There’s a trend I’ve noticed in commercials of showing people whose whole lives, even whole identities, are built around their careers. It’s not a new trend, nor is it particularly widespread, but it seems to have spread to fast food workers, which is strange and may even be insidious. I spent a summer working at a Shoney’s, a chain that’s rapidly disappearing, but, for those who don’t know it, is best described as a fast food place with printed menus and someone who brings your food to your table rather than making you go to a counter to order it. In spite of presenting itself as a sit-down restaurant, complete with a breakfast bar in the mornings that switched over to a salad bar after eleven in the morning—with the dirty secret that some of the salad bar food was sitting under the breakfast bar food, in case anyone ever wondered why the black olives were so warm—the wait staff were supposed to subtly pressure customers to get their food and get out as quickly as possible. People would sometimes ask a waitress to hold their food so they could spend a little time enjoying the salad bar and maybe give the Jell-o a chance to cool down, but behind the scenes management would penalize waitresses if they didn’t deliver plates to the table in under ten minutes.
So that’s my entire background in the food service industry but, contrary to what some commercials want you to think, I doubt any fast food place is really a fun place to work with wacky employees getting up to various hijinks with each other. I hope everyone, no matter what job they do, can find some joy and maybe even fulfillment in it, but for me and pretty much everyone else who worked at that Shoney’s it seemed we all just wanted to get through our shifts without getting ptomaine or bitten by the rats in the dry storage room and go onto whatever waited us outside the restaurant walls.
The insidious part of the commercials, I think, is not just that they want customers to feel better about going to fast food places but they want to convey the idea that, hey, it’s low-paying drudgery and probably no benefits or sick leave even if you get ptomaine, but at least there’s wacky hijinks to be had.
And to be clear: if you work in fast food and really enjoy what you do that’s great. I’m not knocking anyone’s career choice. I’m knocking the upper management belief that a sense of corporate community and pulling together for the good of the shareholders is a substitute for benefits, decent wages, and even decent treatment—which is an easy belief to hold when you’re pulling down three figures and don’t even know the names of most of the people you manage.
The commercial trope of people who devote their whole lives to their work, funny enough, seems to be more common for insurance. Maybe that’s because insurance is, for most of us, something we don’t think about all the time but it can literally be a lifesaver when we need medical care, or really handy to have when we have a car accident, house fire, or other catastrophe. Insurance commercials work hard to convince us that there are people out there who devote their whole lives, every waking and even every sleeping moment, to lowering your premiums while also working to make sure you’re completely covered if you have a flood or a meteor hits your home. It’s reassuring even if, not so deep down, we all know it’s hogwash.
What’s really funny to me, because I have a weird sense of humor and a degree in English, is the poet Wallace Stevens worked as an insurance agent. It was one of those dual lives you rarely hear about—the sort I’m not sure can even exist anymore, since, even in the real, non-commercial world, only celebrities seem able to manage multiple careers, and even they can only manage that because they can afford to hire someone to design the clothes, the makeup, the power tools they slap their names and faces on.
Sometimes I even envy Wallace Stevens, who I think was in the perfect position—successful enough as an insurance agent that he got to a pretty high level in the company where he worked, and at the same time one of the most widely read and respected American poets of the twentieth century. Imagine being at a cocktail party and saying to someone, “Here’s my card if you need an insurance agent, and here’s my other card if you need two-hundred and forty lines of enigmatic language on the Aurora Borealis.”