During summer and winter breaks my first two years of college, I had the misfortune of working at a fast food restaurant.
Now I know that career counselors remind us that there is no such thing as a bad job, and that we should view every job as a learning opportunity. They say this because they never had to work in a fast food restaurant, where the chief lessons are that people will buy terrible, tasteless and unhealthy food if it's priced cheaply enough; that your hard work will never be recognized because the manager is either talking on the phone the whole day or just doesn't care how hard you work because he's bitter about working there too, and at his age; that sexual harrassment of female co-workers is acceptable; and that major corporations pay their executives massive salaries by underpaying the hourly workers who make their profits possible. (Today I would add the further lesson that there is nothing like a bad economy for humiliating intelligent adults by forcing them to compete with teenagers for unskilled labor positions.)
All that said, for someone in college who wasn't able yet to land an internship or a work-study arrangement, this wasn't the worst way to make a little pocket money. (Please note the emphasis on "a little.") A typical work day would see me working from 5 or 6 in the morning until 2 in the afternoon. This in itself was not a Bad Thing. Work usually was busiest during the breakfast and lunch shifts, and there was consequently little time to think about how much I hated my job.
One day on Christmas break my freshman year, I drove home and shambled upstairs to my room. ("Shambled" is a fairly accurate description of how I walked around after getting up at five in the morning and rushing to work.) After I finally crawled into a change of clothes, I walked downstairs to vegetate in front of something mindless, like "The Squire of Gothos," one of those Star Trek episodes that can be appreciated properly only from a state of mental vegetation.
Star Trek, alas, was not available, but I was not to be denied. Due to the wonders of TV programming, there is always something being broadcast that is suitable for inducing brain death. Admittedly, because it was early afternoon, my choices were limited to soap operas like "General Hospital" and "Days of Our Lives"; watching the muscle men of the Power Team rip phone books in half for God's glory; or something educational on PBS, like Sesame Street.
Something educational it was, but it wasn't "Sesame Street," which admittedly has some really jamming tunes like "Put Down the Duckie." Instead, it was an episode of the spectacular, original run of "The Electric Company," the show that is remembered for gems like Arthur Crank, Easy Reader and "Fargo North, Decoder," as well as for launching the career of Morgan Freeman with his portrayal of a giant glowworm.
The episode on that afternoon was a gripper. Silent E was committing a host of outrages. As viewers watched in horror, Silent E vandalized the kitchen sink by turning the water tap into a roll of tape. From there it leapt to a hapless boy's head and changed his baseball cap into a cape.
It seemed unbeatable, until it finally met its match in Uncle Sam, who stayed the same and showed that even then, the Children's Television Workshop had a big-government liberal agenda to push.
That was Silent E, but for an episode of "The Electric Company," which had been created to help struggling readers, Silent E was just the beginning.
I heard the Evil Spellbinder cackle in triumph when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw my grandmother scouring the living room. The Evil Spellbinder and Letterman would have to wait.
"Grandma, what are you looking for?" I asked her.
"I can't find my hat. Do you know where my hat is?"
My grandmother had been living with us for the better part of a year. Now in the early stages of senility, she sometimes developed the urge to leave, even though she had nowhere to go. I was at her side in an instant.
"Uh no, Grandma, I haven't seen your hat for some time. Why do you want it?" I was stalling for time, trying to find some way to distract her. I have never been very good at this, as my distractions usually help people focus on what they're trying to do, with the result that they finish it much more quickly.
"I'm going for a walk," she said, and with that she turned and headed directly toward her hat. Just then, my brother Steve came downstairs.
"Step Hen, have you seen my hat?" Grandma asked him.
Now, my brother's name is spelled "Stephen," with a ph, but it is pronounced the same as "Steven." Because of this, people either spell his name incorrectly, with the result that the post office sends his mail to a Steven Learn serving a life sentence in Cuba, or they pronounce his name "step hen," as in "step on a hen."
This tragically happened to him when he was a child and our parents had taken him to a popular children's pizzeria for his birthday. One of the manager's responsibilities at this particular restaurant was to read over a speaker the names of children celebrating their birthdays.
After flawlessly wishing happy birthdays to awkwardly named children like Yehudah ben O'Shaugnessy, Rado Prbic and Alksandr Raskolnikovichamazov, the manager choked.
"We'd also like to wish a happy birthday to Step Hen Learn, who is eight today," he said.
Steve, who would burst into tears every time he heard the theme song for "The Incredible Hulk," began screaming at once.
"Waaahhh!" he cried. "He called me Step Hen."
He cried so loudly and for so long that the manager finally gave us our meal for free. And now Grandma had called him "Step Hen" and reopened that ancient wound. Already tears were pooling in his eyes, and I had to act quickly to save both him and our grandmother.
"Grandma, isn't that your hat over on the dining room table?" As she turned to look, I grabbed her hat, and whisked it behind her head to Steve, who snatched it from the air and tossed it on top of a bag sitting on the top shelf of the coat closet.
"No, I don't see it," she said, and she began walking toward the closet. "I guess I'll go for my walk without the hat."
"Grandma, you can't go for a walk without a hat, it's too cold!" I lied -- it was 65 degrees outside.
"And it's snowing, too," Steve said sadly, still dwelling on being called Step Hen. Iit hadn't snowed more than half an inch in the past year, but Steve was understandably disoriented.
"Well, then I'll go in the car," my Grandma said. I deftly positioned myself between her and the door.
There was no need to point out that driving the car without a license is not quite the same as taking a walk. In fact, since the whole point of going out was for a walk, driving defeated the purpose.
"The cars are both out, Grandma," I lied again. The car I had driven home from work sat docilely in plain sight in the driveway.
"Well, I'll walk, then."
"Gee, Grandma, why not just wait until my mother comes home?" Steve asked. "She can take you for a walk in the car."
This succeeded where all subterfuge had failed. She could get both her walk and her car ride at the same time. It must have seemed quite a deal, because she took off her coat and went back to her room, just as the hat fell off the bag.
We had managed to keep our grandmother safely inside. Steve went upstairs and cried until someone finally gave him a free pizza, and I watched the remaining five minutes of the Electric Company.
I never did learn how Letterman was saved from being sold for a dollar seventy-five at the bakery. I may never know; it continues to be one of life's little mysteries.
Copyright © 1988, 1992, 2012 by David Learn. Used with permission.
Read the Original