Chrisishta Hardware, a late-night cashier, spends two nights a week working the night-shift. She is usually one of two visible employees behind the counter, who often call out the order number five or six times before a dreary customer becomes fully aware that their McDoubles have begun to stale just two feet to their left. Many of her coworkers spend their time off work studying for their classes at George Brown College. Hardware takes as many nightshifts as possible, usually two per week, to ensure her friends have sufficient time to excel at school. These young cashiers have adapted to the enigmatic and often misogynistic mobs that stumble into the restaurant; many of whom I came to know personally, as they banged their fists against their tables at my approach, or grabbed at my phone as I photographed a subject. “We’re right beside a club,” says Hardware. “We get lots of drunk customers saying, ‘nice ass’ or ‘can I have blah-blah-blah with you’…I don’t get scared, just annoyed.” The employees “know how to deal” with the more impudent guests who violently overstay their welcome. Every shift, at least one violent shouter or unconscious solicitor is escorted off the premises by either the manager or a police officer. However, from the cashiers’ perspective, the customers may come to relax, as long as their behaviour does as well. “I don’t mind,” says Hardware, discussing the frequency of homeless customers. “Shelters are full, it’s a problem.”
It is a problem. As the temperatures drop below -20°C in late December and early January, Toronto’s shelters often struggle to find room for the homeless. Throughout the extreme cold weather, the homeless are left on the street as shelters reach full occupancy—and sometimes, even when they don’t, with many shelters falling short of capacity throughout the winter. But even when shelters manage to reach full occupancy, the homeless are still at risk of victimization and the spread of infection. The 24-hour dependability of a restaurant often seems superior to the uncertain conditions of shelters.
It is these guests that can shift the restaurant’s familiar and vintage image into one of despondency. One such guest, Roger, the extroverted church volunteer, equipped with a garbage bag full of wooden carvings of trout, door-knockers, and dogs, is a regular in the eventide McDonald’s scene. Roger was the first to initiate conversation. He immediately told his story, recounting the death of his mother, father, and sister at a young age. “I ran away from my foster home with my dog,” Roger said, “we ate squirrels for a week.” Roger began to struggle with drug abuse during his teenage years, and continues his struggle to this day. Even through his dejection, Roger is still able to embrace and display hope and kindness with his respective bevy of poems and compliments. A poem he recited for me by memory, “Crystal Heart,” was taught to him by his mother at a young age and helped him cope with his taxing childhood. Today, he finds even more relief through poems such as William Wordsworth’s “If Thou Indeed Derive Thy Light From Heaven,” another poem he recited from memory. Roger does not shy from sharing his contentment. “People find it very easy to confide in you,” he said to me. “We need more of this in the world—it’s called compassion.” Roger’s past has given him a seemingly unmatched sense of consideration for others, as proven by his knowledge of the struggles and deaths of his friends, and those of Syrian refugees, stating, “we will never fathom what they went through.”
For some, McDonald’s is not a means of escape, but one of community. Around the corner from the cashiers, back facing the line-up—so not to be disturbed in his reading—sat a man and his friend, each with their own bible, expressing their scriptural sentiments to one another while drinking their McCafe and eating their respective boxed meals from home. “I grew up in one of those pedophile schools. Thousands of kids were molested,” the security guard who wished to remain anonymous said. “The priests were caught just about ten years ago, I refused to testify. I was taught by Jesus to never take vengeance.” The priests in question were between the ages of sixty-five and eighty-five and each received five years’ house arrest. “I don’t know what you call that,” he said, “not justice.” Although he does not consider himself Christian, and disagrees with many of the opinions of Pope Francis, he continues to find wisdom and relief within scripture. The guard, and the other man who spoke to my friend after stating he did not wish to be interviewed, were repeatedly interrupted by another customer, interrogating the two men about their silence upon his arrival, and howling at my friend, “You better run, girl, run.” The guard disregarded the consecutive attacks; he has learned to ignore such criticism after his rediscovery of religion and after his wedding day in 2014.