Hardee’s loved me, and I don’t know why. Sure I worked hard, but I fucked off hard, too — especially if Matt and I were working together. He would climb up on the roof with a five gallon pickle bucket filled with water, waiting for me to walk past. I’d retaliate by soaking his coat and laying it out flat in the walk-in freezer. I swung from a garden hose tied to the grill’s chimney’s like a fast food Tarzan. Diners stared and my manager, Miss Dumpfey, just shook her head.
When one of the breakfast ladies slapped me with a handful of flour for being a smart ass we covered her Monte Carlo with hamburger buns. Hundreds of pigeons swarmed her car, leaving feathers and other distinctive marks behind. “That was funny,” she said the next time that she saw us. “But it’s my husband’s car. He says if you touch it again he’ll cut you little motherfuckers.”
One Sunday morning we arrived at 5:30 a.m. to do our weekly deep scrubbing. The burglar alarm was clanging like a stuck school bell, and the half-awake apprentice manager was sitting in the dark by the back door. “I entered the wrong code. Y’all just go log in real quick then start cleaning outside,” she yelled.
It was cold. Matt wore a hooded sweatshirt beneath his coat, I in my Guys In Black Tee Shirts Who Jam Army field jacket. We covered our ears and ran to the front counter, where the first cash register also functioned as a time clock. As I entered my employee code Matt said, “Hey look, the cops!” It wasn’t a bucket of water on the head, but it was funny enough. I pantomined raking the cash out of the register, ducked beneath the counter and came up with thumb-and-finger gun cocked and ready. While Matt logged in I stood splay-footed, hands on the menu board. The imaginary cops had me.
We stepped into the dining room, on our way out the side door to the storage room where the hoses, buckets, and scrub brushes were kept. I grabbed salt shakers and ashtrays and jammed them into my field jacket, the alarm still clanging away. Matt laughed and pointed at me.
And then a deputy sheriff spun away from the brick wall where he was hiding, spun 180 degrees so that he faced us directly through the glass side door. His eyes were huge. The twin barrels of the shotgun that he pointed at my head shook almost violently. I waved at him, a Stan and Ollie fingertip wave with accompanying smile.
The deputy was cover — the real action was at the front doors, which the sheriff and the rest of his deputies rushed through, guns drawn, screaming “Get down! Get down! Get down!” Matt and I couldn’t stop laughing, and then I realized that this time I’d gone too far. Miss Dumpfey was going to fire me for sure.
She arrived minutes later, turned off the alarm and got the whole story from the sheriff. My deputy interjected how lucky I was that he was an experienced lawman. “If I’d a been a scared rookie you wouldn’t have a head, boy,” he said. The color hadn’t returned to his face yet.
“You cost your boss the price of a false alarm,” the sheriff added as they left.
Miss Dumpfey loved it. She couldn’t stop laughing. “It’s worth $250 to have a story to tell,” she said.
Not too long after that Hardee’s decided to open a new store near the outlet mall that was under construction out on I-26. As the most profitable manager in the chain Miss Dumpfey was chosen to run the new store, and she wanted to take me with her.
“I don’t know, I have friends here.”
“Who do you want? We’ll take them with us. I’ll hire your friends if you want. It’s all new, I can do whatever I want.”
“Seriously, thank you. I’ll think about it.”
“You want more money? A title? How about Shift Leader?”
“What’s that? We don’t have that now,” I asked.
“We’ll make it whatever you want. Just come with me, Beamy.”
A few days later Mr. Burnett, the assistant district manager, visited the store. “Jim, let’s you and me take a walk,” he said, and he led me out the same side door that nearly was my last earthly sight.
“How’s school going?”
“What are your plans after school?”
“I usually go to my girlfriend’s.”
“No, I mean after you graduate.”
“I don’t know, probably art.”
“Nope. Try again,” he said.
“No, sir. You want to go to college so that you can get a good job making good money. That sound about right?”
“Son, we’ve had our eye on you. You’re smart, good with people, a hard worker. You’re a natural leader. I understand Carol wants to create a shift leader position for you over at the Waccamaw store.”
“Let me ask you something — why be a shift lead when you can be a manager? Let’s move you over to the new store as an apprentice manager. I bet in three or four years you’ll have your own store.”
“I’m not even old enough to run the roast beef slicer.”
“We can work around that.”
“I appreciate it, Mr. Burnett, but I don’t think I can take on that kind of responsibility with school.”
“I tell you what. You could take your equivalency exam.”
“You mean drop out?”
Mr. Burnett put his arm around my shoulder. “I like you, Jim, we all do. We want to make sure you’re taken care of. You remind me a lot of myself at your age. See that car over there?” He pointed to a white Toyota Celica.
“That’s a nice car, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it’s really nice.”
“Just a couple of years ago I had to choose between college or that car. Now look at me. Just think about it, son.”
“Yes, sir, I will. Thank you.”
I took the job — not the Celica-glorious management position but the one with the fake title at Hardee’s newest location. Miss Dumpfey was true to her word: She hired Lee G. and a couple of guys from school who were looking for work. That shiny new store kicked her cleanliness into high gear. At the end of every night an after hours guy scrubbed the place down, got it ready for the four a.m. biscuit ladies. If night guy didn’t show up or she didn’t like the quality of his work the previous night, Miss Dumpfey would ask me to stay late. “You’re the shift leader, Beamy.” And so I led the grill and the floors, the cookie pans and the roast beef ovens. I led them all until they sparkled, and then I packed the fry vats with fresh lard and dumped the old stuff into fifty gallon drums by the dumpster. The rumor was that these drums were carted off to a cosmetics manufacturer where yesterday’s french fry grease turned into tomorrow’s lipstick.
At age sixteen I was working forty to sixty hours per week, often getting home around 3:30 in the morning then turning around and heading to school at 7:00. On a good week I was grossing almost $200, and all I had to do was sleep through English, study hall and chemistry. Miss Carter, the chemistry teacher, was fond of placing exams on the back of my sleeping head and retrieving them unmarked at the end of class.
The pile of loosely related parts that I called a car often couldn’t make the drive all the way to I-26’s exit 13. More and more often I drove the family station wagon, a white 1977 Ford that looked like Jack Klugman’s on Quincy, M.E. If I stumble upon the secret to time travel my destination will be Quincy producer Glen Larson’s office circa 1976. I am borderline obsessed with that pitch meeting.
Interior, Office – Day:
The office is wood-panelled with “autumn harvest” hi-lo shag carpet and wine barrel furniture. Faux Medieval decorations — maces, shields, etc. — hang from the walls. Larson sits behind a carved oak desk holding an avocado-green phone and a half-smoked Vantage, a half empty bottle of Beefeater gin in front of him. His breath reeks from the summer sausage next to the gin bottle.
Larson (to phone): Chad Everett wants how much? Fuck him, get me Bert Convy.
Glynnis, Larson’s secretary, opens the door.
Glynnis (whispering): Lou Shaw to see you.
Larson motions to bring him in.
Larson (to phone): Gotta run. My gal says some asshole is here.
Lou Shaw enters, a pair of scripts in his hand. He extends his free hand. Larson doesn’t reciprocate.
Lou: Mr. Larson, It’s a pleasure to meet you.
Larson: I know. What do you got?
Lou (flustered): Oh, sure.
Lou hands Larson one of the two script copies. Larson throws it and pours himself another drink.
Larson: I know you have a script, idiot. My question is — What. Do. You. Got?
Lou: Right, sorry. Well, I’ve been following the work of L.A. coroner Thomas Naguchi for some time and –
Lou: Oh, okay. We open on a marina. A crowd gathers –
Lou (sweating): It’s a procedural drama about –
Larson stars winging slices of summer sausage at Lou like tiny frisbees. They stick to the writers sideburns and wide lapels.
Larson: Bored! Bored! Bored!
Lou: IT’S A SEXY ASIAN CRIME FIGHTING CORONER WHO LIVES ON A BOAT AND DRIVES A STATION WAGON AND DRINKS AND SMOKES AND EATS SUMMER SAUSAGE AND GETS LAID ALL THE TIME!
Long pause. Lou sheepishly brushes a sausage frisbee from his shoulder.
Larson (smacks desk): Goddamnit, Shaw! That. Is. Brilliant! We’ll get Jack Klugman for the lead!
Lou: But isn’t Mr. Klugman sort of…old?
Larson: Jack? Hell no, he’s in his prime. Besides, he’s hung like a goddamned bull rhino. That bastard gets more trim than an Army barber.
Lou: Respectfully, sir, Thomas Naguchi –
Larson: Fuck Nagaguchi! You want a Japanese in your show so bad we’ll make him the dumb lab assistant who wouldn’t recognize a murder if it had its lips locked onto his turkey neck. Besides, I haven’t forgotten what those bastards did during the Big One.
Larson turns to the window, takes a long pull on his Vantage, stares with hollow eyes into the smoggy distance.
Anyway, I didn’t mind driving the Quincymobile because it had a stereo. My deathtrap MG looked cool, but for electrical reasons too boring to enumerate here a stereo was out of the question. I wouldn’t have been able to hear it over the noise of that fine automobile dismantling itself anyway. So up I-26 I rolled every afternoon in the Quincymobile, FM radio blaring. Yes’s “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” was in power rotation at the time, as was UB40’s remake of Neil Diamond’s “Red Red Wine.” That band took its name for a British unemployment form, but we didn’t know that.
“It was a submarine.”
“No it wasn’t, it was a spy plane.”
“No, it’s a pun: UB40. U before T, get it?”
“That’s just stupid.”
Reggae in the United States is an interesting beast. What the first reggae hit was in the U.S. really depends on the source. Some sources cite Neil Diamond’s 1967 “Red Red Wine,” but that seems like a back construction to me. Others claim Johnny Nash got there first (which song varies, but it’s hard to argue with 1968’s “Hold Me Tight”). Eric Clapton’s 1974 cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sherriff” gets some play, and it makes more sense than The Eagles’ 1977 “Hotel California.” If I squint hard enough I suppose I can see I little reggae rhythm somewhere along that dark desert highway. Then again, If I squint hard enough Courtney Love doesn’t look like a face drawn on the side of my fist.
All of the above are susceptible to interpretations of the words “reggae” and “hit,” but not UB40’s “Red Red Wine.” The song was a monster, reaching number one on both the U.S. and U.K. singles charts, and arguably opening frat house doors just wide enough to let a copy of Bob Marley’s Legend compilation slip in.
And so I would bop down the South Carolina highway enjoying a bunch of Brits’ Rasta spin on a New York Jew’s Tin Pan Alley song. That pretty much sums up why music matters. I flunked chemistry that year, and I didn’t even score one of those sweet, sweet Celicas.