My first job, when I turned sixteen in 1977, was at Wendy’s. I had waited my whole life to do two things – drive a car and get a job. From my thirteenth birthday on, it was all I could think about. I applied for the position the month before my birthday knowing that the processing, assuming I was offered the job, could take some time.
All my friends worked at Wendy’s including my boyfriend, the head burger flipper, who got me an interview with Cheryl, the manager.
Cheryl was an intimidating figure who carried herself with the self-assurance that came with such a high-ranking position. She was pleasant and friendly, but there was no getting around the fact that she meant business and she made it clear there would be no Tom Foolery on her watch. We snapped to attention whenever she was near, knowing that if she caught you taking an unapproved break she would push a rag in your hand and announce “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.”
Tough as Nails
Cheryl was strict, but fair. If she detected someone illegally helping themselves to a single with cheese or failing to punch in on time, she might issue a warning. Next offense could get you sent home. Third time was no charm and we watched more than one embarrassed violator turn in their name badge and kerchief and slink out of the store, tail tucked between their legs.
I worked extra hard to please Cheryl. I wiped the ashtrays in the lobby like no one’s business, practiced my handiwork on the register, and vacuumed the carpets with the gusto my mother never could inspire. I even wiped the urinal in the men’s room – a job most unpopular with the staff and often ignored.
My hard work paid off and I was soon rewarded with a badge that read ‘Crew Leader’ and all the responsibilities that came with it. I walked proudly into “my” restaurant every noon, and to “my” position at the cash register, knowing that I was responsible for getting our customers a hot meal. Cheryl made a game of pitting the front line against the cooks in a race, each trying to leave the other in the dust as we moved through the lunch rush. She kept track of the score, telling each side separately that she thought they were the faster team and she was secretly rooting for them.
When my best friend’s mother got cancer and Kelly and I chose to show our solidarity by wearing a thin gold chain, Cheryl went to bat for us with the Regional Manager to make an exception to the “no jewelry” rule.
She once asked me to drive her new Ford Mustang back to her house when her boyfriend came to pick her up, and to this day I remember how carefully I drove, terrified that I would somehow wrap the sports car around a light pole or pick off an innocent by-stander and wind-up having to deliver the news that would certainly seal my fate as an ex-employee.
Paying my fast food dues
I worked at Wendy’s for almost two years. By the time my eighteenth birthday was in sight I was looking for a higher paying job as a waitress, besides Cheryl had been offered a promotion to Regional Manager and would be leaving. There didn’t seem to be any reason to stay, anymore. There was a new crop of sixteen year-olds and I was over the fast food thing. Besides, with Cheryl gone, work wasn’t fun anymore.
As I moved up the chain in the world of Food and Beverage, I always remembered Cheryl and the work ethic she installed. I adopted her old slogan of “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.” More than once, I asked myself in a difficult situation, what would Cheryl do? She was such a great inspiration and example for a young girl and I often think of her and wonder where she ended up.
To have such an impact on someone’s life is powerful. And, when I think of the fact that in 1977, Cheryl was only nineteen years old, it makes it even more amazing.
When I was sixteen, nineteen was a world away. Nineteen was an adult. Nineteen could drink and buy alcohol (that really was back in the day) and nineteen could be a store manager at Wendy’s. Was nineteen in 1977 different than nineteen in 2010?
Somehow, I think it was.