A webcomic about addiction, depression, eating people, and math heroes.

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Rusty the Illiterate

Saturday, Aug 14, 2004

True Stories

A long time ago when I was flipping hamburgers at Fastburger, I thought I had worked with the dumbest of them. We'd get people in there with vocabularies under 100 words, and if you used any sentences longer than about 10 words then you'd lost the poor guy. Usually these guys wouldn't stick around, they had no talent.

And then there came Rusty. I didn't have any idea what I was in for.

Rusty's first employment

Rusty started work, and like all new guys he got stuck on the grill. So he sat there flipping hamburgers. I was the one who got the unlucky task of trying to train him. Looking at the guy you wouldn't think much of him, with his missing teeth, freckles and all, looked like he had just climbed out of the river and started making "yuk yuk" noises. He was one of Graham's hires, and I sometimes wonder if Graham would intentionally hire crap just to see what the rest of us would do with it.

So I stuck him on the grill and explained to him how to work it. I told him why you put the meat on in rows of four, and I showed him how to read the tickets. First rush came and he just stood there looking around, and ran right out of meat.

Every rush was just like that first one, until Walter had the bright idea of just having him load the grill up with meat every time someone told him to. After that, we served some pretty nasty hamburgers, but he never ran out. Truth to tell, I wonder if our customers could even notice the difference, but such was Rusty.

He ended this period of employment after about a month. It was pretty obvious he was pretty frustrated because he couldn't work the grill, and he was able to determine on his own that the grill was the easiest position in the store. He saw another new guy whose name escapes me come in and work the grill for two weeks before moving on, but Rusty just sat there working the grill. We were pretty frustrated with him ourselves, and in a gesture of frustration during a rush after he had run out of meat yet again I told him "Just take the fucking trash out". He took the trash out, and then he went home.

Change of power

During the next few months, power changed. Graham got something resembling a promotion, and Robert, the first assistant manager, got a promotion. So Robert was running the store. Robert's a good guy, and in the years since then I find myself wondering from time to time whatever happened to the robot known as Robert.

Rusty Returns

When Rusty came back, Robert hired him. Robert had been the night manager and he had never heard much of Rusty, and only worked with him a few times. He saw that Rusty had been here before and decided to give him a second chance. He told me about it right after he did it, and I just started cussing at him. Robert said "Dave, just do the best you do, like you always do, ok?" So I just nodded my head and looked glum.

Rusty the Illiterate

So Rusty shows up for his first day and looks at me.

"Please be easy on me," he said. "Please."

That was it. Not sure how to take it, I just responded with "Just don't run out of meat and you'll be fine."

First rush comes along, Rusty runs out. Remembering his "please" I didn't talk a lot of trash, I just asked him to read the tickets.

"Funny you should ask that," said Rusty. "Seeing's how I don't know how to read and all."

"You don't know how to read?" I asked, somewhat incredulous. "How do you drive?"

"Haven't you noticed how all the road signs have pictures on them?" Rusty asked, by way of answering.

"Nope, can't drive, myself," said I.

"Oh," said Rusty. "Well, I just look for the pictures and watch for places I know."

"Ah," I said. "Landmarks."

"What's a landmark?"

And such was Rusty. So I just started telling him how much meat to keep on the grill.

We proceeded like that for a few days, me counting the meat and telling him how much to put on there. He'd usually ask how many more to put on there and I'd just glance and tell him. Like this, he never fell behind, and I got a chance to actually start getting to know him. He also got to get the know the rest of the guys, and he could actually work for at least ten consecutive minutes without having someone bitch at him.

Dave's cool, everyone else sucks

But after a few days, I came in to work and Rusty was already there. He had scrubbed the lot that morning. He looked at me and said "Where were you yesterday?"

"Man, it was my day off."

"Oh," said Rusty. "I missed you."

Thinking he was turning out to be a psycho, I thought I'd press on. "Why?"

"Well," began Rusty. "When you're here, everything's fine. I don't fall behind and you don't really bitch at me. When you weren't here yesterday...."

So it was. I had made him dependent on me, and on my first day off it was back to the same old story that ended with him taking out the trash...and himself. To be honest, I can't say I was starting to like Rusty by this time, but I was at least not hating him. I was also in a mood to beat the invincible, conquer the unconquerable, and so forth. Generally my modus operandi, but this presented me with an interesting challenge. In order for Rusty to achieve independence, he'd have to learn how to read.

"Well," I said, somewhat inspired. "If you don't want that to happen, you'll have to learn how to read."

"Why?" asked Rusty.

How do you sell the benefits of reading to a guy who just wants to flip burgers? "Because then you could work your position independently," I finally stated. "You see, right now you're depending on me to read the tickets for you. But if you learn how to read, you can read them for yourself. You don't have to learn how to read classical literature or anything fancy, just enough to be able to read the tickets."

"No," he said. "I can't, I'm too stupid, and I don't want to talk about it."

"Fine," I said. "Just don't complain to me when nobody else will read the tickets for you."

And with that, I went inside to start my shift.

Reading ain't easy

A few minutes after I started my shift, Rusty came back up to work. He was pretty quiet for awhile, but I didn't worry about it. I just went back to business as usual, telling him when to drop meat and how much to drop. We went for about half an hour when Rusty finally broke the silence.

"If I'm going to learn how to read," Rusty started, "how am I going to learn?"

He didn't even know how to ask what he was trying to ask. So I answered with "I'll teach you."

He chewed on that for a little while. Then, "But you'd need like a blackboard and chalk and stuff, right?"

"Nope," I said. "I'll do it all right here, on the job. But if you wanted to pursue it out of work, I might be able to do that." I wasn't sure I wanted Rusty coming over to my place, to tell the truth. I was confident I could teach him right there on the job, though.

He chewed on that for awhile.

Truth be told, he never really made up his mind. I prodded him on it occasionally over the next couple of days with little results. So I waited until I was back doing some sort of prep work, and I made sure Rusty was in front, and I waited until Robert came back to tell me to go work with Rusty.

"Why?" I asked.

"Well, because you seem to be the only one who can get useful work out of Rusty," Robert replied.

"Ever wonder why that is?" I asked.

"I don't question," Robert said with a smile. "I just do."

"Ah, that's why--"

"I get paid the big bucks," Robert finished. "That's right." It was an old joke around that place.

"Got a few minutes?" I asked.

"You mean you're not just screwing with me right now?" Robert asked.

"Yeah," I said. "This is serious."

Robert went up front, then came back. "Yeah, we're not too busy right now. What's up?"

"I know what Rusty's problem is, and it's not that he's dumb," I said.

"You mean he's not dumb?" Robert asked.

"No," I said, chuckling, "Just that that's not his problem. He can't read."

"Oh," said Robert. "The application does say that he needs to know how to read, so I guess you want me to fire him."

"Believe it or not," I said, "No."

"Then what do you want from me?" Robert asked.

"I want to teach Rusty how to read," I said. "He's not so sure he wants to and he's concerned that somebody might find out and make fun of him or think badly about him. So he doesn't really want to make a decision."

"So you've been working with him on it already?" Robert asked.

"Sorta," I said. "I've been pushing him. He remembers the last time he worked here, and if I'm not there telling him how much meat to drop he gets bitched at and wants to quit."

"But you don't want him to quit," said Robert. "You like him?"

"Not really," I said. "But if he quits, it seems kinda stupid to me that he'd quit just because he can't read, and then where's he going to work?"

"That's not your problem," said Robert.

"No," I said. "It's not."

"So you want me to try to arrange things so you and Rusty will have a lot of private time?"

"Yeah," I said. "Schedule him with me, if you can, and no one else. Give him to me in the afternoon, hopefully with Craig as MOD, and just me and Rusty in the back. That's the time to teach him how to read. All the drink orders will keep the girls busy, and Craig, and I can talk to Craig about what I'm about. He'll understand, and he'll keep it discreet."

"Yeah," said Robert. "He will."

"So, what do you think?"

"Frankly Dave," said Robert, "I'm surprised you'd even consider it."

"That's not your problem," I said, grinning.

"No, it's not," said Robert, and he went up front.

When the next schedule came out, I got exactly what I wanted.

Making the Illiterate less so

There's very little reason giving a play by play of what went next. Basically I forced Rusty to learn to read. I told him this was his chance, because I was going to stop reading the tickets for him and start bitching at him instead. I explained that if he didn't at least make the effort, and wanted to make excuses and say he was too dumb then I was going to personally run him off. It wasn't exactly a threat, he knew I was good for it. Give a man the opportunity to take the steps he needs to improve himself and what do you do if he doesn't take it? No remorse, that's all that's left.

So he went at it, at first he was pissed that I was just thrusting it on him. Within a couple of days he noticed how the day went and that we had lots of time to do the deed without anybody interfering.

I decided to take the approach that I needed to give him a vocabulary of at least 75 general purpose words and another 25 words that were Fastburger-specific. With that setup he should be able to decipher the tickets himself without having to learn by rote what each symbol meant. It also meant he'd have a first-grade reading level and the foundation he needed to pursue it on his own if he wanted, and that was fine.

So I started by having him give me the alphabet, which he did. Then I had him write his name, which he did. Then I asked him why he could read the schedule, and he told me that Robert knew his dark secret, he'd told him during the interview, and Robert had been writing his schedule out for him. That little robot was full of surprises (if you hadn't figure it out, Robert was a robot, or at least acted like one from time to time). When I had established that Rusty knew his letters, I worked on phonics. I must admit, I focused on Fastburger-specific words first.

So I had him saying, and then spelling, words like "cheeseburger", "french fry", "ketchup", "hot dog", and so forth. I ran him through prepositions, articles, common pronouns, common verbs, and a few others. I wasn't after grammar, I was solely after the ability to read at a very low level.

It took about a week before he could read tickets, but the goal had been reached, and reached fairly quickly. I congratulated him on his progress and suggested he pick up some children's books and try to further his reading. He was pretty excited by this time, and he pointed out that I had succeeded where many others had failed. I reminded him that I had motivation powers they lacked because I could and would be a real dick if I needed to be. He agreed that I could be a real dick and we both laughed. He asked where he could get some children's books and said he didn't want people to see him buying them, and I suggested he hit up Robert since Robert already knew his dark secret.

Interlude during lunch

Dave
Rusty, we've got ten burgers sold, how many do you have on the grill?
Rusty
Do you like green eggs and ham?
Dave
What the fuck? How many meats do you have on there?
Rusty
I do not like them, Samiam
Dave
Cut it out! Now we've got 13 burgers sold, how many do you have on there?
Rusty
Do you like them in a box?
Dave
Jesus fucking Christ.
Walter
Not in a box, not with a mouse, not in a house, except in a whorehouse.
Rusty
What the fuck was that?
Walter
I can't read too well, isn't that what that book says?
Rusty
No.
Dave
Rusty, you don't have enough meat on the grill.
Walter
Well then what does it say?
Rusty
I would not like them in a box.
Dave
Rusty! You need to drop 20 meat patties right now!
Walter
You sure there isn't something about a mouse and a house?
Rusty
That's later, I think. I don't know, I haven't gotten that far yet.
Dave
Fuck it. I'll drop the meat, you guys go have your book club.

Got two out of three

"Robert," I said. "Rusty can read tickets."

"Oh yeah?" he said. "Then why are you still counting meat for him?"

"I don't know," I said. "Maybe I'm dumber than I thought."

"Dave," said Robert. "What are the three Rs?"

"I don't know," I said, "'coz I can spell."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Well, one of the Rs is 'Reading', but none of the others start with R."

"Yeah they do!"

"Robert," I said. "I've seen your spelling."

"Oh yeah," said Robert, chuckling.

"Let's see, Reading, Riting," I said. "He can't write, really. I suppose he could probably write some, but I didn't try to teach him to write."

"I worked on that with him," said Robert.

"What??"

"He asked to borrow some books," said Robert. "I mentioned that he couldn't read and he said that you'd been teaching him, so I asked him if you'd taught him to write, and he said no. So I spent a few minutes making sure he knew how to make all of his letters."

"Lower and uppercase?"

"Yep."

"You're cool!" I said. "Can I have a raise?"

"Nope," he said.

"Why not?"

"Because you're still counting meat for Rusty," said Robert.

"Jesus Christ, Robert, I'm not a teacher!"

"Too late," said Robert. "You've already adopted him, and you can't let him down now. He's counting on you."

"I thought you said he couldn't count," I said.

"Nope, just that you're counting meat for him."

"So if I stop, you'll give me a raise?"

"No," said Robert, "I'm just wanting you to finish what you started."

"I already did that," I said. "He can read!"

"Yeah," said Robert, "But he still needs you to be able to work his position. You haven't actually solved the problem yet."

"Mutherfucker," I said. "What, do you want blood?"

"Consider this a test of your resolve," said Robert, "And whether or not you'll finish what you set your mind to."

"You think you're Yoda all of a sudden?"

"If you'd like."

"Fucking robot. You still haven't told me what his problem is."

"You didn't ask," said Robert.

"Ok," I said. "What's his problem?"

"I meant you didn't ask him," answered he.

"Oh."

This was an interesting turn of events, actually. I started to suspect that Robert was possibly a bit more manipulative than I thought. That led me to wonder what Robert had told Rusty when he rehired the guy, and also how well Robert had actually known Rusty at the time. Not that he knew Rusty from anywhere else, that much was clear, just that maybe Robert had possibly exaggerated his ignorance of Rusty. You see, Robert and I went back and forth frequently trying to set each other up in situations that tested each other's mettle one way or another. It was something of a hobby. While I wouldn't think that Robert had intentionally done this to me, I would be willing to suppose that he had been trying to help Rusty specifically. Perhaps he had just told Rusty to try mentioning it to someone, and out of resignation I found myself being the nice guy that Rusty picked to dump his problem on? That makes sense, but there are facets of this story that I will probably never completely understand.

I decided to find out by asking Rusty directly why he couldn't count the meat.

"I can't do math either," said Rusty.

"You can count, though, right?"

"Oh yeah," said Rusty. "How else could I even put meat on the grill? I mean, I can count the meat, but I can't figure out how many are sold, and even if I could I don't know what to do about it."

"I thought your problem was that you couldn't read?"

"Well, duh," said Rusty. "If you can't read, you can't do math."

I was shocked. I really was. The thought had never even tried to occur to me that the one depended on the other, but that redneck was right. Since he couldn't read, he'd never learned how to add or subtract, and he needed both of those skills to, well, to work his position.

"Did you graduate from High School?"

"Nope, dropped out before Middle School."

"Idiot."

"Yeah," said Rusty. "I know."

"Well," I said, "math is easy. I guess we may as well start now."

"You're going to teach me math?"

"How the hell else are you going to be able to work your position?"

"Bonus!"

"Why is everybody a smart-ass today?"

Basic Grilling 101

To understand how I taught Rusty to do math, you have to understand how the grill is supposed to be worked. Now, most guys don't do it this way, but this is the official Fastburger Way (or was at the time, anyway, it's probably changed in the 9 years or so since this story actually took place). In fact, having worked in several burger places, I can safely say that this is industry standard, except maybe for some of the really crappy places (names withheld, sorry).

You have a grill, it's a gas griddle, really. A solid piece of steel with several burners underneath it. You set the far right burner to the maximum, and the surface temperature there is about 450 degrees. You set the far left burner to something less, and the surface temperature there is about 250 degrees. Hot enough to hold the meat without cooking it further. The burners in the middle range in temperature, so the surface temperature of the grill is essentially a dither from 450 degrees on the right down to 250 degrees on the left. The hot side of the grill is two rows wide, and each row fits 4 meat patties. The middle part of the grill is about three rows wide, and the cold side is two rows wide.

So, you look at how many burgers are sold. You always keep between four and eight meat patties extra, that way you can generally cook to order without having the customer wait the four and half minutes it actually takes to cook a hamburger. When your extra meat drops below four, then you put four more meat patties on the grill. So if you have four meat patties sitting there, and somebody orders a single hamburger, then you put four on the grill. You end up with seven after you've made the customer's order.

Since you take the meat patties out of the refrigerator, every time you put meat on the grill the surface temperature of the grill at the place you put the meat drops a little bit. During a rush period, if you load up the grill with meat then the temperature of the grill drops and it actually takes longer for all the meat to cook. So the idea is to never have more than eight meat patties on the grill that aren't sold. To keep the temperature high enough on the grill, you have to work from right to left. So your first row goes on the far right. When you throw your next four on, you put them to the left of the first row. When it's time to throw your next four on, regardless of whether or not the first row is filled you go ahead and put this row in the third row. Then you go back to the first row. When it's time to flip a row, you actually flip it and move it to the middle part of the grill rather than flip it in place. This method gives the grill enough time to heat back up between loads and provides the freshest and generally best hamburgers you can cook.

It was a controversial method, actually, because nobody really believed you could keep up on a busy day using this method. But from the day Robert showed it to me as a procedural test I was never able to go back to the old way. And I never fell behind. So naturally this was the method I intended to teach Rusty. In fact, while we couldn't convince the older guys to use this method, we could ensure that all the new guys learned this method, and in this fashion we'd get everybody using one standard method that works and ensures high quality hamburgers. After awhile, some of the older guys started noticing that the method really worked, and worked well, and wanted me to teach them. This story takes place in the interim, and the reason I got Rusty was precisely so I could teach him this method. Makes me wonder, sometimes, because Robert knew damn well when he hired Rusty that he'd be sticking him with me for training.

So teaching Rusty to do math was a snap, really. For addition, I would just drill him on things like "Rusty, you already have two meats on the grill and I'm telling you to put four down, what's two plus four?" and Rusty would put the meat down, count it, and say "Six." After about twenty minutes of this Rusty was doing it in his head. Then I had him add up a few tickets and tell me how many meats he came up with, and we'd work out any mistakes made. All in all it took me about an hour to get him to add accurately. Subtraction was even easier.

Then I gave him explicit instructions, just like I have already described, about how to determine when to put more meat on the grill. I showed him how to rotate the meat around the grill so as to keep the temperature as high as possible. I explained to him that few people there used this technique and they'd rag on him for it, but he'd be serving better hamburgers than those guys ever could. Rusty was concerned that I was sticking him with this, so I explained that Robert and I had a pact to get all the new guys doing this, which is why I was working with him in the first place. I was now fulfilling my basic job function at the time, which was to teach people the right way to cook hamburgers.

That day we had the busiest lunch we'd had in awhile. And Rusty never fell behind. He counted his own meat, did his own math, read his own tickets, and generally worked the grill independently. I did quiz him from time to time throughout lunch, and he passed with flying colors.

You see, he wasn't nearly as dumb as we'd all thought. He just couldn't read.

Rusty has a talent

I also learned that Rusty has, in fact, a very unique talent. It was a talent with which I am already well acquainted and know exactly how to deal with it. You can give him any set of instructions, regardless of size, and he can execute those instructions perfectly. As long as he didn't have to think, that is. So your instructions had to include basic decision-making in their execution. Rusty was a computer! After that day, I got Rusty to drop buns as well, which is part of the grill man's job, and by the end of the week I had him dressing hamburgers. By giving him explicit and literal instructions that included what to do when there was a problem, Rusty was able to progress in the burger joint.

By the end of the following week Rusty was working that whole side of the kitchen by himself, and he was standing with the best of them. He was good, he was damn good. At the end of two months since his rehire he was as good as any of us (except for the few supercooks that were there, namely myself and Walter). Brandon came back during that time, cussed at finding Rusty there, and then discovered that Rusty was damn good. Rusty was on his way to joining the Fastburger Hall Of Fame, actually. Not that the Fastburger Hall of Fame is a formal thing, it's basically just guys that have been there whose names get circulated around the local franchises and are remembered for years after they've left. (I still try not to identify myself to Fastburger employees in the Austin area, some have even asked for my autograph. Amazing, but I was very good, that's for sure)

Suffice it to say, I was proud of Rusty, and I had every right to be. He had overcome quite a few of his own personal difficulties and was excelling in the classic sense. He was quite proud of himself as well, and he found that he really liked being there. We were a good group of guys, in fact, and I'll always look back with fondness at my Fastburger days, so it's not surprising that after Rusty developed competence he was well-liked. Rusty was quite a character

I haven't mentioned that Craig, the third assistant, and I were roommates at the time. Well, I guess he was the first assistant by now, but he left the place a few months after this story took place. At home one day Craig tells me that I had forgotten to take the trash out the night before. I told him that was Rusty's fault, actually. Rusty told me he took out the trash, but when we left I discovered he hadn't. Then Craig said it was probably to leave room for him to sleep. I asked him what he meant, and he said that he took out the trash that morning instead, and Rusty was sleeping in the dumpster.

Turns out that Craig had then called Robert and they worked something out so Rusty could sleep in the back room on occasion, but he had to get himself a place asap.

All things come to an end

Rusty's departure from the place was surprisingly as sudden as his previous departure. He was living with his girlfriend, and he was really smitten by her. That is, until he discovered she was screwing his brother or best friend, or whatever. So he tried to throw her out, but she pointed out that his name wasn't on the lease, and in fact, the lease was in her name. Then she threw him out. That's how he came to be sleeping in the dumpster at work. In fact he had been doing that for a week already when Craig discovered him at it.

After about a week and a half of this Rusty's dad came into town and wanted to take the guy out to lunch. At lunch Rusty told his dad what had happened and his dad just told him to come home and get his shit straightened out. Rusty agreed.

Rusty then took me out back to talk to me privately where he explained these things to me. Then he waxed poetic, told me how he appreciated all the things I had done for him and that I had given him a gift that he cherished and that he knew would help him out in his next job, and stuff like that. Then the guy gave me a hug. He actually had tears in his eyes!

He did this with Robert as well, and then he told everyone else. Then he left his uniform, clocked out, and went home.

He sent us a Christmas card that year, and a few years later when my ex-wife worked at the same store during Christmas she asked me if I'd known Rusty. I asked her why, and she said that he'd sent a Christmas card that year.

Yeah, I knew Rusty.

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