Speak Your Piece: You’re Welcome, Taco Bell

When Mona Desselle was a teenager, she withstood the dangers of a tornado, deep fryer, and armed robber just to do her job at a fast-food restaurant.  She got little financial reward in return. But decades later, those experiences inspired her award-winning essay – written as part of her studies at a rural community college in Texas.

Share This:

Introduction by Audrey Wick, English teacher at Blinn College in Schulenburg, Texas.

Everyone has a story. 

Whether people tap into those stories–and share them–is their own decision. 

Mona Desselle, a 57-year-old first-time college student, made that choice. An opportunity to freewrite in her freshman composition course at Blinn College in Schulenburg, Texas (one of the nation’s smallest towns, pop. 2,750, with its own college campus) revived memories from four decades prior. Reflecting on her job at a Taco Bell, Mona relived the experiences that so many of her 17-year-old college classmates are living: carving a work history by beginning in customer service. 

The college campus’ annual Emerging Writers Contest provided a public opportunity for Mona to share her work. For five years, the contest has been a way for student writers of academic essays, fiction, non-fiction, and poetry to gain recognition, both through awards and online publication. Some of their writings have been picked up by college textbook publishers. Beth Wiseman, a former reporter at the weekly Schulenburg newspaper and now a fiction writer under contract with Harper Collins, serves as a celebrity judge.

 For many of the students who enter, it’s the first time they are voluntarily allowing someone to read and consider their writing. And apparently it’s struck a nerve, for every year there have been between 70 and 120 entries.

To Mona Desselle, whose essay won the non-fiction award this year, and to all the student writers who participated, congratulations.

+++

I remember Fleetwood Mac on the radio whenever I drove to work. I loved and still love Fleetwood Mac. Just how cool was Stevie Nicks? It was around 1976. I lived in Houston and was the tender age of 17. I worked at Taco Bell. It was a memorable experience.

We had eight managers in 10 months, which is to say we had no adult supervision. The teenagers ran the restaurant, made the deposits, did all the cooking and cleaning, and locked up afterwards.

The author's Taco Bell, pictured modern day.
The Taco Bell building current day is part of a car lot. The colors and signs have changed, but the telltale curved windows of the fast-food restaurant remain. (Photo submitted by Mona Desselle)

It was our own territory, and we took care of it ourselves. My good friend Jon (Jon Pope III, which— when last-name-first—was Pope Jon III . . . for real) was the most experienced, so he kept the books and was recognized as the final say in things. We had a Long John Silver’s next door to us and a Church’s Chicken across the street. When we got hungry, we would call among the three of us and trade food back and forth.

Back then we actually made the food on site. We had to cut 10 pounds of onions at a time, by hand. I always said I would do it because it didn’t make me cry like it did the other kids. We had to fry our own meat. And I can’t believe we were left to cook the beans and tortillas by ourselves. The beans came in 100-pound bags, which by the way were good to take naps on when you’re a teen. You first had to sort the beans and pick out the rocks (boring). Then we would pressure cook the beans in huge pressure cookers that could have exploded if ignored. I used to get nervous about the red mark on the pressure cooker gauge. Then we had to “drill” the beans. We had an electric drill with a round blade on the end that we used to turn the beans into frijoles. We took these piping-hot liquid beans and poured them into large square plastic containers and set them in the cooler uncovered until they cooled.

The taco and tostado shells were all fried on premises. Only Jon and I did this. It took a lot of concentration, fast moves, and coordination. We had four taco baskets with room for six tortillas each. We had to lock the tortillas into a taco shaped form. So two baskets equaled wrapping 12 tortillas around 12 taco forms, putting them in their basket, and frying them. After the first 12 fried, we would lift them both out, turn upside down, put the next 12 in the fryer, quickly take the just fried 12 out of the mold (very hot), stack them, insert 12 more in the mold, and have it done before the other 12 were ready to take out of the fryer and then start again. It was a very hot and greasy dance. We wore big, heavy gloves, but when the grease soaked through the gloves, they didn’t protect from the heat, and things would burn our fingers. How we did all this without calling an ambulance or losing a life I don’t know. And all without any adults around. My mother was amazed that kids could run an entire restaurant.

One day while working, the weather turned bad. This was back when Taco Bells had the big brick arches on the top of the restaurant with the bell hanging in the middle. All of a sudden things got nasty. Crash! A tornado hit us. The dining room roof collapsed and water poured in. The bricks

from the arch and wires were dangling in the water.  The customers were in shock staring like deer in the headlights. I just remember those wires hanging down, and I knew they were all going to die if they just stared at them so I screamed, “Get out, everybody. Now!” That broke the spell, and they scrambled out fast. We needed an adult then just to report this crap! District managers came and shut the place down for a month so they could do the repairs.

Another interesting time was when I was working the cash register, and it was so busy because the Taco Bell down the street was closed for remodeling or something. I noticed a strange guy come in and get at the back of the line. He was wearing a long, dark wig – a bad wig. He waited his place in line and when he got to the register, he showed me the gun. Sh-t. My friend Jon had been robbed and locked in the cooler before, and all I could think of at the moment was please lock me in the cooler and don’t kill me. We did have a manager on duty that day, a worthless guy – I will call him Greg. The robber knew where the safe was and told me to get my manager to open the safe. As Greg came up, I dodged and hid behind the steamer, which is made of nothing more than thick tin foil. I knew it was no protection, but at least he couldn’t see me.

Basil and Lucas with their mother, the author. Photo by Sadie Elstner
LEFT: Mona Desselle in her high school graduation cap and gown. She worked at a Houston Taco Bell when she was 17. (Photo courtesy of Mona Desselle). RIGHT: Mona with her boys, Basil and Lucas. (Photo by Sadie Elstner)

The guy got what he wanted and left quietly, but one of the male customers noticed something while eating with his wife and new baby. He came up and asked if we were just robbed, and I said yes. The customer took off chasing the robber. His wife went hysterical and started screaming his name, telling him “don’t be a hero” and that they had a baby to take care of. Then she broke down completely.

Cops came and I was able to give a description because this guy had waited in a long line. They asked, “Do you have a license plate number?” and brilliant Greg piped up and said “Yes!” He proceeded to give them his own license plate number. (Do you see why the kids ran the place better without adults?). The cops soon came back and said they’d found the car; it was still behind the restaurant. When we went to look at it, it was dumbass Greg’s car.

They eventually caught the robber. He had been robbing a lot of places in the area. He knew that the other Taco Bell was closed and that we would have a safe full of cash. Greg started carrying a gun around work and acting crazy. We were way more scared of him shooting us than a robber. We got the district manager to take the gun away from him.

You may be wondering about the thanks we got for risking our lives at Taco Bell. Greg was still the manager. He was so embarrassed and stupid that he cut the hours of the people who had worked with him the night of the robbery. We had to find different jobs.

You’re welcome, Taco Bell.

Mona Desselle is a student at Blinn College in Schulenburg, Texas.

 

x

News Briefs