Welcome to Life in Chains, Eater's essay series exploring essential roles played in our lives by chain restaurants — great and grim, wonderful and terrible. Here, writer Saxon Baird recalls his teenage fast-food job in the wake of post-9/11 nativism.
n my fourth day of working at Arby's, three men in blue uniforms jumped out of an unmarked white van and tackled our chef, Vicente*, who was spraying down the front entrance with a hose. They dragged him into the van, then drove off. In considerable shock, I ran to the kitchen and told the store manager, Armando. "La Migra," he said. "INS."
Like most teenagers, I got a job because I wanted my own things: gas money, a new stereo, and to take dates to the movies. So, one weekend in late 2001, I hopped into Stanley, my silver, hand-me-down ‘83 Volvo, and stopped at the first place I came across: a red and white Arby’s sitting in the corner of a half-empty parking lot of a non-descript strip mall. I walked in, asked for an application, and filled out as much as a fifteen-year-old with zero work experience could. A stout man with a salt-and-pepper mustache took the application and introduced himself as Armando, the franchise’s owner and manager. He looked it over, and with a firm handshake confirmed that I was hired and would start the next day for minimum wage, $6.25 an hour.
In California, a minor can only work twenty-eight hours a week and Armando scheduled me for exactly that. The weekly schedule, posted Sunday night on the freezer walk-in door with Arby’s hat logo magnets, was to be followed as strictly as communion: Schedule requests, switching shifts, and days off were highly discouraged. Armando managed the restaurant with a stern simplicity, speaking in short, efficient sentences and rarely complimenting even employees who offered him extreme deference; a smile was as rare as a vegetarian stepping through our doors and asking for a beef ‘n cheddar. If I chit-chatted with customers for too long, he’d ask me to talk less and smile more. If a napkin dispenser was low or a BBQ sauce bottle empty, he’d shake his head and say, "flojo wedo."
The staff always seemed more at ease when Armando wasn’t there, which was when we bonded. A motherly line cook named Paloma would sometimes pull me away from stocking napkins or sweeping up after we had closed to dance to accordion-heavy ranchera in the kitchen after hours. Another cook, whose name I now forget, taught me Spanish words by pointing at ingredients. "La chuga. El pollo," he’d say, gesturing toward a tray of fried chicken for one of the salads. Luiza, who would often fill in as manager, once pulled me into her office and showed me a photo of a boy, her son. I asked what school he went to, thinking maybe we attended the same high school. Luiza shook her head and said "Mexico" before putting it away.
A few days after Vicente was disappeared, a twenty-something co-worker named Angel, who was working two jobs to put her self through college, revealed that there was a reason that so many of the employees were tense around Armando. According to her, only four of Armando’s dozen or so employees were legally employed—me, her, and two others. She alleged that Armando was involved in a scheme that brought immigrants across the border and provided them with fake work papers and a source of income while they attempted to acquire a green card. Of these employees, she said, Armando required long hours and, from some of the women, sexual favors, under threat of being fired or having their hours cut to unlivable lows.
After talking with Angel, I looked at the scheduled hours and saw that at least part of her story seemed true. The shifts for Paloma covered the entire twelve hours we were open and one hour after we closed, and she had just one day off per week. Luiza had no days off. Other cooks, ones who spoke only Spanish and usually communicated with me in smiles and gestures, had similar schedules, with twelve-to-fourteen-hour shifts six or more days a week. At the time, I wasn’t sure if working this much was normal for a fast-food chain, or if they just needed the hours, but I also couldn’t think of a good reason why Angel would lie to me.
n the months after 9/11, around the time I started at Arby’s, a nationalist cocoon formed in my small California town, which was the kind of place that seemed to have more churches and cops than streetlights. Decals and stickers appeared on back windows and bumpers of trucks declaring the driver’s pride to "be an American," while flags materialized in windows and outside of every business, and plastic shopping bags at the local grocery store pledged their allegiance with images of stars, bars, and eagles. At the same time, in the wake of "homeland security" and increased border controls, hostility toward immigrants flared up—while, on a national level, much of the racist rhetoric was directed toward Arabs (or anyone thought to be Arabic), in my small town it seemed to be directed at anyone who wasn’t white, or didn’t speak English fluently. I had heard racist things whispered in hushed tones in the halls of my high school before, but the comments became louder and were spoken with a new bravado: A classmate said that a separate school should be built for "all these Mexicans" while nodding toward some students speaking Spanish across the hall; at one point, an assistant baseball coach yelled that he wished "they all go back where they’d come from" after a group of kids cut across the outfield during practice.
Over those same weeks and months, the tension at Arby’s rose like the slow turn of an oven dial. Armando was increasingly on edge, regularly snapping at employees for ever smaller infractions, like leaving a shirt slightly untucked. A new cook who messed up an order by adding BBQ sauce to a dry sandwich was fired on the spot; Armando physically pushed him out the back door of the kitchen with a stream of insults. About a month after my conversation with Angel, I arrived at work to see a number of heavy-set men with matching blue jackets and official patches in the back office with Armando. INS was back. They stayed for nearly two hours, speaking with Armando in the locked office room, before leaving omniously without a word. Later that night, after we closed, Armando pulled Paloma into his office and started shouting at her. She emerged nearly an hour later, crying.
Soon after, just four months into the job, I quit. Reprimanded one day for talking too long with some friends who came in, I threw off my black visor, stripped off my red polo shirt, and filled a sixty-four ounce paper cup with soda on my way out. It wasn’t until my overheated teenage bravado had settled and my parents were asking me what I was going to do next, over our usual dinner of chicken and rice, that I began to understand the luxury I had in quitting.
A few months later, I went back. Luiza was working the cash registers as usual. I didn’t say anything to her but my order, and she didn’t act as if she recognized me. I remember feeling like she ignored me on purpose, to make me feel bad for quitting, for giving up. Now, years removed, every time I see the red and white of an Arby’s, I think about Luiza and wonder if maybe she wasn’t mad at me, if it was something else. I obviously can’t speak for her, or anyone else there. All I really know is what I saw, shuffling curly fries and packing to-go containers with co-workers who clocked long hours behind a counter, day after day.
*All names in this story have been changed.
Saxon Baird is writer whose work has appeared in Slate, Gothamist, Vice Sports, MTV, Guernica, Large Up, AV Club, Teen Vogue, Prefix, Pop Matters, Blunderbuss, Roads & Kingdoms, and other places.
Header photo: A Gude/Flickr