It is summer up here in the subarctic which means the sun and I rise at basically the same time. At 4:15 am, both the sun and I can be found slowly coming to life for the day.
While the sun shows up in amazing ways, I can be found wearing my glasses, drinking three or so cups of coffee, hair standing on end due to the mugginess, and writing up a storm. I am working on my book, Womanity, and have decided to change the whole thing.
Yup, I am writing it for high school girls.
A collection of awkward, humorous, and painful stories from being ridiculous and not fitting in is being written. Basically they are all the stories from being human and having the same experience everyone had in high school has but few admit to when they are 17 years old.
I hope you enjoy this morning’s remembrance of why I don’t tan and am ok with being one of the whitest women on the planet.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The summer prior to my senior year of high school I was promoted to Swing Manager at McDonalds.
My promotion secured my nerd status with the jocks but in the world of drive thru, I was a superstar. After my many fiascoes in gym class, I knew gaining respect for my ability to not fall over was never going to happen. I was happy to be an outlier in at least one area, even it did involve deep fryers, polyester skirts, and fish fillet sandwiches which seemed to only sell on Fridays.
Being promoted at the age of 17 was a rarity and something I was proud of, extremely proud of. Becoming a manger meant you no longer had to wear the purple visor, a permanent name tag was ordered for you, and the whole store was under your watchful eye when you were working.
It also meant supervising people you went to school with, dealing with every customer complaint that came through during your shift, and doing performance reviews for women who were older than your mother. Awkward.
Donloree – Sitting out in the dining area that was closed off for cleaning ‘Well Elaine, it is performance review time. As you know all the managers contribute to your review and I am the one that walks you through it.’
Elaine – Sighing and nodding, ‘Yes. I know. Let’s get on with it.’
Donloree – ‘Your dedication, smile, and timeliness is much appreciated. At this time we only really have concerns about your speed. You need to move quicker behind the counter and work on being more agile and precise in the grill area while assembling sandwiches.’
Elaine – Scowling. ‘What do you want me to do about my bursitis and arthritis? I am doing the best I can. You, little girl, have no idea how good I am actually doing. Let’s swap bodies for a day and then you can ‘review my performance. How does that sound? Huh?!’
Donloree – Swallowing hard. ‘I had no idea. I am sorry. I, uh, will make a note of these facts…now onto interpersonal relationships…’
Leadership, discipline, and the smell of French fries marked the summer of the 17th year of my life. The cool, thin, beautiful, rich girls were out traveling the world with their families, going to the lake with boys and playing beach volleyball in bikinis, or shopping for cute clothes to wear during Young Life camp at Malibu. My summer consisted of getting up at 4:15 am, pulling my hair into a ponytail braid, swiping on mascara, and then pulling on my penguin suit which consisted of a purple button up blouse, calf length skirt, nylons that could stand on their own, and orthopedic shoes with a fragrance reminiscent of deep fryer and the ice cream goo I inadvertently poured into my shoes while filling up the reserve. I worked the opening shift, which started at 5:00 am. Working 5 to 1, jumping into the swimming pool in the backyard when I got home, a nap, and then evening fun with friends is not a bad way to kill off a summer.
Oddly enough, I enjoyed the daily work. In fact I loved it. Running up and down the stairs with a box of fries on my shoulder, the chaos of 39 cent cheeseburger Wednesday, and sitting in the walk-in freezer during the afternoon break while eating a hot fudge sundae to cool off was actually fun. Apparently I thrive in the midst of crisis.
The McDonalds I worked in was a strange building. It had a flat roof with raised sides which was less than ideal for the rainy Washington winters. When it was slow and pouring rain I could be found on the roof in my skirt sweeping off the rain to keep a waterfall from forming over the French fry station. The roof wasn’t nearly as strange as the basement. Rows and rows of movable shelves hosted boxes and boxes of ketchup, salt, happy meal toys, and everything McDonalds. A sound of hissing and sucking curled around the shelving units giving away the location of the syrup for the fountain pop; a soundtrack that was horror film worthy. When entering the 400 sft walk-in freezer in the basement, a latching sounds always caused me to jump. Luckily whenever I looked back, I saw the emergency button and exit hatch which gave me enough courage to continue my trek through the buns, meat, and french fries to find what I needed.
There was also something downright weird in the strange basement.
Around the corner, towards the back of the basement, and through the electrical room there was a door that opened into the dead end of the strange basement.
The room itself wasn’t weird, the tanning bed in it was.
Beyond the weirdness of the tanning bed was the odd rule that only managers were allowed to use it. Apparently the owner deposited it at his flagship store as a perk for his most committed employees. It was the talk of all the managers from his other stores whenever we got together for training.
I imagined arriving on the first day of my senior year of high school with a tan and fabulous stories of summer adventures and travel. The fabulous stories of travel and adventure didn’t look possible with my work schedule, but my new promotion opened the door up to a tan.
During the second week of my manager status, I gathered up enough courage to start the tanning process. Winding around the freezer, fountain pop noise, and moving shelves I entered the small room and locked myself in.
It was 10:30 in the morning and I was on my ‘half’, otherwise known at the 30 minute break you don’t get paid for. Eighteen minutes was set on the timer and I pushed the ‘on’ button. A blue, hazy glow began to fill the room.
This particular morning I was in a rush when I got dressed and pulled extra tight while doing my hair. My eyes were pulled towards my hairline and my scalp cried out in pain.
I let my hair down, massaged my sore scalp, and wondered what I was doing. An internal pep talk ensued.
Just get in, lie down, and get your tan on. Pull the lid shut and just be ok with being squished by the skin cancer machine. Just do it. You need to be pretty when you show up on the first day of school. A tan helps. Ok?
It took courage to pull the top of the clamshell down onto my body.
Lying there in the blue, hazy light with only my bikini cut underwear remaining on my body, odd thoughts came to my mind.
- Isn’t it supposed to be hot in here?
- How long until my tan shows up?
- What if there is a fire while I am in this darned contraption? Do I run out with a 9 minute tan and hope it covers up my nakedness?
- Is this going to kill me?
- How do you open this thing?
- When my 18 minutes are up, does it beep at me like a microwave?
Then one pressing thought entered my mind.
My hair! My hair is down and covering my back. No one wants a tan body and white back. What am I going to do? Quick, fix it!
In a panic, without opening the strange clamshell lid because I hadn’t figured out the answer to that question yet, I somehow got my arms above my head and shoved all my hair out of the top hole of the tanning bed.
Calm and peace filled my brain. Awesome. Tan here we come.
A few minutes later, it got warm in the bed and a fan came on to keep the bed at an ambient temperature.
Suddenly, I felt a slight tug on my hair. I decided it was nothing, after all I was alone in this weird room in the strange basement.
Then it happened again and again, fiercer every single time. Suddenly my hair was in a vice grip.
While screaming, ‘No, no, no, no, nooooo!!’, I figured out the answer to my question about how to open the tanning bed and turn it off in one fail swoop.
I found myself bent at a 45-degree angle, lying on the floor face up with my head firmly attached to the tanning bed by my hair. Once I realized there wasn’t a horror movie scene unfolding, I was able to breathe.
Luckily the fan turned off immediately when I shut down the bed in my panicked escape from the hazy, blue light and I was able to unwind some of my waist length hair through the grate covering the fan. After reclaiming a portion of my hair, the tanning bed and I were at a stalemate.
Calling for help was not an option for many reasons.
- I wasn’t wearing much.
- No one would hear me.
- The door was locked and I was too far away to unlock it.
- Some things you just don’t need your coworkers to know about.
- Having firemen axe the door down seemed like a bit of overkill.
My watch read 10:52. I had eight minutes to do what needed to be done and get back on the floor in full McDonalds regalia. Grabbing the tuft of hair that was still wound to oblivion in the tanning bed fan, I tugged with all my might.
Leaving a memento of our time together with the tanning bed, I got dressed and pulled my remaining hair into a braid that had more fly aways than a centipede has legs.
Gathering my dignity, I disinfected the bed and vowed to never return.
I fought the tanning bed and the tanning bed won.
I am a white woman who has a bunch of great stories. Don’t try cram yourself into small, strange places only to lose half your hair trying to be like other people. Changing yourself to fit in only makes you lose part of yourself and it can be painful, scary, and ridiculous. People are going to notice you no matter what, so why not make it for being yourself rather than the awkward results from trying to be just like someone else.
Having a great tan on the first day of your senior year of high school is overrated.
The world needs you just the way you are…with all your hair.