“What do you do?” has always been a complicated question for me to answer. I’m currently a freelance writer, I’m a former film festival marketing assistant, and I work at McDonald’s. It’s my “anchor” job that helps to pay my bills. I’ve worked on and off at the restaurant for over seven years, throughout college and internships, and as a means to keep pursuing my writing and film interests. There have been multiple instances where I’ve taken my resume to career experts and recruiters, who have asked me to leave McDonald’s off my work history. It’s a tightrope, as I never know if my experience will be a help or a hindrance.
In the entertainment business, there is a huge emphasis on humility. “Thick skin” is a common buzzword. I thought to myself, “What better way to be humbled than at a fast-food restaurant?” The pay isn’t too far from entry-level entertainment positions (and in many cases, it’s the same), and you deal with hundreds of customers, many of whom are difficult.
Once, a recruiter from a major Hollywood talent agency lauded my experience. She said if I could handle customers at McDonald’s, I could handle the agency’s clients. Another time, a recruiter encouraged me to erase McDonald’s from my resume, and I was rejected for that position because I didn’t have enough customer service experience. Working at McDonald’s ― or any fast-food restaurant ― is more than flipping burgers, but it can be a task convincing others of that. In the entertainment industry, where what you do is almost as important as who you know, it’s not an easy thing to admit. I’ve often had to remind myself that I am more than my job title and where I work.
I’m 26 years old, and when I’m not working at McDonald’s I’m a freelance writer who also worked as a film festival marketing assistant. My writing work has been featured in publications and has taken me to festivals such as Sundance and the Toronto International Film Festival. I live in Los Angeles, and while I was finishing my remaining college coursework online and interning, I took a job at McDonald’s so I could earn money quickly. After, as I focused on freelance work, I also used McDonald’s as a stable income.
Outside of work, I would ponder whether people I knew would treat me the same while I was in uniform. Would their indifference extend my way? Would they bother to talk to me while I was wearing a gray polo shirt and cap, black slacks, and the faint smell of fries and burgers? I wasn’t always so sure. I feel like my life is a balancing act between two very different worlds. One is appeasing customers, cleaning up grease, and standing in a drive-thru window for hours on end, constantly exposed to secondhand smoke and exhaust fumes. The other is fancy catered parties, emailing back and forth with publicists, and occasionally breathing the same air as celebrities.
With a simple change of clothing, my accomplishments, my identity and my voice disappear. No matter how articulate I am or how nice I am, I’m a nameless worker meant to cater to junk food cravings. I’m sure it wouldn’t be much different in another service job, but it’s a bit more evident in the fast-food space.
During the recent Popeyes spicy chicken sandwich crisis, a photo of a tired worker went viral on Twitter. She sits on a bench, bent over, her head hanging in defeat. Her hands are clasped, almost in prayer. This image in all its sadness was reposted over and over again for laughs. No one knows the woman’s name, or where she is located. I wonder if the woman even knows she’s sort of famous, her very private moment of weakness made available to the masses.
This was only a small bit of the viral media from the chicken wars. A heartbreaking video shows a young man, evidently hurt by a customer calling him a “slow ass.” The most infuriating video is one in which a customer takes advantage after an employee passes out in the kitchen.
I know the feelings of the viral workers all too well. I’ve had my own moments where I’ve slipped out back, exhausted from yet another busy and understaffed day. I know what it is like to get screamed at for something beyond my control. I’ve even seen phones pointed in my direction, the customers trying to shame my co-workers and me. Luckily for me, if the videos were ever posted, I’ve never seen them. Our country supposedly values hard work but somehow making an honest living, even if in service work, has become ridiculed.
“That’s why you work at McDonald’s!” an irate woman screamed at me once. This person didn’t know me, yet she made a degrading remark while she came to my store at 4 a.m. for an Egg McMuffin. She is far from the only customer who has treated me badly, but she made me realize how so many view me and others in my line of work. Once upon a time, a friend used “BUT YOU WORK AT MCDONALD’S!” as a retort to a simple question I asked about a Facebook post they shared. To some, reminding you of your lowly job is the biggest insult they can think of. You work for a living, but you’re not allowed to be proud of what you do if it doesn’t meet a certain standard.
Unfortunately, the fast-food job has been pigeonholed as a badge of professional failure. Social media has further pushed this narrative through memes, viral videos and a culture of instant gratification and clout-chasing. Fast-food workers aren’t harming anyone, and we’re just doing our jobs. What’s so wrong with that? Working a fast-food job to make a living isn’t something to be ashamed of, but to many people, it is. To some, fast-food work is a last resort and implies that I didn’t make the right decisions in life. Due to the assumptions, it’s easy to not think about the people behind the counters. What people don’t know is that I went to college, left my hometown and decided to pursue my dreams in the entertainment industry. So riddle me this, what if you made all the right choices, but still don’t end up exactly where you want to be and work in fast food for stable income while you are still pursuing your passion?
As a society, we love to demand goods and services, especially greasy, unhealthy food. Yet we make fun of the people delivering those things. In the past, the fast-food job was seen as a launching pad to the American dream. These restaurants were havens for character-building and for social mobility. In some ways, they still are, but not like they used to be. The likes of Jeff Bezos, Jay Leno, Keenen Ivory Wayans and Lin-Manuel Miranda, among many others, worked at McDonald’s before becoming wildly successful.
As the economy has faltered, social mobility has become more difficult. Wages have stagnated, while the cost of living across the nation has risen. It also doesn’t help that a college education is increasingly losing its value. In today’s workforce, it isn’t uncommon to juggle multiple jobs to survive. It also isn’t uncommon to take on a job for which you’re overqualified. For me, McDonald’s has been a pillar of stability in changing locations, jobs and financial circumstances. And for many others, it’s the same thing. Despite the stigma, fast-food restaurants have provided opportunities for millions of people, including myself. The real truth is that they hire employees that other workplaces won’t take on, especially the young, elderly, immigrants, ex-convicts and people with disabilities. For many others, like myself, working in fast food is certain in a time of uncertainty.
At the conclusion of this summer, I began to come to terms with the effect of the service life. It’s good for a while, but it wears you down quickly, both physically and emotionally. If I’ve learned anything from it, it’s how to endure extremely tough work environments ― and people. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed the flexibility. However, it’s time to move on. Hopefully I can put the uniform away for good very soon ― not because I’m embarrassed but because I’ll finally have reached financial security in the entertainment industry. Until then, I’ll have to push through a little bit longer until a better opportunity comes.
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost.