Fast Food Runs in My Family

Fast Food Runs in My Family

Me, my mother, and 10 years of the Fight for $15.

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Before the sun rose, I biked to work. There were few cars on the road and it was early enough most days that the stoplights still blinked yellow. Alternating between the sidewalks and streets, the world felt like mine. It’s that way in a small town, where everything feels attainable for a moment because there’s no one else around to claim it. The stillness, the cornfields, the wind blowing through overgrown grass. But it wasn’t the solitude that made me choose the early shift; it was shame.

Ten years ago this month, the Fight for $15, the movement to guarantee a living wage to fast-food workers, gained national attention. About a year after the launch of the Fight for $15, I biked to work at a McDonald’s a few miles away from my brother’s house in rural Michigan, where I had grown up. When I finished work around 1 pm, I would take off my uniform—an oversize polo shirt—and roll it into my hat, trying to maneuver everything to stay put on my handlebars. I chose this location specifically because it wasn’t in my town. I didn’t want to have to explain myself that summer. Even people with good intentions didn’t understand. Why not an internship? Well, internships didn’t pay.

When I think about the similarities between my mother and me, it never occurs to me to think about how we both worked in fast food. Growing up in a small town in the middle of Michigan, I never thought of a job as an identity, even as the job defined many of my waking moments. But maybe it could have been had the work not been so belittled. Instead, “Do you want fries with that?” had already become a punch line, a way to motivate kids in school, a path drilled into people’s heads to avoid.

My mom started working in fast food when I was in middle school, and, because I saw how it drained her mentally and emotionally, I wanted to avoid it. In high school, I worked at a restaurant, which had its own stressors, but it was a sit-down establishment and offered some cachet. By senior year, I had stopped playing sports or participating in clubs, hoping to save as much money as possible to go to college in New York.

At college, I worked at a Domino’s. I adored my coworkers, but in the suburbs of New York City, on Long Island, class was everything, especially when I was attending college with children of Wall Street bankers. People made comments about the pizza, my job, my uniform (which was also a polo shirt), and my bike, which was my only mode of transit. My first raise was 25 cents. My manager helped me sew my yoga pants when they ripped mid-shift. Since Domino’s was sometimes all we ate, we tried to make healthier options for ourselves, kneading thinner crusts and adding lots of spinach.

Having now lived in New York, off and on, for more than a decade, I’ve come to understand one of the biggest differences between urban and rural life. In the town where I grew up, a job was not an identity; it was work and it was for paying bills. Until I was around 12, we lived in a house that was later condemned. It was bought on a land contract, where all the power is with the seller who rents it to the buyer until they’ve paid for it in full—essentially acting as a landlord, since many are not actually able to complete the purchase—but without being held responsible for repairs. (We eventually moved in with my brother who, at 19 years old, purchased his first home while he was working at Subway.)

Ultimately, working these low-wage jobs was a connection between me and my mother—a painful one. It was draining work that offered little respect inside the establishment or outside of it. In high school, one assignment was writing our parents’ résumé. At the time, my mom was working at Subway, where she’d be employed for more than a decade—until she was fired when a new owner took over.

“You just don’t want your friends to know,” she would say.

My mom’s official title was “sandwich artist.” As a teenager, I didn’t have the language to describe what I was feeling. There weren’t frank discussions about class then, despite the poverty all around us. The polo they made her wear, the apron, the title—there was this strange professionalization of it all for what was less than eight dollars an hour.

Here was my mom, who loved Thomas Hardy and Monet and started reading War and Peace during the pandemic. Why not call her a “worker” or “associate” or “food assembler”? It felt like Subway was belittling her, the title patronizing and cheap, and my fears were realized when my teacher laughed and said, “What is a ‘sandwich artist’?” I wasn’t embarrassed about my mother—but I was angry about how I thought she would be perceived.

Years later, I worried when my path felt like it was mirroring hers. I knew fast food was a thankless job that was physically tiring. I was exhausted and anxious all the time. I remember hearing my coworkers voice their skepticism about Fight for $15, simply because no one thought it could ever be a reality. We sweated in the kitchen, trying to find relief with a gust of cold freezer air. There were so many eggs. And I’ll never forget the flying grease from the fryer that left splotches on your skin, scarring one of my coworkers with raised white nicks.

Now, $15 an hour is the minimum wage in New York City and the rate is advertised even in rural areas in the Midwest. While that is welcoming to see, it’s a double-edged sword: In most places, you still can’t afford a house—or even a livable apartment—on that alone. It’s incredible that so much has changed, including the many open conversations about class—yet so many people are still stuck. Health care remains deeply unaffordable or inaccessible. And paying exorbitant rents, especially in New York City, doesn’t necessarily guarantee reliable heat or cooking gas or even enough space for a mattress.

Today, after a career in journalism and then as a city worker, I have more money saved than I ever dreamed of when I made $7.70 an hour in fast food—but so many things, like becoming a homeowner, are still out of reach. And while I prioritized finding a graduate program that offered free tuition for MFA candidates, I’m still paying off debt from my undergraduate degree.

What’s interesting is that even with my “fancy MFA,” as my mother would say, she knows more poetry than me. We were asked to memorize a poem once in graduate school. Yet my mother is a repository of numerous poems, memorizing everything from the single anthology she owned growing up. When she gets together with her sisters, they can recite the poems in unison.

Those are the things I like to think of that bind us.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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