Confronting Class Across The Fast Food Counter

Emiliano Villa, 18 (Latino) – Oakland, Calif.

Fast-food worker

The sad truth is, I’ve given up my summer and my social life, for a paycheck. In order to pay my way through college starting this fall, I work long hours at a local fast-food restaurant, where a closing shift often means getting home at 3:30 in the morning.

It’s always awkward when kids I know come in as customers. There was a time when a whole car full of my classmates pulled up to the drive-through while I was working. They were laughing and blasting music, until they got to my window and recognized me. There was an exchange of awkward “How-are-yous.” But the underlying context was clear: Instead of being out having a good time on a Saturday night, I was at work, serving them.

Even in a place as diverse as Oakland, race seems to be a factor in who has to work and who doesn’t. I’ve noticed that my black and Latino friends are the ones who seem to work the most during the summers. Each person in my friend group works at a different fast food restaurant, so we have all the bases covered. We’re teenage representatives for our burger, taco, and pizza joints. My friends and I look to each other for support in our jobs. We complain to each other about our annoying bosses and bad customer experiences. We relate to each other when we feel sleepy in summer school from a long shift the night before.

My friends and I work so that we can afford small luxuries, like our phones or our clothes.

We get a glimpse of the kind of summer our non-working peers enjoy — hanging out, having fun — at least according to their Snapchat stories. I think that’s the ultimate privilege: not some sort of fancy unpaid internship or job hookup through your parents, but the freedom to spend your last summer before college doing nothing. In the fall, many of those kids will be off to school out-of-state, leaving the rest of us here.

I try to think of my summer job as an investment. I work hard so that in four years I can have a college degree to my name and a path carved out for myself. And sometimes when I’m stressed, the job becomes a kind of meditation. The sizzling grill, the bubbling of the fryers, my co-workers calling out orders. The constant barrage of sound allows me to block out my worries, at least for the moment.

Emiliano Villa is a writer for Youth Radio in Oakland, California. His essay appeared as part of a Youth Radio collaboration with the New York Times’ Race/Related.

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