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On paper, Arman was not unlike the other applicants. His face, just like the others, was young and hopeful. The personal details he had written, basic and straightforward. He was a recent graduate from a barangay high school on the outskirts of the city. His parents were both alive, according to his bio data. Seeing the applicant in person, though, Chris thought the kid might as well be orphaned. Arman was tall but looked unfed. His flesh swathed his bones like wrapping paper on a week-old dehydrated burger.
When Arman introduced himself he sounded as frail as he looked. His voice was devoid of self-assurance as if he were a thirteen-year-old about to break under the weight of a growing bump in his neck and hairs sprouting in previously barren parts of his body. He was seventeen, fit to work, according to his birth certificate, which Chris had to consult, just to make sure.
Hiring was the first store system assigned to Chris. His first crucial decision as hiring manager was whether to give Arman the sixth slot in the roster of applicants to advance to the three-day on-the-job phase of the recruitment process and, in effect, deny the others, who, by virtue of their performance in the interview, were more deserving. Chris reasoned come training he would surely lose patience with Arman’s inevitable incompetence. By then that well-meaning voice in his head will have to relent. For now, he would give him a chance.
Arman and the other applicants were assigned to a crew captain who would train them in three core stations of the fast food’s daily operations – counter, lobby, and fry. They studied the counter station the first day. In the morning Lance the crew captain provided them a module based on the company bible, a three-by-four-inch book in a red cover stamped with the fast food’s logo. The module contained all there was to know about the counter, including the Five-Step Process that begins with Smile and Greet the Customer and ends with Smile and Bid the Customer Goodbye. After studying the module the applicants were quizzed on what they had learned. Arman got the poorest score.
Chris asked Arman why he had performed so poorly in the test and the latter answered he’d had a hard time concentrating. Chris asked if Lance’s lesson was clearly delivered and he answered yes and that it was not Lance’s fault. When Chris asked Lance about Arman’s performance, the crew captain answered it was probably because Arman looked like he had not eaten breakfast.
In the afternoon, the applicants were put on floor in two groups of three for practical evaluation. They had to support cashier persons by assembling products. Each group had two hours to apply what they had learned from the morning session. Arman was part of the second group. At the counter, Arman was remarkably out of place. He never smiled when greeting customers, never smiled when saying goodbye. In the few instances he did, he smiled like he had unlawfully plucked the feathers off a Philippine Eagle and made himself fried chicken. Worse, he did not follow the proper order in which food and beverages had to be assembled per the company’s standard method: cold beverage first, hot beverage next, then burgers and entrees, and lastly, French fries. With Arman at the counter, it was chaos.
That well-meaning voice in Chris’s head grew weaker.
On the second day, the applicants were trained in the lobby station. They had to memorize which detergent to use for table sprays, the right water and detergent ratio for each spray, and during lean hours, which store areas had to be checked and in what order. After being quizzed – with Arman still getting below mediocre score – they were again shoved into action, two hours for each group of three. Arman’s group was blessed with a lean hour, with only a few customers in the dining lobby. But instead of surveying the store exterior for litters and the comfort rooms if they needed to be replenished with tissue paper and the playpen if the plastic balls were still in the pit, Arman stood next to a trash bin most of the time with his head turned to the floor as if he were counting the rectangular tiles that carpeted the area.
That well-meaning voice in Chris’s head, by then, had relented.
Then came fry day.
After studying the fry station module with Lance and after Arman getting the lowest quiz score for the third time, Chris fed the applicants with a hearty lunch before pushing them into battle. They had an hour each at the fry station. Arman was last to train, at 4:30 PM. It was a Sunday and rush hour was expected after the 4 PM mass. The store was located in front of a church and these after-church rush hours were the worst.
At the fry station, Arman was a revelation. He did everything by the book. Despite his seemingly weak arms he followed standard procedure, which was to first line up the empty fry baskets from the rack on a nearby stainless steel table, retrieve a bag of fries from the overhead freezer, and pour fries into the baskets in three passes to evenly distribute different lengths – from the long ones at the top of the bag to the short pieces at the bottom. Even the prescribed interval between dipping two frozen baskets of fries into the hot oil tank he followed. From the proper movement of dispensing salt into the fry pan to the proper positioning of boxed fries on the fry display, Arman got them all down pat. And when the rush hour finally came, not once did he run out of products. French fries never had to be delivered to tables where frustrated customers sat, burgers and soda long consumed.
Now Chris was plagued no longer by conscience but a nagging predicament. Should he hire this kid who was exceptionally gifted in one station but sucked at everything else, or hire one of the consistently mediocre ones on top of two obvious choices?
Chris hired Arman alongside his two obvious choices, an academic scholar at the city’s most prestigious second-tier university and a single mom who had previously worked in rival fast food chains. The three of them would become good friends.
Chris, too, would become good friends with Arman, much to Lance’s annoyance. But it was not the friendship per se that annoyed Lance. Arman was not on the list of Lance’s recommended applicants. Chris’s choosing Arman meant the manager bypassed the crew captain’s decision, his limited authority. But Lance’s irritation towards Chris went further back than Arman.
When Chris got this job, a couple of months after graduating from the city’s premier university, he was trained by Lance in the stations. But unlike Arman, Chris had trained for a managerial position, and would receive a fixed monthly salary as opposed to Lance’s hourly fee. From the time Lance introduced himself as Chris’s trainer, Chris had sensed animosity.
Lance had been with the company since he was seventeen. He was deemed not smart enough for academic scholarships and not sufficiently destitute for government subsidies. Since college was out of the question, he worked instead. From a lobby person bussing tables and emptying trash bins he crawled his way up the ranks until he got his crew captain promotion after four years of service. This allowed him to take charge in the kitchen and an incremental increase to his hourly rate.
Lance was admired and respected by both service crew members and the management team. He knew the contents of the company’s little red book by heart, from the ideal color of cooked fries to the ideal temperature of the chicken fry vat before a batch of wings or breasts or legs or thighs ought to be dropped. He knew all the on-floor protocols like the back of his hand, from the spiels the kitchen crews should exchange between each other when preparing orders to the duration foods are allowed to stay in the heated product bin before they ought to be disposed of and accounted as wastage. Most impressively he knew when and how to maneuver between following protocols and responding to contingencies in nonstandard but nonetheless acceptable ways. This meant doing away with superfluous parts of procedures while delivering the same results.
According to senior managers who had been in the store longer than Chris, most starting off as crew members themselves, Lance had changed drastically in the past couple of years. Although he remained courteous, he had long stopped talking to them, except when it was work-related. He had also taken on the habit of smoking at the store’s back lot, which was prohibited. They explained it must be due to his frustration on account of his delayed promotion to management trainee. The delay was now five years in the running. Meanwhile, the company had been hiring fresh college graduates to join the management team, despite their lack of experience in the fast food industry, or in any work for that matter.
Chris chalked up Lance’s animosity to good old envy.
After Hiring, Chris was assigned Labor Management. This served his goal well with regards to Arman. He gave the latter schedules on the same hours and days he was on floor. In Arman’s first few months of service, Chris plotted him exclusively as fry person. As expected, Arman was completely in charge, completely immersed in the station. His French fries were always crisp, always golden, always rightly salted. His station was consistently clean, his fry vat consistently in the prescribed temperature. During lean hours Chris trained Arman in other stations.
At the burger station, Arman flipped patties perfectly, always with little to no specs of meat left on the grill. He dressed buns quite perfectly, too, with the ketchup and mustard and mayo always neatly dispensed and just in the right amount. At the chicken station his fried chickens were always perfectly breaded, emerging from the vat light brown and generously flaky. When Chris had him stationed at the sink, he realized he had never seen that area so tidy. The pans and pots were all squeaky clean, the floor, grease-free.
For an entire month Chris scheduled Arman at the sink station where his presence was sort of an anomaly. Puny-looking as he was, Arman still thrived as sink person. What he lacked in strength he compensated for with strategy. He’d flatten old cardboard boxes into a makeshift sled for dragging boxes of frozen chicken for thawing from the walk-in freezer to the walk-in cooler.
As Chris’s friendship with Arman grew, his relationship with Lance became even more strained. Lance’s treatment of him deteriorated from shared nods of acknowledgment in the hallway sandwiched by the crew and management quarters to just cold blank stares. Lance’s smoking had gotten worse, too, and whenever they were on the same shift Chris could not help but be repulsed every time Lance returned from his cigarette breaks outside. By then Lance had claimed a corner of the store’s back lot as his personal ashtray.
Chris confronted Lance about his smoking while they were alone in the crew quarters. He explained that company policy prohibited them from lighting up within 50 meters of the store’s vicinity. Lance reasoned he had never read such a policy in the little red book. Chris excused himself and retrieved a copy of the little red book from his locker. He showed Lance the policy, printed on page 95, under the Employee Conduct chapter. Lance laughed it off and explained he must have missed it. Chris again flipped through the pages of the little red book until he found the Employee and Store Cleanliness chapter. He showed it to Lance and reminded him of the cigarette butts he had been ditching in one corner of the back lot. Lance lost it.
Lance shouted at Chris’s face, called him book smart but floor incompetent. He shouted how Chris could not even properly dispense beverages. He shouted how Chris just stood around during rush hours acting all managerial, instead of helping out. He shouted his disgust at how greedily Chris bought into the policy of unlimited food for the management.
Chris’s big bun cheeks flushed. He raised his plump fist eager to land a punch on Lance’s face, eager to have his nose drip spaghetti sauce.
Arman had appeared from nowhere and stopped Chris’s punch from landing by gripping his arm. At first, Chris was pissed at the intrusion. Soon as he had gathered his wits, though, he thanked Arman. The company maintained zero tolerance for violence.
Lance resigned a few days after the altercation. He would relocate to the capital, a starved metropolis on a growth spurt an hour plane ride away, and apply for fast food work abroad, in the Middle East or Canada, according to his resignation letter.
The store lacked a crew captain for more than a year. When there was no crew captain on floor, the manager on duty chose the crew member they trusted most to fill the post. Chris’s was always Arman.
At the crew captain station Arman performed the same way he did at the fry station, like he was wired into the whole production machinery from the POS systems in the counter that received orders to the grills in the kitchen that received patties. He delivered quality supplies that were just sufficient for demand. With him calling food production there were few to zero product wastages because no food stayed longer than allowed by the little red book on the product bin. This also meant customers at the counter always left with their orders and not a number on a table standee.
Arman’s physique considerably improved as well. But it was not because of the crew meal they were given, which was no more than a regular serving of the cheapest burger meal for four-hour shifts and a chicken and rice or spaghetti meal for shifts beyond six hours. His increased bulk was due to all the physical labor he had been doing, especially when stationed at the sink where he had to do a lot of heavy lifting. It also had something to do with his daily baon.
Arman always had a baon of rice and ulam from his nanay who was an exceptional cook. These dishes were usually made of the cheapest vegetables from the market but cooked with so much love and desperation that a spoonful of them went easy with three spoonfuls of rice or more. Arman always shared half of his ulam with Chris. He’d had enough of his nanay’s vegetables, he would say. On four-hour shifts he would unravel his burger and turn the buns into appetizers. He would then eat the burger patty with his home-cooked rice and half of his nanay’s vegetables. On six-hour shifts he favored spaghetti over a chicken meal, which he mixed with his home-cooked rice like the peak of fusion cuisine. These meal breaks were memories Chris cherished. He even documented a few, posted them on social media.
During one of their shared meals, while Arman was eating his rice and spaghetti combo, Chris announced that the management team had agreed to promote Arman to crew captain. Chris had convinced his co-managers that he could turn Arman into a better version of Lance, one with zero bitterness and aggression.
Arman was excited by the news. But when Chris told him he had to train in the counter again to complete his modules and, this time, as a cashier person, he was alarmed. It was the one place he never wanted to be, the counter. It was the one job he never wanted to do, take orders.
But it had to be done. The most Chris could do for his protégé was request for the labor manager to plot Arman’s cashier training and evaluation on the slowest hour of the leanest day – Tuesday, between 7 to 10 AM.
Monday afternoon Chris discussed the cashier module with Arman. He then quizzed him for formality and, with some necessary adjustments, Arman passed with panache.
Tuesday morning Chris and Arman came to work early so they could review all the keys in the POS system and how to punch orders. Chris reminded Arman that should he input a wrong order or should a customer cancel an order, there was no need to panic because he could always call out, Sir, pa-void.
The customers came in sporadically and as such Arman was able to keep calm behind the cashier. He smiled throughout, if a bit awkwardly, and never jumbled the order of food assembly. Chris could not be more proud. Also, he could not be more at ease with his team on floor: Arman and one of his batchmates manning their respective cashiers, a kitchen plus a sink person, and a lobby person.
A group of high-school students on their way to a field trip emerged from two long jeepneys and suddenly it was rush hour. Chris asked Anna to leave her POS and assemble orders on Arman’s behalf.
Chris took over the fry station. He tried his best to keep up but kept falling short. Arman had to give out a lot of numbered table standees and soon the lobby was littered with teenagers milling about, numbers in hand, like auction participants bidding for a box of French fries.
Arman called out, Sir, pa-void, six times. The kitchen and sink persons scurried like jugglers on a wheel. Pans dropped on the floor making noises that reached the lobby. Chris called the lobby person to help out in the counter, draw beverages. But even with his extra hands they still struggled to deliver the little red book’s three-minute service time.
When at last they had done away with the students, they were confronted by an irate middle-aged guy at the end of the line.
Arman had already forgotten Step 1 of the counter process. He went straight to taking the irate customer’s order, worth 6,000 pesos. With no time to recover from the last unanticipated rush hour, the kitchen was now full-on mayhem. There was no way they could prepare the bulk order fast enough so Arman had to give the customer a number and ask him to wait in the lobby. Chris asked Anna to help out in the kitchen while Arman stayed in the counter. Chris was still the fry person, trying to keep up with a new large order, failing splendidly.
It took almost an hour to prepare the order. The customer loaded his fast food haul onto his SUV still irate.
For the next hour they had few customers to serve, which gave them ample time to recalibrate. Although Chris wanted to hit hourly sales target he prayed hungry customers be led into rival fast food chains, at least until he finished Arman’s training.
On Arman’s last hour behind the cashier, while Chris was inserting the needle of a food thermometer into a fried chicken, thigh part, he heard a commotion from the counter.
The irate customer was complaining about missing French fries. As soon as he saw Chris emerge from the kitchen he redirected his wrath from Arman to Chris whom he’d seen prepare his bag of French fries.
The customer pointed a finger at Chris’s chest, showered spit on Chris’s face. Another customer walked into the store and immediately wielded his smartphone on the confrontation. The irate customer, standing with his back against the door, had no idea he was being recorded.
While Chris tried to placate the irate customer, Arman had already dropped a basket of frozen fries in the vat. Chris explained to the irate customer they were understaffed and they had not anticipated the rush hour. Chris offered him free products to make up for their disappointing service. Taking a cue from what he had learned from his people management class on rapport building, Chris gently placed a hand on the irate customer’s left shoulder.
The irate customer deflected Chris’s hand quite vigorously with his own hand. Next thing, he was calling Chris bakla. It was the kindest of what would become a conveyor belt of unsavory insults.
Loose French fries dropped from a fry basket onto the dining tray in front of the irate customer. They were undercooked and greasy and had yet to be salted. Arman’s eyes were glazed with rage. The customer was dumbstruck. He looked around and saw he was being recorded. He sneered and stormed out of the store.
Chris approached the customer who had recorded the dispute. In exchange for free meals he requested for the video to be deleted, to which the customer obliged.
Chris thanked Arman. But he knew such an outburst was against company policy so he wrote an incident report which he had Arman sign. He assured Arman it was only for formality. As for Arman’s practical evaluation, Chris decided they had to do it again some other time, to which Arman agreed.
The incident became the subject of hushed and reverent conversations between crew members. Arman’s hands were shook, his shoulders tapped, his butt affectionately spanked by peers in admiration of his heroic deed. For weeks Arman was on a high from all the adulation. Halfway through all of this Chris had already learned the decision from the head office.
The day the head manager gave Arman the chop, Chris was off floor. He specifically asked for his schedule not to coincide with Arman’s last day. He did not want to see Arman after receiving heartbreaking news. He did not want to console him with empty promises, or worse, patronize him with incantations on his bright future owing to his hardworking nature. Chris slept the day off.
Chris saw Arman five years after the incident. By then he had already climbed a few more steps up the corporate ladder. He was area manager, in charge of six stores scattered in three cities. He was walking outside the newly built mall where their most recent branch was located. He had just finished his monthly store visit. Their small city’s traffic problem had worsened in recent years so he’d decided to leave his car at the mall parking area, walk the few miles to his next itinerary.
Chris had been exercising regularly the past couple of years. He had lost significant pounds and gained considerable muscles, which he was always ready to show off.
A taxi slowed down and eventually stopped for Chris. The driver, in a tight-fitting short-sleeved shirt and ripped jeans, was grinning from ear to ear. Chris did not recognize him until he rolled down the window and shouted, Sir, pa-void!
Arman explained the taxi he was driving for more than a year now was just one of many owned by a local operator. Chris noticed how Arman had maintained his lean but toned physique despite hours of sitting behind the wheel.
They complimented each other’s bodies.
Arman dropped Chris off at the store in front of the church. He refused to accept Chris’s bayad.
Chris stood stuck where his feet had landed after hopping off Arman’s taxi. His body barely missed the side mirrors of SUVs and sedans headed elsewhere. From up above, the store’s logo was in all its bright glory, making Chris and everyone else hungry. Chris took out a pack of cigarettes from his breast pocket and lit up. He perspired like he was next to the fry station, trying to keep up.
Chris remembered those meals with Arman. He remembered he had not once shared his free and unlimited fast food with him because it was against company policy and the little red book always had the last say. From the pit of his stomach something stubborn crept up his throat. It felt like heartburn, it tasted like guilt. Chris burped.
Jov Almero is from the Philippines. His stories have appeared in Portland Review, The Caterpillar, Island, Barrelhouse, The Suburban Review, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Kritika Kultura, Likhaan: The Journal of Contemporary Philippine Literature, and elsewhere. He welcomes constructive feedback or Paypal donations to [email protected]