Who’s lovin’ it?

September 1, 2011

Back in Guatemala — when Raul Reyes was 13 years old and selling sliced coconuts on the buses going to Quetzaltenango — a mango smoothie was a simple thing. There was a guy standing on the corner, usually, with a card table before him and, underneath it, a crate of mangoes yanked from some nearby tree. He chopped the fruit right before your eyes and mixed in ice, then you paid him a few quetzals and stepped away sucking on a straw, savoring that sweet, cold ache in your throat.

Today, a mango smoothie is a different matter entirely for Reyes, who is 35 and who, for 16 years, has been living in greater Washington. Since 2004, Reyes has been the general manager of the McDonald’s at 2 I St. SE, near Nationals Park, and today, on the first official day of summer, McDonald’s is doing a nationwide rollout of a new beverage: the mango pineapple smoothie. The chain is about to launch a Real Fruit Smoothie Fusion Tour that will visit 38 cities, and an imposing delivery guy in steel-tipped boots and black shorts brought Reyes 3,800 servings of concentrate from a distributor in Manassas.

The 82 workers on Reyes’s staff, most of whom are paid between $8.25 and $9.50 an hour without medical benefits, have all been apprised of the smoothie’s arrival. Indeed, they have undergone smoothie video training, for like nearly all new McDonald’s products, the beverage has landed with expectations dictated from on high. The I Street McDonald’s is being urged to sell 300 mango pineapple smoothies a day. Each order should be filled within 50 seconds — there are electronic clocks attached to the cash registers that will help monitor whether the kitchen staff is meeting that goal.

But right now, at 7:30 a.m., Reyes is posting the smoothie signage sent by corporate. He has a staffer — Ramiro Rivera, from Mexico — up on the roof, jockeying a 4-by-6-foot, lime-green banner into place on the red tile. Reyes and I are standing below in the sweltering heat, in the parking lot, each of us holding cradling our own sample smoothies.

Reyes is a small man — stout, with a bristle-brush haircut and a sparse black mustache. He has a gentle, easy grin, and he greets his customers with a solicitous pride. “What you think?” he asks, gesturing toward my mostly gone smoothie.

“Pretty good,” I say. “Not bad.” And then we look up, both of us, as Rivera battens the banner down with rope. “Bueno,” Reyes shouts skyward. “Perfecto.”

All around us, the cars idle and lurch. There will be a line at the drive-through all morning long.

* * *

Two I Street is an American success story. Built in the early 1980s, the restaurant was bought in 2003 by Cuban-born Carlos Mateos, who spent $375,000 on a renovation that expanded the drive-through and updated the interior. Annual sales, which totaled $2.4 million eight years ago, have doubled. I Street is now one of the busiest McDonald’s in greater Washington. I spent five days at the restaurant in June, intent on meeting workers such as Raul Reyes who, in pursuing their own American dreams, had attached themselves to the McDonald’s juggernaut. Eighty percent of Reyes’s workers are from Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador. (Immigrants — both documented and undocumented — account for about 25 percent of all workers in the food services industry, and that number is rising.)

What is it like to grow up in, say, rural Guatemala, in a tranquil, small town, with only a few houses nearby, and then emigrate north, to work under fluorescent lights, sating the demands of rambunctious children craving Happy Meals? How does a newcomer reckon with pouring dozens of large Cokes every hour as french fries sizzle in grease and six or eight of his co-workers scramble about filling orders, shouting, “Big Mac, Big Mac, Big Mac, Quarter Pounder With Cheese?”

McDonald’s is, after Wal-Mart, the nation’s second-largest private employer, with 700,000 workers. And as the economy flags, and as more Americans seek cheaper food, that number is rising. On April 19, McDonald’s held a National Hiring Day and says that it brought in 62,000 new employees.

“We’ve got flexible schedules, benefits and jobs that can turn into satisfying careers,” McDonald’s’ Web site said. Yet many people above the poverty line would never even consider working at McDonald’s. The stigma of working at McDonald’s is so culturally ingrained that since 2001 the Oxford English Dictionary has defined the neologism “McJob” as “an unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, esp. created by the expansion of the service sector.”

Labor advocates are predictably in lockstep with the OED. “McDonald’s is no worse than Burger King or Wendy’s or anyone else in the fast-food industry,” says Jose Oliva, national policy coordinator for Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, which advocates for food service workers nationwide. “But it pays the lowest wages possible. It starts people at minimum wage and then keeps them at a low wage for as long as they can get away with it.” (Minimum wage is $8.25 in the District and $7.55 nationwide. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4.36 million American workers are paid minimum wage or less.)

Catherine Ruckelshaus, who also advocates for low-wage workers as a lawyer for the National Employment Law Project, says McDonald’s often find ways to get kitchen staffers to work off the clock.

She points to a class action suit brought against McDonald’s in 2008 by more than 2,200 employees in Delaware. In November, a U.S. district court judge ended the suit by approving a settlement that awarded each worker between $675 and $1,100. McDonald’s admitted no liability in the settlement, which cost the corporation $2.4 million.

“In today’s economy,” she says, “restaurants like McDonald’s can get away with it because workers are fighting over the last scraps of employment.” She says that McDonald’s should emulate In-N-Out Burger, a California-based regional chain. In-N-Out starts kitchen workers at $10 an hour and soon offers them 401(k) plans and paid vacation time.

But Dave Carroll, senior director of compensation for McDonald’s, argues that it’s not fair to compare McDonald’s to a smaller chain — or to blame McDonald’s for the infractions of its franchises. In a written statement he provided me, he said: “The majority of McDonald’s U.S. restaurants are independently owned and operated. As independent business people, McDonald’s franchisees make their own decisions regarding hiring, wages, and benefits for their employees.”

Carroll added: “McDonald’s and our franchisees offer competitive pay and benefits. In fact, in most cases we pay higher than minimum wage. … Rest assured, we value our employees, their well-being, and the contributions they make to our local businesses, and our community, every day. … Our people are, and always have been, a top priority.”

* * *

On I Street, the workers labored with an assembly-line efficiency. On my first morning there, Reyes explained that each order appears instantly on two screens: one behind the counter, another back in the kitchen. He noted that each cash register transaction typically takes 12 seconds. Then he showed me how a molded hood on the stove clamps down on eight meat patties and sizzles them into identical and infinitely replicable brown orbs.

“How long do they cook for?” I asked.

“Thirty-eight seconds,” he said, with delight.

Reyes’s job at McDonald’s is a dream come true. He told me that after he sneaked across the Mexican border in 1995 to join his brother in Washington, he stood outside a 7-Eleven in Silver Spring each morning, hoping to land gigs moving furniture or digging ditches. “I’d get there at 5,” he said, “and every time a car pulled up, I’d jump right in. But people always said: ‘No, you’re too young to work. You should be in school.’ By 10 or 11, I’d have nothing. I’d go home broke.”

He got a janitorial job, eventually, and cleaned office buildings from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. each weeknight. When at last he landed a $5.25-an-hour job at McDonald’s, he was “jumping up and down like crazy. I called my mother,” he said. “In my country, McDonald’s is a big restaurant — you need a college degree to work there.”

After his first day at McDonald’s, Reyes says, “my feet hurt, my back, my whole body.” That was probably because he was still janitoring. For six years he worked both jobs, earning enough to turn his 1996 Honda Accord into a sleek street racer replete with hydraulics, three television sets and neon-green running lights. He painted the vehicle three times; at one point, it was lemon green with a purple hood. He learned English from a security guard who followed him from room to room as he cleaned, pointing, saying, “Table. Chair. Desk.”

In time, Reyes was tapped to be a janitorial supervisor, but by then, he had impressed his McDonald’s boss, Carlos Mateos. “He was ambitious,” says Mateos, who owns 11 Washington area stores. “He was one of those people who was never content with where he was at. If he was in the grill, he wanted to know how to work the fryer. If he was in the fryer, he wanted to know what was going on up front.” Reyes climbed quickly through the McDonald’s hierarchy — he became a crew trainer, then a swing manager, then a second assistant manager — and in 2000, Mateos made him manager at his 1235 New York Ave. NW store. “He was hands-on,” Mateos says. “If he sent his guys to the roof to clean the AC unit, he’d grab the degreaser and help.”

In 2001, Mateos gave Reyes an ultimatum. “It’s time for you to choose between your two jobs,” he said. Reyes chose McDonald’s. As a cleaning supervisor, he’d need to write reports in English. The prospect scared him; he had only a ninth-grade education.

When he took over I Street and its staff in 2004, he worked three months without a day off. He shored up the inventory practices; no one was keeping records on, for instance, how many hamburgers were dropped on the floor. He fired 40 of the restaurant’s 72 workers. “People didn’t like me, but they were giving away free food,” he said. “They were taking money from the cash register like they were ATM machines.” He began tapping the Latino grapevine for employees. The neighborhood gentrified. Nearby low-income housing was demolished. Nationals Park opened in 2008, and Reyes rose meteorically.

In 2009, he received a Ray Kroc Award, given to the top 1 percent of the managers at the 14,000 McDonald’s nationwide. McDonald’s flew him to Chicago. The three-day trip was, he says, “something I’ll never forget. They picked me up in a limousine. They took me to the number one hotel in Chicago, the Sheraton, and the room I was in — it had everything, even a TV in the bathroom. I felt like a rich man.” Reyes’s wife was invited. “She couldn’t get the time off,” he says. She works at another McDonald’s.

Reyes, who has three small children, makes $39,000 a year managing a restaurant that grosses $5.2 million a year. Categorized technically as a legalized alien, he gets medical benefits from McDonald’s.

Often, he is entangled in the lives of employees who earn considerably less than he does: “Sometimes I’ll have people tell me, ‘I sent money to my family in El Salvador, and now I don’t have enough to take the Metro home,’ ” he says. “I tell them, ‘Don’t ever take money from the drawer. I can just give you the $5.’ And I do.”

At times, Reyes needs to have difficult talks with employees about the pace of their work. “If you’re at the drive-through and your sales last year were faster, I let you know,” he said. “It might not be their fault — if you have a customer who stalls, looking on the floor of their car for quarters, that runs your time up. Still, I have to tell them. Sometimes labor costs are high. They tell me, ‘You can’t spend over $50,000 on labor this month,’ and I’m at 60 and I have to let people go. I tell them, ‘Sorry, but it’s a bad time coming up.’ It’s hard, but in this job you have to work with your brain, not your body. If you work with your body, you won’t meet your goals.

“There’s pressure on me,” Reyes added. “Sometimes you have customers trying to get free food. They pick up a receipt from the floor and say, ‘I ordered this. Where is it?’ Sometimes little kids slip on the floor and get hurt. Junkies overdose in the bathroom. There’s no WiFi; the AC is down. Two weeks ago, it was 100 degrees outside and 110 in the restaurant, and everybody was swearing. Sometimes I just think, ‘No more McDonald’s. I want to go back to my country.’ ”

Both Starbucks and KFC have tried to lure Reyes away from McDonald’s by offering him higher-paying managerial posts. But he has stayed on. He works 45 hours a week, officially, but really his job is 24-7. One recent morning he had to swing by the restaurant at 5:30 on his day off to contend with a broken $5,000 toaster. And when I visited him one afternoon at his two-bedroom rental in Petworth, he was monitoring I Street’s 12 video cameras on his laptop on the couch, watching a movie starring Snoop Dogg.

“Oh,” I said, recognizing the restaurant, “I just came from there.”

“Yeah,” said Reyes, smiling. “I know.”

* * *

But sometimes there are hiccups in the McDonald’s machine. One afternoon, 32-year-old Marleney Ramirez was cleaning a small device that dispenses cold milk for McDonald’s oatmeal. The vessel containing the milk was stuck inside it; no one could dislodge it. Ramirez had to chip the ice around it with the handle end of a long metal spoon. I watched as a publicist from Golin Harris watched me. (Golin, which contracts with McDonald’s, would shadow me during my week at the restaurant: five days, five minders, each one a sharp-dressing young woman who took copious notes on my motions.)

After a half-hour, Ramirez began working the machine’s most obstinate crevices with a bent-in-half plastic coffee stirring straw. The publicist, Kim Persad, was effervescent as she looked on. “McDonald’s makes it oatmeal with milk,” she exclaimed. “That’s what makes it so good! That’s why I like it so much! Starbucks uses water.”

Ramirez wasn’t listening — like most of the workers at I Street, she understands little English. Seven years ago, in her Salvadoran village, she was making roughly $1 an hour washing clothes in a river. She had done the same work since age 14, and the money she earned was not enough to support her two sons, then 8 and 7. She was a single mother.

So she did some hard reckoning: If she immigrated to the United States, leaving her children with her parents, she could support them by sending home tuition money and American clothing. “Sometimes I lay awake in bed until 1 or 2 in the morning, worrying over what was the right thing to do,” she said. She arrived here in 2004 and at first she did janitorial work at a bank. The cleaning chemicals made her sick. “At McDonald’s, I feel happy,” she said. “I am busy all day long, and I like that. It makes the time go by fast.”

Ramirez has not seen her children in seven years. Like most I Street workers, she has temporary resident status; if she goes back to El Salvador, she cannot return to the United States. “Of course, I would love to bring my children here,” she said. “One day. But only God knows when. I talk to them every day, but they don’t like to send me photos.” She giggled. “They are afraid I will think they are too skinny.”

* * *

The kitchen kept cranking out Chicken McNuggets and Filet-O-Fish sandwiches. The cashiers kept asking, “Would you like to add an apple pie to that order?” And the masses streamed in the door, hungry.

What you see, on a typical day at I Street, is the disparate American public in unrehearsed form, slouching toward a quick and forgettable meal. Here are the guys from the Splash Car Wash next door; here are Air Force soldiers in full bulletproof camo. Here are police officers and security guards. Here is a uniformed Otis Elevator repairman, and here is a family of weary tourists about to hit the on ramp to Interstate 395, right out front. From behind the counter, you see the underside of their necks, as they all look up at the menu board.

The clientele is African American and white, largely, so their fleeting exchanges with the Latino staff are melting-pot moments, usually happy ones. One afternoon, a flabby middle-age white guy with a telephone headset latched to his skull wove toward the counter to fetch his to-go order from a young Latina. “Gracias, señora. Ciao,” he said with warm linguistic confusion. Later, Thayne Currie, a 31-year-old astrophysicist, wandered in from his condo next door and paid for his iced coffee, $2.41, with exact change. As he plucked the coins from his palm, he wore a broad, otherwordly grin. I asked him what he found so amusing. “Oh, I don’t know,” Currie said. “Whenever I come here, I see the same people working. It’s nice.”

Sometimes there are dazzling moments at 2 I St. They happen, usually, at the drive-through window, which is the personal domain of the star employee Marvin Mateos, from Honduras. Mateos is 27. Back home, he played soccer for a farm team linked to Honduras’s national squad. Today he is still lean and graceful — and possessed of a lady-killing charm worthy of Lord Byron himself. When a co-worker recently taught him the phrase “For sure,” he turned it into a lascivious cry rife with rolling r’s and a cock-a-doodle-doo lilt — something like “forrrr shore-oooo” — and unleashed it on every female who rolled toward his window. One woman, Terry Keyes, responded with sharp peals of laughter as she wriggled appreciatively in her driver’s seat. “He made me shimmy!” she shrieked. “He’s so funny!”

“Marvin and I go way back,” gushed Rachel Semmel, an aide to Indiana Rep. Mike Pence. “Way back.”

Mateos, who has been at 2 I St. for three years, is the fastest worker there, according to Reyes, and the only one able to turn a task known as HBO — for Hand Bag Out — into theater. Almost invariably, he has food ready early, when the customer is 30 feet away. He holds the to-go bag, which is white, crisp and neatly top-folded, far out the window, with his arm stiff. Then he gently shakes the bag, as if to say, “Come ’n’ get it” as the car surges toward the grub and its visceral joys.

He sang to himself as he worked the iced tea machine and handled McMuffins. Under his breath, he taught himself English, chirping, “Coffee! Coffee! I am making coffee!” The job did not own him — he owned the job.

Still, Mateos acted unimpressed with life in the States. “In Honduras,” he said, “I had six girlfriends at the same time, and I could be lazy. I lived with my family, and I only had to work when I felt like it. Here, you have to pay rent. You have bills. I have to work all the time, and I am still poor. People tell you that when you come to the U.S., you’re going to have a car and make lots of money. But that’s not true — it’s all lies.” He spoke with swagger, but here and there a youthful unsureness shone through, as well. He kept gazing into my eyes, imploringly, to see if I was cool with his sourness. When I smiled, he high-fived me. “Party, buddy!” he said. “Party!”

A few minutes later, Reyes summoned Mateos to the break room to begin studying for a new, elevated position, as a kitchen staff trainer. He sat in front of a computer taking a multiple-choice Spanish-language quiz about McDonald’s sales volumes: “How many pounds of fish did McDonald’s buy in 2007?” (Correct answer: 110,231,131.) Mateos gazed toward the ceiling, pensively. How many french fries sold in 2007? The number 5,400,000,000 appeared on the screen and, along with it, a little diagram showing that, placed end to end, the fries would stretch all the way to the moon and halfway back. He stared at the screen in guileless astonishment, with his mouth agape.

* * *

One afternoon, when I was sitting in the break room listening to a single mom lament how she had to pay a babysitter $20 to spell her during each shift at McDonald’s, Reyes called the woman sharply from the kitchen. She was two minutes late punching in. “Raul es malo,” the woman hissed as she tugged on her work hat. “Raul is bad.” Likewise, a cashier complained, “With Raul, it’s always hurry, hurry, hurry.”

A certain tautness pervades I Street. The social contracts — between McDonald’s and its employees, and between the restaurant and its customers — are kept to the letter. One afternoon at the drive-through, I came across a man who had been short-changed by a cashier. I asked how much he was owed. “Forty-five cents,” he said contemptuously as he awaited his due, which came quickly, with an apology.

The same day, Tracee Taylor, an emergency medical aide for the D.C. Fire Department, appeared at the counter, alleging that an I Street kitchen error had thrown her into anaphylactic shock that morning. “I’m allergic to sea salt,” Taylor said, “and so I asked not to put salt on my Steak, Egg and Cheese Bagel. But they did anyway.”

McDonald’s doesn’t use sea salt. Still, Taylor had just come from the hospital bearing a doctor’s prescription on which she’d scrawled the phone number of a lawyer.

Later, I asked Reyes if he was worried about a lawsuit. We were sitting at his dinner table, eating Salvadoran dishes that his wife, Zonia, had prepared for us, and he just shrugged. “People sue McDonald’s all the time,” he said. “It’s no big deal. You want another pupusa?”

* * *

Amid the constant activity at I Street, there was only one person who always seemed calm. Saunder Field, 50, works the cash register for the drive-through window, usually. He is a reticent African American of medium build, and he is the only remaining crew member who predates Raul Reyes’s 2004 arrival. Field is not quite sure when he began on I Street. He knows only that he got there before his daughter, Tameka, was born 18 years ago.

I became aware of Field one day when a pair of Mormon missionaries dropped by for lunch, intimating that they’d made frequent visits to Field’s home. “He gained a testimony,” said a young man whose lapel badge read Elder Kunzle. “He was baptized in March.”

“They’ve got a comfortable place,” Field told me, describing his visits to a local tabernacle. “They make me feel like family.”

Field lives with his disabled mother and his sister. In the early 1990s, he began taking classes at the University of the District of Columbia. But he had to work two jobs then to come up with enough money for tuition. “I worked til 10 every night, cleaning at the Australian Embassy, and then I was here starting at 5 in the morning.” He took classes in the middle of the day. “It was all too stressful,” he says.

When Tameka was born, Field quit both school and his embassy job. He says that he raised Tameka himself on his McDonald’s salary. “I’d buy her books or pay whenever she wanted to get pizza or whatever,” he told me. “My brother’s a teacher, and he worked closely with her on her schoolwork.”

Tameka Gongs just graduated from the SEED School of Washington. She was the class salutatorian and is now a freshman at Louisiana State University. Field told me this with pride. “I wish that school wasn’t so far away,” he said. “It’s so far away. And what I am gonna do now that she ain’t here? I just don’t know.”

* * *

That Friday at 2:30 p.m., the lunch rush was still on. There were 15 or so people gazing up at the menu board. The mango pineapple smoothie had been a hit all week long. “We sold 350 yesterday,” Reyes told me, “and they haven’t even started the TV ads yet. Pretty soon, we’ll be selling 1,000 a day. We’ll have to hire someone just to make mango pineapple smoothies.”

A boy of 12 or 13 ambled by our table, fresh from nearby Randall Pool, and still dripping and bare-chested. “My friend,” Reyes said, “you gotta put your shirt on.” His manner was genial, almost apologetic. It was as if Reyes remembered being a kid himself, swimming on hot, humid days in the river that snaked through his village back in Guatemala. I thought about how far he had come, wading across the border, then living with 16 other Guatemalans in a one-bedroom apartment, then dancing and holding the phone as he bragged to his mom about his new job at McDonald’s.

“It’s going to get busy here this summer,” he told me. “Summer is always our biggest season, and they’ll want to make more money this year, I’m sure. But that’s okay. That’s good. That’s the American way. That’s the American way. And I won’t leave this place,” Reyes said, gesturing at the restaurant around him. “When I walk in here, I can do whatever I want. It’s like home.”

Eventually, Reyes’s cellphone rang and he excused himself, the phone pressed to his ear with a bent shoulder. He swept past the fryer vats, inspecting the grease. He looked over the coffee and the oatmeal and the soft drink machines. He cupped his hand over the receiver and had a rapid-fire exchange with the woman working the drive-through window. He made sure everything was in order. It was hot outside. The customers would keep coming all night long.

Bill Donahue is a writer living in Portland, Ore. His last story for the Magazine chronicled his debut as a cross-country ski racer. He can be reached at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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