The infrastructure of vio-lence is so thick at the corner of Ledbetter and Sunnyvale in far Southeast Oak Cliff it seems like a permanent condition, Run-down apartment buildings hunker amid vacant lots spotted with plastic jugs, condoms, and shell casings. Unrepaired streets are full of potholes; the sidewalks serve as trade routes for homeboys on the make. School kids make their way home as though from behind enemy lines. Even the businesses are characteristic-a no-ID check-cashing stand, a ghetto grocery and laundromat, a pawn shop. And a McDonald’s.
It’s a late Monday afternoon, and 47-year-old supervisor Bob Jefferson, perfectly “McDonald’s-ized” in striped tie, white shirt, navy trousers, and cranberry cardigan, leans across a table inside the lobby. A well-thumbed manual the size of the Fort Worth telephone directory is open between his elbows. He repeats a question to the four young workers-three females, one male-studying to pass one of a weekly series of exams that will enable them to move up from crew chief to shift operation manager. The rungs of the corporate career ladder ultimately lead to “H.U.”-Hamburger University-in Oakbrook, Illinois, but here, at least, they start very close to the street. “What two purposes,” Jefferson asks again, “does suggestive selling serve?”
Paul Clark, a husky 21-year-old who got into the fast-food business at 16 through a high-school job-training program, left briefly for a job in construction, and then came back, furrows his brow. He glances at his Pocket Quality Reference Guide-he knows Jefferson goes ’’strictly by the book, same as in North Dallas or anywhere else.” Violet Wesley, 21, her mind on the Bell Biv DeVoe concert she wants to attend that evening, shuffles in her preformed plastic chair. Ursula McCuin, also 21, uncertain about what to do with her life after two years in junior college, gazes outside at four young men horsing around in the pawn shop parking lot.
Angela Majors, a 20-year-old student at Mountain View Community College, fills the void. “Increase the volume in the restaurant,” she says, almost shyly. “Even with something as small as suggesting they have a dessert.”
Jefferson smiles. “And to remind people of items they didn’t think we have,” he adds, completing the answer. He reminds them they must score 90 percent in order to pass the weekly exams, which are full of questions like “What is the correct bun-toaster temperature setting for flat-grill toasters and clamshell toasters?” (Answer: 395-405 degrees Fahrenheit; 415-425 degrees Fahrenheit for the clamshell.) “When washing hands with antimicrobial soap, how long should you scrub your hands up to and including the elbow?” (Twenty seconds.) “A cooking basket of fries should be shaken after ____ seconds?” (Thirty.)
The moaning and groaning is understandable, though the factoids of fast-food French-frying are doubtless important. But that’s not what Bob Jefferson is really teaching, nor is it what this class is really about.
A Waco native, Jefferson came to Dallas in 1988 at the invitation of Ed and Maggie Benson, who were building a five-store, owner-operated chain that has become, in effect, the Golden Arches of the inner city. When the Bensons moved to Dallas from Chicago in 1976 to buy the Ledbetter store, the mostly black neighborhood was middle class, its slide into decay not yet inexorable. But when conditions worsened, the Bensons didn’t leave, they dug in and spread out. High crime, down-and-out neighborhoods became their specialty. Not only did they add another South Oak Cliff location, they also went into Fair Park, and into the downtown meanness of Commerce Street.
In 1988, the Bensons got the franchise for a tough town in its own right-Parkland Hospital. Ed Benson called his friend Jefferson to set it up. Two years ago, Benson died. His wife took over the stores, in part to pass the business on to her sons, and in part to keep things intact for the people who, over the years, have kept alive an African-American-owned business in the African-American community.
Almost every day of the week, Jefferson makes the rounds of three of the franchise stores, conducting classes aimed at the employees who see McDonald’s in the way some of their peers might see the military- as a way out. Learning how to supervise a front-counter crew may not be as glamorous as learning to drive a tank, but it’s not as dangerous either, and in the long run, it’s a smarter deal.
“One time I got in an argument with this guy at a meeting who said, That’s just a fast-food job,’” Jefferson recalls, his eyes flashing. “I told him, ’There’s not a lot of places where kids can get a start,’ He ought to think about it that way.”
Jefferson teaches bright people whom the system has let down. They have high-school educations and perhaps some college, but for many, those experiences-often gained in the worst of the inner-city schools-have not brought the kinds of problem-solving skills that middle-class teenagers, white or black, have picked up not only in school but in the course of growing up. Some of Jefferson’s workers still return to homes where parents confiscate their wages.
A young man in a Raiders coat and cap-gang couture-comes in with his girlfriend. He seems to be looking for someone, then leaves. Things don’t usually get tense until weekend nights, when the drunks and druggies roll through the drive-thru or the teenagers try to camp out in the lobby with a six-pack of beer. Friday and Saturday nights there are security guards at the Led-better and Fair Park stores, but there have never been any major incidents. Nobody’s ever been blown away, as in the ostensibly more placid suburb of Irving where four people were killed in a Taco Bell at the edge of a major freeway.
Anyway, it’s not the violence. Once, Jefferson watched a gang-banger walk in, order burgers and fries, and throw a roll of $100 bills on the counter. “He acted like he was looking for change,” Jefferson smiles. “What I mostly remember is watching the cashier looking at that money.” Then the guy pulled out a $20 bill and gave it to her to pay. “It’s just a form of showboating,” Jefferson says, “but from the standpoint of your people, looking with that kind of awe… It really is tempting to people.”
The economics of crime and unemployment say why work for minimum wage when you can earn $500 a day hustling crack? There’s not much, in a society filled with junk-bond media darlings and S&L fraud bailouts, that provides unemployed teenagers (the teenage black male jobless rate is about 50 percent) with a solid answer to that question. You could say that Bob Jefferson’s task is to teach people a related lesson, the difference between the long and short run. To economist John Maynard Keynes, the difference was that “in the long run, we’re all dead.” In the inner city, the reverse is more often the case. Jefferson is trying to give the short run credibility, so that in the long run his student-workers have the same odds as the rest of us.
Class runs into sunset. Time to go. Angela Majors picks up her books-Kate Millet and Maya Angelou. They’re not for school. She reads them because she wants to.