora, both in and out of the mall food court, despite the fact that most players never bothered to visit them. Of course, there was Ninja Burger, the fictional fast food chain run entirely by ninja, which was first just a silly website, and then an RPG, and then got completely out of hand. And in my novel Blackbird, not only does the opening scene take place in a fast food restaurant, but the main characters find themselves constantly drifting back to diners, drive-ins and dives.

My Crew Trainer Tie

All of this may have some small amount to do with the fact that I’ve had fast food in my head for a very long time. According to my parents, my first solid food was McDonald’s french fries. And when it came to my first job, I didn’t have a paper route, and I didn’t mow lawns. Rather, I started working at McDonald’s when I was 14 and a half, which sounds like something out of Dickens but was actually perfectly legal in New York State. Minimum wage at the time was $3.35 an hour. I started out on Counter, with occasional forays into Drive-Thru, and then as soon as I turned 16 I got moved into Grill and became a Crew Trainer. Through it all I got to witness the rise of the McChicken, the birth of the Breakfast Burrito, and the death of the McDLT.

McDonald’s graded its stores every year, and the store I worked at scored the highest rating possible the three years I worked there. And every year, we would get personal feedback from the reviewers. When I was on Counter, people got their food promptly, change was made accurately, the tills were always 100% accurate, and the area was always spotless (ABC – Always Be Cleaning), but there was always one negative piece of feedback: I didn’t smile enough. No doubt this had something to do with them pushing me back into the Grill area as soon as they could. Before they did, however, I got to deal with the public on quite a regular basis. And not all of it was the sort of interaction that makes one inclined to smile.

When it comes to the perspective of angry customers, the film scene that comes to mind most readily when you think of horrific fast food incidents is the “I want breakfast” scene from Falling Down, which apparently is celebrating its 25th Anniversary this year. It’s not that everyone regularly acts out like that, but that so many of them seem to want to (and many do, it seems, a phenomenon I’ve been semi-documenting over on reddit in the /r/ninjaburger subreddit. There seems to be a growing correlation between fast food and violence, especially in America, and from an abstract point of view it’s not difficult to see why. People are in more of a hurry than ever before, and it’s really easy to get frustrated and angry when your fast food isn’t fast enough, or your order is inaccurate, or the store policies don’t quite meet your expectations.

This is to say nothing of the larger incidents we’ve seen in our history which were triggered by larger societal ills but played out in restaurants, like James Huberty’s 1984 “McDonald’s Massacre” in San Ysidro, CA, or Georges Hennard’s 1991 “Luby’s Shooting” in Killeen, TX. Rampage killings happen in every country but for some reason it feels so very American when it combines violence and fast food. According to urban legend, Huberty also listened to Scandal’s “The Warrior” on the radio during the shooting, adding rock-and-roll into the mix. I wonder if he ate an apple pie too.

 

During the time I worked in fast food, there was one particular repeat customer who stood out enough to stand in for my own personal “horror story”, even though it wasn’t anything close to what Falling Down depicts or any of the rampage killings documented in salacious detail on Wikipedia. The customer in question was a Vietnam veteran, which I knew because he told me more than once, and he was in every single day to order the same thing: “a large Diet Coke with no ice, and a large cup of ice with no Diet Coke.” No doubt he saw this as a clever way to get some extra Diet Coke out of the deal. And it was no big deal, for a while. Then one day, the order came down that we were not allowed to give out extra cups for free any more–we’d have to charge an extra nickel. I was the first cashier to have to break this news to this particular customer, and the first to witness him turn a vivid shade of red as he became incensed with rage over the prospect of having to spend a nickel for something that had been free the day before. He must have ranted for several minutes before paying the nickel, informing me that he would never again return to the store, no doubt with a few obscenities thrown in for good measure.

I was 15 years old at the time. And I didn’t deserve that. But what it didn’t take long to realize was that the customer likewise felt that he didn’t deserve the treatment he was getting. From his perspective, he’d been a loyal customer, and (presumably) a loyal citizen, and all he wanted was some extra Diet Coke, or a free cup, depending on your perspective. It wasn’t like a nickel a day was going to make or break the store, or the corporation, or his pocketbook. But it wasn’t about the money, or the Diet Coke. It was for that customer about being treated (from his perspective) as something less than human. And the irony of that is that while he was ranting to defend his own humanity, he was completely failing to appreciate mine. I was as much a victim of the circumstances as he was. But in that moment, it didn’t matter. If McDonald’s was going to care about McDonald’s, he was going to care about his own needs. Who else was going to look after him, but him?

In the end, he did come back the next day, and the next. And the next. And he paid his nickels for a week, and then someone decided that it wasn’t worth his constant outrage and we reverted to letting him have his free cup of ice, and he continued to visit until (I imagine) long after I quit and moved on up my personal career ladder. When I left, we were still charging 25 cents for an extra McNugget sauce, though. You have to draw the line somewhere.

Blackbird is fictional, of course. The characters are not based off anyone in reality, and the opening scene is not intended to be set in any particular store, and I did not set out to recreate in part or in whole any real event. But the complicated relationship between stressed-out fast food customers and the people behind the counter with their all-too-often pretend smiles… there’s definitely some of that in Blackbird.

Maybe I’d still have written the same novel if I’d never worked in fast food. But maybe not. They say you write what you know, and I learned plenty in my time at McDonald’s. It’s been decades now, and I’m sure a lot has changed, but I’m equally sure that a lot has stayed the same–in particular, that occasionally interesting interplay between customer and employee. There are good customers, and bad. And there are good fast food employees, and bad. And in the muddy mess you get by mixing up various combinations of each, I think therein lies a lot of what makes America what it is. And sometimes the line between sanity and outrage is as thin as a single coin.

Origin Story

In late May of 1999, I moved from Buffalo, NY to the Washington, DC area. This wasn’t a one-shot thing; it involved a few car trips back-and-forth, in the ’88 Chevy Beretta I’d inherited. The first two trips went fine, but unbeknownst to me the car was on its last legs. And so it happened that on my way back to Virginia on the third trip, it overheated and died on the side of the road, just outside of South Williamsport, PA. Home of the Little League World Series, and, as it turns out, the place where my novel Blackbird really began.

This was a time before everyone carried smartphones everywhere and always, so finding help meant walking back into town to find a store that was open, breaking a $20, and then figuring out who to call on a pay phone. There were some complications. First of all, that day—July 5—was an observed holiday, so just about everything in town was closed. Secondly, I was not alone on my trip; I was bringing with me my pet albino ferret, Damien. This fact by itself was no big deal, but it was also damned hot outside, approaching 100°F (which explained why the car had died).

There was barely any traffic on the road, and none of it was inclined to stop despite my attempts to flag someone down, so I really had no alternative: I rolled down the windows and left the ferret in the car as I jogged back down the road and found a convenience store, then started making calls. It took about an hour before I got hold of the owner of a garage, and managed to convince him to tow my car back to his place. We made it back to the car just in time to save the ferret from dying of heat stroke. I quickly checked us into a hotel which was kind enough to accept an unusual pet under unusual circumstances.

Damien the albino ferret

Even though the ferret was now safe, there was another complication I had to consider. I had just started a new job two weeks earlier, and I had no way to let anyone there know I was having car issues, so it was imperative that I figure something out. I didn’t want to miss a day of work so soon, and I couldn’t really spend a week in South Williamsport while the car got fixed. So with the immediate danger out of the way, I left Damien to jump around on the bed with the air conditioning blasting and walked back to my car to see if it would start. It did. So I drove the car to the hotel, loaded everything back up, and got back on the road. And I made it another mile or so before it died again, for the last time.

After another hotel check-in, and a dinner cobbled together from a poorly-stocked vending machine, I ended up finding a tow truck driver who was willing to tow me all the way down to Virginia. It was expensive, but I really saw no other option. We left right around dusk, and it was quite a ride. Country-western music on the radio, my dead car rattling behind us, a ferret squirming around in my lap, leftover fireworks bursting outside. We got home right around midnight, and after I unpacked, I collapsed, glad that it was over.

But really, “it” was just starting. There were already some thoughts rattling around in my head, although I didn’t know it yet. Mostly unformed feelings. Frustration. Hopelessness. Anger at my own inability to control the uncontrollable.

The next day—likewise hot and sunny—I managed to convince one of my friends to drive me to work, which was about 30 miles away; on the way back home I was on my own once again. This being olden times, there was no Uber or Lyft, nor was there even a convenient bus route. I had to call a cab, wait for him to take his sweet time showing up (he finally arrived around 8:00 PM, two-and-a-half hours late), then get him to drop me off at the nearest Metro station, then ride the Metro for 45 minutes, then walk a mile back to the house.

By the time I got off the Metro, I was frustrated, and sweaty, and tired. And I was hungry. The closest option for a very late dinner was a fast food place on the other side of the street, so I waited for the traffic light. It only took a minute or so I’m sure, but it was enough time to think some more about how powerless I felt, while realizing that as much as the world was trying to eat me up, I was kind of the one in charge of my own destiny. I was the one pushing the button to stop traffic so I could cross, after all.

An idea began to form in my head.

Inside the fast food place, I ordered a plain chicken sandwich, fries, and a Diet Coke. And if they’d gotten that right, maybe things would have turned out differently. But they didn’t. They screwed up the order, and gave me a sandwich that was not plain. It had mayonnaise and lettuce on it, and had clearly been sitting in the heating bin for a while. I’m not allergic to either one—can you even BE allergic to lettuce?—but I find nothing more disgusting than warm lettuce covered in warm mayo.

And for a moment, angry and disgusted with everything that had happened over the past 36 hours, I had one of those thoughts run through my head. We’ve all had them. The dark, reptile thoughts. What if I went up there and yelled at the cashier? What if I threw the sandwich back in his face and demanded to see a manager? What if I did like the guy in Falling Down and waved a gun around? What if—to quote H.L. Mencken—I decided to “hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats?”

Not my sandwich, but still

That’s not me, not at all; that’s not many people, and certainly none that I know personally. I knew deep down that this was a first world problem, before that was even an Internet meme. But the thought was brewing in my head, even as I used the edge of my french fry container to scrape off the mayo and lettuce, even as I started writing down my scattered thoughts on stray napkins: what if there WAS someone who would do what most people wouldn’t? Someone who would literally kill over mayonnaise on his sandwich? What would push him over the edge?

I was already piecing a story together when the girls walked in, like something out of John Updike’s A&P. A half-dozen of them, all dressed in red bathing suits and towels, with the youngest one steadfastly ignoring the rule about bare feet. I watched them order their ice cream cones while I ate. And they got their ice cream and left, and I finished my dinner and left, and that was that.

But I wondered: what if that barefoot little girl hadn’t gotten what she wanted? And what if this guy I had in my head had decided THAT was what it took to push him over the edge?

The first chapter took about a day to write. The remainder took over a decade, but for everything that’s changed along the way, that first chapter has remained almost as it was envisioned on day one. And none of it would have been written at all if the pieces of the puzzle hadn’t aligned in exactly the right way at just the right time. Just random, individually inconsequential pieces of bad luck and happenstance. The condiments of life, so to speak.

They say if life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. Life gave me mayonnaise, so I made Blackbird.

Close enough.

Enter to win a copy of Blackbird through August 15, 2017 at Goodreads.

Getting Started

Today is sort of the beginning of the end of the beginning.

I started writing Blackbird, my first novel, on July 6, 1999, but while there’s clearly only one beginning, there were multiple endings. Drafts, revisions, times when I thought it was really done, times when I doubted. Now, though, the part where no one really knows about it but me and some close friends is really finally almost nearly over. With the Goodreads Contest running, several advance readers checking out the book, and the publicity campaign getting underway, there’s no turning back.

When I started writing Blackbird, the Internet was a very different place. So many of the things we take for granted—Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, Blogging and Social Media, even smartphones and tablets—either didn’t exist or were just getting started. Back then, you could do something wacky like start a website about ninja who deliver hamburgers and get a ton of attention. Back then, one of the best ways to spread the word about your novel-in-progress was to post the chapters in serial format on a popular website devoted to funny links. Back then, things were a lot easier, and a lot harder at the same time.

While everything was busy changing, I was busy with lots of things; Blackbird was underway the entire time, but it wasn’t generally my number one focus. In addition to all things related to Ninja Burger, I was helping Fark.com out with graphics, writing columns and book reviews, designing role-playing games, working my way into the video game industry, moving cross-country and then cross-coast, and getting married, just to hit the highlights. And while I was doing some social media thingies—I had a LiveJournal for a time, and I was on Orkut and Friendster and a bunch of other sites no one really remembers any more—I wasn’t completely keeping up with social media trends. In fact, I sort of fell off the Internet about 5-6 years ago, just when a lot of things were peaking.

Point is, I’ve got some ground to make up. Turns out that the hardest part of publishing a novel isn’t the writing or the editing or the actual publishing, it’s letting people know it exists.

I have no idea what’s going to work. I’m on Twitter. I’m still on Facebook. I have a Pinterest, sort of. I’m on Goodreads. Somehow—gods only know how—I even ended up with a Wikipedia page. And now I have a blog again, the unfortunate reality of which is that the best time to have started writing one is always ten years ago, since you’re always starting from scratch as far as audience goes. I have no idea if anyone is going to read this. If anyone is going to care. But at the end of the day, I suppose it’s the same way with writing a novel. You just have to put it out there and see what happens.

So let’s see what happens, I guess.

Read, or don’t. Comment, or don’t. Email me or tweet at me. Let me know if you care and what you want to hear about. I’m going to be screaming into the void regardless. May as well say something amusing for the few people out there in the darkness who may be listening.