When he was in his last year of high school, Billeh Nickerson got a job — his first — working the grill at a McDonald’s in Langley, B.C. Despite the fact that he’d unknowingly picked the second-busiest location in all of Western Canada, which got so hectic that sometimes one person’s job was simply handing out bags of food at the drive-thru for hours at a time, Nickerson remained optimistic.
“It was my first adult thing, right? It was all still very new. So I was excited,” he says over the phone from Toronto. “I wasn’t thinking, ‘I’m being exploited. I should make more. I’m working too hard’ — I think I was making $3.65 an hour. My God! It was a nightmare!”
Nickerson revisits this most unusual and formative time in his life, 20 years after the fact, in his new poetry collection, the incisive and very funny McPoems. While he started writing and performing poetry at about this age, Nickerson says it never occurred to him to write about his job, because it was so mundane. Looking back, however, he sees that it’s sometimes the most ordinary, everyday details that are most worth documenting.
And in a cultural climate like today’s, where workplace sitcoms like The Office draw audiences by the millions, Nickerson’s behind-the-scenes look at fast food feels particularly in tune with the zeitgeist. “[McDonald’s was] one of those places where you have kids who are rich, but their parents wanted them to have that [work] experience,” he remembers. “You have people who’ve worked there for 30, 40 years. You have retirees. It was such a hodgepodge of people, and it helped me realize the realities that are out there for people — whether that’s your co-workers or the people that are coming in.”
McPoems provides a wide-reaching catalogue of both of these groups: from the narrator’s hapless co-workers (“The only thing harder / than being named Madonna / is being named Madonna / and having to wear a name tag”) to the peanut gallery of regular customers, including an elderly woman who obsessively spells out the word G-L-O-R-I-A in French fries and the man who affixes ice cream cones to his forehead and stomps around the restaurant until they melt and fall off. (His nickname? The Unicorn.)
Nickerson’s poems are extremely short, often only a few lines long, and feature almost nothing but matter-of-fact descriptions, yet they still manage to convey warmth and skull-crushing boredom in equal but alternating doses. They are the field notes of an average teenage employee, hastily scribbled on napkins during a coffee break so the ridiculousness of it all won’t be forgotten.
They’re also frequently funny, in a Sisyphean way — my favourite of the bunch is “Daylight Savings Diptych,” which details the various ways you will be yelled at when the end-of-breakfast/beginning-of- lunch cut-off time moves in either direction. As with these kinds of jobs in general, it’s a no-win situation.
For legal reasons, Nickerson can’t specifically name the target company or any of its trademarked products in the book, though references to green holiday milkshakes and big purple mascots — not to mention the title — leave little to the imagination. And he says the collection is only loosely inspired by his 18 months spent at the Golden Arches. It’s more about fast food culture as a general concept: the way these identical-looking stores pop up all over the planet, and the way we as customers internalize their obsession with speed and disposability.
The end result feels suitably authentic and lived-in, but then again, these are ideas that Nickerson’s been living with, for better or for worse, even after hanging up his apron all those years ago.
“It’s been 20 years, and I still have cheeseburger nightmares,” he says. “I wake up, and I’ve been making cheeseburgers on the grill — they do them in groups of 12, and it’s mustard, mustard, mustard, mustard, mustard, mustard. Ketchup, ketchup, ketchup, ketchup, ketchup, ketchup.”
Arsenal Pulp Press, 80 pp, $15.95, paperback
(interview originally appeared in SEE Magazine, October 1, 2009)Oct 1, 2009