Happy Meal

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ou see the golden arches, the grey floor tiles, the line of bodies ahead of you, the fluorescent lighting, the menu. “Can I take your order?” You order your usual: a number-seven-hold-the-cheese-extra-ketchup. You see your wallet, your $20 bill, your receipt, you see your bag and soda cup (which you grab), the soda machine (always Diet Coke, thanks), then finally the door. Going into the lot, you hear the rumble of your stomach (you sneak a French fry; okay, you sneak two), the muffled screams of the children as you approach your van. You slide open the door. Hands leap toward you like the mouths of famished baby birds. You hear the wrappers crumpling before you even get the door closed. You see your car keys, you take your seat (only the sound of chewing now), put it in reverse then drive, your Quarter Pounder in hand and cup in the holder. You look in your rearview mirror—the reflection of the Hillsboro Road McDonald’s shrinks—and you’re gone.  

Now think back and ask yourself: When was the last time you really noticed the person smiling at you behind the counter? Have you ever stopped to consider the day of that person in front of you? Have you thought about the week, the year, or even the life of this individual? If you were to ask one of the McDonald’s employees about his or her life, you might be surprised by what he or she tells you.

When I ask Jason Ness, the current store manager of the Hillsboro Road McDonald’s, about his life, I find out more than I ever expected. Ness sits with me in a corner booth, his back propped against the wall and legs stretched out on the bench (his feet, he won’t admit, are killing him). He holds a cup of hot coffee and speaks softly through a gentle smile, his eyes glazed with exhaustion. He shares the story of his life with a tone of sincere accomplishment.

Born in Kurdistan, Iraq, Ness moved to America in 1992 with his parents, two brothers, and two sisters. He was 14 years old at the time. At first his family lived in El Cajun, California, where Ness attended El Cajun Valley High School. He came to Tennessee after graduation and started working as a dishwasher at the Brentwood McDonald’s. He spent the next 12 years working his way up “through every position McDonald’s has to offer.” Married at 20, he is the father of two children, a 13-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son. Ness has been working tirelessly to save money and provide for his family. His schedule is composed almost entirely of work, leaving hardly any time for sleep. “Right now as we speak,” Ness says, “I’ve been up for 60 hours straight. Plus I have another five hours to go in this shift.” On average, Ness catches four hours of sleep from two to six in the morning. After seeing his kids off to school, he leaves home at eight for work at the IHOP on Harding Place. That shift ends at 3, giving him just enough time to return to the Hillsboro Road McDonald’s at 3:30 p.m. He’s done by 12:30 in the morning.

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 Ness uses his days off at IHOP to pick up extra hours at McDonald’s, and does the same with his days off at the latter. “At other points in my life,” Ness says, “I’ve worked up to three jobs at a time. Maybe 120 hours in a seven-day week.” Ness is working diligently to save money for his kids’ education and to be able to retire at age 50 so that he can travel the world with his wife. (The Eiffel Tower is at the top of his list of destinations.) There have also been several unexpected perks from working so long at so many different jobs. “Over the course of my life,” Ness says, “I’ve learned to speak five languages: Kurdish, Arabic, Persian, English, and Spanish. It’s all been through immersion and job placement.” Though his eyes are red-rimmed with exhaustion, when Ness laughs you can see the 18-year-old boy who got his start washing dishes emerge from his features, and whose head was (and still is) filled with dreams, goals, and the same desire to succeed that has brought him this far. He hopes it will not be long until he is able to retire and settle down with his family in North Dakota where his parents currently reside. When asked if the hours ever get him down, he looks away for a moment, almost as if he can see his past flash through his mind; then he laughs to himself and says with more certainty than anyone I have ever met, “I couldn’t be happier.”

It’s hard not to believe him. Later, when Ness returns to work, I watch as he jokes with customers and employees and moves behind the counter with newfound energy. He’s careful and precise about every move he makes, yet performs his tasks at a seemingly unmatchable speed. “Jason is a crazy joker, a good manager, and a good person,” says a co-worker, “though I think he works too much and drinks too much coffee.”

            43-year-old Charles Norris is quick to whip out his license to prove he shares the same last name as the martial arts star. Born in Rock Island, Illinois, he has spent his life wandering from place to place, after ladies and away from problems. As a child he wanted to be a police officer, but the flow of life led him in a different direction—specifically Little Rock, Arkansas. He married when he was 28 or “something like that,” he says, “married, I guess, for somewhere around 20 years.” He and his wife had two children, a daughter and a son who are 18 and 19 respectively. Norris worked at the Arkansas Steel Association, a decent job that paid $12.50 an hour. Eventually, he and his wife realized they really didn’t have much in common anymore and divorced. Seven months ago, he quit his job, moved out of his house, and left his ex-wife and kids to come to Nashville with the woman to whom he’d recently become engaged. “My fiancé got cold feet,” Norris says, “and backed out when I got here. So I’m stuck in Nashville.” (The Arkansas Steel Association has a “no re-hiring” policy). Before they’d broken off, however, Norris’s fiancé introduced him to Ness. In an effort to help him, Ness had him come apply at the franchise and soon hired him on. Norris makes just over $7.00 an hour working close to 38 hours a week. Thankfully, all McDonald’s employees receive health, dental, and 401K benefits after a probationary period (Norris’s won’t kick in until March, so he’s living without a safety net) However, because the cost of living in Tennessee is also almost twice what it is in Arkansas, Charles is barely breaking even. Once again, life’s a struggle, though during our talk he seems less concerned with his lack of health care than by the fact that he only sees his kids every two to three months. What does he do to relax? “I spend my free time surfing the Web and watching movies. My favorite of all time is Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” As an open person, Norris is always willing to share his philosophies with anyone on anything. He is brutally honest about the things in his life that have not gone according to plan. Maybe that’s why he uses his dry sense of humor to bring laughter to those around him while at work. Through his own eyes, he’s a man who may not be perceived correctly but always means well; he is a man his friends and colleagues describe as “unique and good hearted.”

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So the next time you find yourself at McDonald’s, ask Mr. Ness how his kids are, or just consider how much he appreciates his cup of coffee as you take a sip of your own. Ask Charles if he has seen any good movies lately. Ask something. Make your fast food a little less fast. It’ll make your happy meal even happier—or at least a little more human.

 

--Annalee Mueck