At the ripe old age of 16, I found myself with an MIP (Minor in Possession) for alcohol possession. The cost of the ticket was $300+, and my mom told me I was going to work to pay it off. (That story will have to be told in another post.) And go to work I did - at a lovely little greasy spoon called Country Express.
Country Express was a privately owned fast food restaurant that served burgers, sandwiches, chicken fried steak (which is hugely popular in Texas, by the way), tacos, etc. It was located right by a gas station on the outskirts of town, so it was essentially a truck stop. The whole place was covered in pictures of trains (and grease). Our shirts had trains on them. (I have aptly chosen a picture of a trainwreck to illustrate this, because 1) most of our customers were complete trainwrecks themselves - not to mention really white trash, and 2) that trainwreck occurred in Paris. It automatically looks glamorous by association, and it's a good picture to show the opposition between Paris and small town Texas.)
I was getting paid minimum wage, which was $4.25 back then. At 16, I felt RICH! Never mind the fact that I worked in bad conditions - really long hours, no breaks, smoking in the kitchen (how sanitary), a supervisor who had major hygiene problems and scratched her crotch continuously, lots of grease, and major heat. (Texas has awful labor laws. I count myself very lucky to be working here in California.)
Country Express served horrible food. If I ate there now as much as I did then, I'd have diarrhea every day. The customers, though nice, were pretty trashy and ignorant. I had men who were much older than me hitting on me on a daily basis. I had people who screamed at me because of whatever reason, which usually involved the drive thru being broken. All of my clothes smelled like grease. The air conditioner was often broken. It was truly a disgusting place to work, not to mention humbling. During slow times I would sometimes stare out the drive thru window at the train tracks across the highway, dreaming about life. I couldn't wait for my life to start.
I ended up working at Country Express for 3 years. I got very comfortable there and eventually became a shift supervisor, which meant I got paid $5.15 (!) an hour. Despite the really crappy working conditions, I had fun working there. But once I moved on to my first waitressing job, I never looked back. I will never work fast food again, except maybe as an absolute last resort.
Most of the people who worked there were older ladies in their 40s and 50s. We were worlds away from each other. They had dropped out of school in the 8th grade, and I had been college bound since I was a small child. They weren't going anywhere, and I was itching to leave. They had bad skin, bad teeth, couldn't spell, and said things like "irregardless." I was squeaky clean with a penchant for grammar and spelling. (I did/do have bad teeth though - it's a genetic thing.)
But these ladies taught me more about life than I think they ever realized. They told me to make sure I got educated before I got married (which I did - sort of), not to get pregnant too early (so far, so good), and to do my best at whatever I do (which is something I've always done). These lessons have been so important to me - I just think it's a shame that their specific family culture and social structure have not worked out for them very well. Most of them are either still working there or in very similar jobs. And it's back-breaking work. Working fast food is hell. All that for $600 a month after retirement. No, thanks.
I still send Christmas cards to one lady who still works there, and I stop in to see her when I'm in town. Her life is almost unbearably tragic, and she was one of the people who pushed me the hardest to get educated. She has always been one of the nicest people I know. I am so lucky that a place like Country Express was just a brief stopping point for me on that glorious train track called life (gag). She's not so lucky. For her, Country Express is the final destination. That place will always be the symbol of dying dreams.