Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Umbrella Gun

The summer between my senior year of high school and the start of my college career, I took a job working the register at McDonald’s.

My first day on the job, as the lunchtime rush tapered (and as I questioned whether the spending cash this job would afford me was really worth an onslaught of annoyed customers against a backdrop of the smell of fry grease and burger sweat), George came in. White-haired, bespectacled, skin wrinkled and freckled, back curved. He wore a navy blue windbreaker and carried a little black umbrella with a duck’s head carved into its wooden handle. He waited in my line, and when his turn came up, he stooped further, lifted the umbrella to eye level and held it as if it were a rifle, and told me to give him all my money.

It was my first day. We hadn’t gone over the procedure in the event of a stickup, much less what to do in the case the robbing party were delusional enough to think his umbrella were a gun, and a case in which I actually felt fairly confident I could physically subdue the would-be villain.

As all of these thoughts passed through my consciousness, a flurry of motion began behind me. A Styrofoam cup holder came down on the counter. Then one cup of hot coffee, regular, one cup of hot coffee, decaf. George tapped the umbrella against the counter and I understood he was joking, though he said, “Just so you know I’m still dangerous.” He set the point of his umbrella gun on the ground and, without the hint of a smile progressed with his order in slow but jerking speech. “I want two cheeseburgers. I want two cups of coffee. One of the cheeseburgers plain.” He pointed at me. “Nothing on it. And the other one with extra onions. And I need two ice cream sundaes. Make sure one of the coffees is decaf.”

As those who shared my fast food experience may recall, the order was a nightmare. The procedure goes that you enter an item—a cheeseburger, for example—and immediately enter any customizations the customer wanted. Then it’s on to the next item. Regular and decaf coffee on separate buttons. Each sundae needs to be entered with its respective topping choice, and it’s fifty cents extra for nuts.

And yet, as I stumbled my way through inputting the order--my manager leaning over the shoulder to zero out the completely errant parts—my coworkers assembled the order with striking efficiency, packing the coffee cups and the two sundaes in to the Styrofoam carrier, one serving of ice cream plain, the other smothered in hot fudge.

With startling efficiency that was in no way to my credit, George had his food and had one of my coworkers holding the door for him to walk out.

After he left, someone explained to me that George came in every single day and made the exact same order. He lived in a house a block away with his ailing wife and they shared that same lunch together. He liked his ice cream plain and couldn’t stomach caffeine after breakfast. His wife liked hot fudge and drank at least three cups of coffee each day.

At that moment the very idea of inputting, much assembling George’s on a daily basis without everyone around me knowing what to do seemed insurmountable.

And yet, like so many things, it became routine.

George only aimed his umbrella gun at me once more, about a week and a half later, but after that initiation period I became regular to him just as he was a regular to the rest of the crew behind the counter. And after three months at McDonald’s I became something like a veteran, helping to coach wide-eyed newcomers, getting George’s order ready when I saw him coming.

I left for college but came back to work that winter break, and for the month between spring semester and the start of my summer camp job. The pattern repeated throughout my undergrad, and each time I saw George again. In the passage of years, sometimes he remembered me, sometimes he didn’t. By my last tour of duty, he was no longer a daily customer, but instead stopped by once or twice a week. I learned that his wife’s condition had worsened to the point that George couldn’t care for her alone, so she moved into a nursing home. Just a year before my own grandmother would move into the same facility, I felt especially sympathetic to him if, at the same time, incapable of really expressing that—after all, what did a 21-year-old kid with his life in front of him know about lost youth and losing people?

I don’t know that George or his wife are still alive. I don’t have last names to research it, and the last few times I’ve stopped at that McDonald’s back home I haven’t recognized a single face on staff. In all likelihood, they never even met George. And there’s probably another cast of characters that supplanted that old crew of regulars.

But every now and again, when the morning gray turns to drizzle, I fish my little umbrella from my backpack and prop it open, over head. In the process, for a just a moment, I think of a man who would hold such a thing like a gun. Maybe to be funny. Maybe just to show he was still a little bit dangerous.

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