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Posing for Animal Crackers

Updated: Jan 10, 2023

How I Learned the True Meaning of Work Ethic at the Burger King on Route 9 in Forked River, New Jersey

In the summer of 1987, I was looking forward to my first break from school as a real teenager. No longer tied to the chains of childhood, I was determined to tackle those three warm months in southern New Jersey as a new “man”. I had big plans. We were living in the house my mother and I had moved into with my stepfather not too far from the beach. It was in a town called Forked River, which we pronounced “Forc - Ed”, when in reality it was named after the “Fork-d” river upon which the town sat. It was a sleepy New Jersey suburban beach area town, sitting on the Barnegat Bay, specked with 1970s and 1980s ranch homes of various colors, like a menagerie of monopoly houses were dropped into the sandy pine forests of the region. It was a melting pot of families that had migrated down from the denser areas of New Jersey and New York, in search of more space and an easier lifestyle.


We had moved there just before the 7th grade, in 1980 when I as seven years old, and I began the journey of making new friends and surviving those awkward elementary and middle school years. I arrived in town dressed as I always had with my polyester “slacks” and button downs shirts, an ode to my grandmother dressing me like the studious little prodigy she always wanted me to be. But by the time I head reached my freshman year in high school, I was well on the way to molding into the beach area eighties kid my friends were, with our feathered hair and light-colored surf gear clothes, with names like “Gotcha” and “Ocean Pacific”. We were northerners who had become beach kids, like Ralph Macchio in the Karate Kid.


It was for this very reason that I was looking forward to that summer of spending time at the beach with friends. My mother had other plans. Fourteen was the designated “work-permit” age in New Jersey for teenagers and it was only a mere three days after school ended, that mom called me into the kitchen and sat me down at the small coffee table. In her typical fashion, she lit a cigarette, threw the lighter on the table, took a puff and blew it into the air. She stared at me, crossed her legs and asked,


“So, what are you going to do all summer? Do you want to help your stepfather and I out with the business?”


My first thought was, “hell no”, that would be a sure-fire sentence of death to my soul. “I don’t think so mom, I mean I will help here and there, but I wanted to enjoy the summer at the beach this year”, I said.


She took another puff on the cigarette, blew it out to her side this time and said,


“Well, that’s not going to happen because you have to start earning your own money around here. Why don’t you start applying for some part time jobs at the shopping center on Route 9? Shop-Rite or Burger King.”


I stared back in disbelief, knowing my summer dreams of living like the Karate Kid were out the window. I was going to be wearing polyester logo polos instead of corduroy short shorts. My fate was sealed. I had no means of transportation to go the beach other than her driving me, and she was not going to be my dedicated mom-mobile if she expected me to work.


So, it was with great disgust the next day I walked my scrawny and disappointed ass over the Burger King on Route 9. Like every fast-food restaurant from the 1980’s it was brick with a brown roof, shaped like a low-lying cube. Roughly landscaped with evergreen bushes and dyed red bark scattered around the parking lot medians, it had a drive-thru that looped around the back and a large burger shaped “Burger King” sign, raised up on a long pole. Drivers could see it from a distance. It was a beacon, bellowing “bring me your tired, your hungry, your yearning to be overweight.”


I remember walking in sheepishly, winding my way through the queue line banisters to manage the line. Behind the counter there was the normal cast of characters in their brick red shirts, BK hats and navy khakis.


I waddled up to the front counter and asked if they were hiring or had an application. The teenager behind the counter said he would get the manager, sizing me up, as if I were a threat and there was some competition to gain the best standing in the Burger King caste system. I smiled back thinking, “I don’t want to wear your stupid outfit anyway dude, I’m supposed to be in a bathing suit”.


The manager appeared from the back, dressed in chambray button down, along with the same blue khakis, walking with purpose as she headed to the front counter. She was a heavier set woman with a round face and pear-shaped body that dropped over the waistline of her pants with a belt that seemed too tight. She had deep blue eyes that matched her shirt and basic horn-rimmed glasses that rested on her nose just below the brim. There was something brooding about her look as if she was strong but also suffering/battling something big that could eat away at her every day.


She approached me quickly, as if there was not time to waste and asked, “Can I help you? Are you looking for a job?”.


“Yes”, I said. “I was hoping to apply for part time work this summer, I’m Keith”.


“Jane”, she said. “I’m Jane, nice to meet you”. “Let’s get you an application and get things moving.”


It didn’t take long for me to get the job and only days before I was out of training and on salad or burger duty. Ironically, I enjoyed the work, and the social aspects turned out better than I thought, as many friends would pass through during the summer days for a quick bite. They seemed to demonstrate respect for my taking a job and earning some money, and not just sitting on the beach all day. An outcome i didn’t expect but was happy to take.


Jane and the other managers were consistently giving me opportunities to work in different parts of the operations of the restaurants and there was a strict policy of spending any customer down time cleaning. This included broiler duty for making the burgers, breakfast shift on weekends to make the eggs, fry master and salad maker, back when the salads were made on site and not shipped packaged. These duties were typical of junior staff, it was the team members with more experience that were assigned to the register and drive thru at the front. I yearned to be a cashier because it felt like I had worked hard enough to be rewarded with the confidence of the managers to let me give it a try. It would elevate my stature. Burger King caste system 101.


It was an early Saturday, when I arrived to do my normal salad prep, that Jane emerged from the manager’s office and asked me to come into the back.


” How do you feel about running register this morning?”, she said.


I was shocked…was this the opportunity I was looking for?


“I’ll have to do a quick training and we are going to be busy today with the soccer tournament, but I know you can do it, and I am here to back you up”, she said.


My mind began to spin, as I thought this was my way out of lettuce purgatory and into the front of the store, standing with those who had worked their way up in much longer periods of time. “Yes!”, I said, emphatically. “I’ll do it.”


Jane then took me up to the register and showed me the ropes. It wasn’t difficult, the buttons were pretty self-explanatory, and I had learned the ordering language from working in the back. It was really a matter of getting comfortable enough with the location of the keys to punch quickly as customers gave me their order.


As my first customer approached, I did get a little rush of nervousness, having been used to conversing with vegetables and burgers all day. The direct human interaction was a little intimidating, but that first double cheeseburger with extra pickles order went into those multi-colored keypads and onto the printed ticket without a hitch. I mustered up my deepest voice as I called the order into the snake microphone, impressed with myself for succeeding on my first order. Money collected; change given. Job well done.


Ironically after a handful of rounds of this, there as a lull in the customers coming in. So, as a cashier there was not much to do, or so I thought. Here in my newfound status position, I was no longer going to have clean garbage cans and wipe down tables. I had made it…I was on the top of the BK heap and shining bright. So, I did what every 14-year-old teenager would do, I leaned up against the register and stared out the window, daydreaming about no longer smelling like a flame broiled piece of beef after work.


And right at that moment, as I dreamily stared out onto Route 9 and the big burger beacon looming large over the parking lot, I heard Janes voice coming from the back…getting louder as I knew she was walking quickly toward the front.


“Mr. Alyea” she exclaimed, as if her admiration for me was gone and I was right back to salad duty.


“Yes”, I said. “Is something wrong?”


She looked at me with her deep blue eyes, now a little fiery and her chambray shirt prominently stained above the belt from the breakfast shift. The anger in her face suggested my elevated status had in fact immediately vanished in the wake of me asking such a stupid question.


“I hope you are enjoying your little break”, she said sternly. “What are you doing, standing there? Posing for Animal Crackers?”


And there it was, one short question, one keen moment that has stuck in my head and is remembered over 35 years later. An invaluable statement that ingrained in me the value of true work ethic and literally not standing around waiting for something to happen.


“Go wipe down some tables, clear trays and empty the trash”, she said. “We don’t pay cashiers to stand around and wait for customers to show up.” She grabbed a rag from under the counter and placed it in front of me, and then smiled…and winked. I knew then that I was not out of her good graces, but she was sending me a clear message that we always must be willing to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty, to keep the gears turning.


It was years later that I learned Jane had passed away, and it turned out that haunted look in her eye was her silent battle with cancer that in the end, was more persistent than she was. Like so many women in my life from that period and now, she was a pillar of strength in the face of adversity, and she did what she had to do to survive and keep going as long as she could. I’d like to think the universe gave me this memory, not only as a life lesson, but as a tribute to Jane and the many women like her. Life, opportunity, success, joy, all are not going to come to those who stand and pose for animal crackers…it’s the Janes from Burger Kings on every route in various towns, that teach us the lessons of the life to get things done. Thanks Jane.

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Angie Jackson
Angie Jackson
18 set 2022

Keith, first of all you are a really good writer. I completely enjoyed reading the story about your teenage years. Second of all thank you so much for sharing as knowing you and your work ethic this really gave me a deeper insight of who you are and what influenced you in becoming the man you are today.

Mi piace
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