Misunderstanding and milkshakes: a summer story

By Michaela Hughes

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Summer is widely regarded as a magical time of adventure and nostalgia. Over the course of those three sweaty months, many try to explore new places and have deep moments of self-discovery, usually while taking excessively filtered pictures of beaches and iced coffees. Those summers only exist in the overly manicured world of the internet or in a Zac Brown Band song. Real summers never go according to plan.

L.Richarz/ Flickr

This past summer, I moved back in with my family in Boston for an unpaid internship, but soon found that I was in serious need of money to cover even the barest essentials. When I received a call from the Shake Shack with a request for an interview, I quickly accepted.

As a pseudo-hippie vegetarian from Western Massachusetts, I had never heard of the Shake Shack. Upon entering, I immediately discovered that it was in fact a fast food restaurant. Think Five Guys meets McDonalds. As I nearly did a 180 degree turn to the exit, visions of empty wallets and overdraft fees danced in my head. I followed through and was hired on the spot

On my first day, I was instructed to wear all black along with my new Shake Shack T-shirt and baseball cap. I thought, “I can work with this; it could be worse,” but spoke too soon. When I arrived, I was also told to adorn a black, full-length apron, bright blue plastic gloves, and…a hairnet.

Let me repeat that for effect: hairnet.

Orientation mostly involved the manager telling me the dos and don’ts of the place: do everything you’re told and don’t take anything for free.

I was first assigned to work the Custard Station; my duties included pouring milkshakes into cups and putting lids on them. The kitchen was run like an assembly line; each station had three attendants who had one small task and then passed it along to the next person.

It was fairly typical labor for a part-time job. However, it was not the labor that bothered me, but the institution itself.

Driving home after my first shift, I prepared the story of outrage and offense I would share with my family to expose just how problematic I found the fast food industry in my naïve, liberal opinion. But as I explained to my family the gloves and the scooping and the monotony and the hairnets, they seemed less than amused.

My sister belittled my complaints while my dad laid it out plain and simple: “Do you think you’re better than this place?”

That’s when it hit me: I was the one with the problem, not the establishment. My judgment and privilege was out of control. I have worked several jobs in my life, but my Shake Shack career differed from the more  socially respectable positions I’ve occupied.

The other jobs granted me personal freedom in addition to meeting the morals I live by. At the Shake Shack, I was out of my personal comfort zone, as I was just a number assigned to a simple task. The minute I put on that hairnet and slipped on those gloves, I no longer felt like myself.

My vegetarian reflex no longer shuddered at the pools of bacon grease and my sustainability-oriented mind stopped combusting every time I was reminded that the kitchen did not recycle. I eventually grew used to the utter disrespect I felt from customer.

All the while, I just wanted to scream that this was not me, that I do not believe in fast food, that I’m a person of value. I felt like a small, helpless speck in a very large institution.

Just before I had ended my three-month stint to return to school, it all hit me. I had spent the past three years of my college education studying class systems, racial divides, feminist rhetoric and economic injustice. I had picked apart our society to such an extreme, that I had begun to feel separate from it all.

What made me so different from the Shake Shack? Because it did not follow the same environmental and economic ethics I had learned in class? Why had my education disabled me from functioning in the very society I had been studying?

It’s the liberal bias I have been inundated with that has subconsciously promoted intellectual division from the very systems that operate within our society. How could I have spent the past several years of my life passing judgment on these institutions which I had known nothing about

For all the bad I found in this large fast food corporation, it actually does a lot of good for its community, from donating to charity to providing employee benefits

Even though, on the surface, an establishment may not live up to the ideal of a perfect liberal society, you shouldn’t necessarily look down on it. It’s easy to criticize something when it’s not your life and it’s even easier to hate something if you disagree with it. The most important lessons of tolerance and open-mindedness cannot always be found in a classroom, but rather in spaces outside of our comfort zone and worlds different from our own.

As corny as it sounds, maybe I did have one of those self-reflective, life-changing summers. It did not happen how I planned it or how I wanted it, but I guess that’s just one of those things we each discover in our own way, hopefully without a hairnet.

Michaela Hughes is a Collegian contributor and can be reached at [email protected]