How being mooned in the drive-thru window prepared me for adulthood

This article is part of our My First Job series, where Age writers and columnists share the tales of finding their feet and receiving their first paychecks.See all 19 stories.

The year was 1993, and it was an eclectic year for music.

I would do anything for love (but I won’t do that) was the biggest song in Australia. Meatloaf had us praying to the god of sex and drums and rock and roll. Number two was Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love you, which was coincidently exactly how I felt about Whitney. Third most popular was Sonia Dada’s farewell to a lover, You Don’t Treat Me No Good No More.

Working at McDonalds prepared me for adult life.
Working at McDonalds prepared me for adult life.

I was 13 and my interests were simple: I needed cash to buy CDs, which meant that I needed a job.

I wandered my local shopping strip until the shoe repairer took me on. I worked Saturday mornings from 9-12pm at a rate of $25 per shift.

The owner, Rob, was probably in his 60s, but to my young mind he was about 85. He showed me the ropes. The repaired shoes were put in alphabetical order behind the counter. Any troubles, tell the customer to return during the week, and I could help myself to tea and biscuits. I was told to hide any money and make sure I locked up before I left each week.

This was my suburban empire. It smelt like leather and shoe polish. I used to do sit-ups behind the front desk and catch up on a little sleep. I tried to sell Rossi boots and leather shoes. I eyed Rob’s girly calendar out the back. He had mentioned his fondness for the Philippines.

My shoe kingdom job lasted a year or so. From memory, I earned to spend, often going straight from the shoe shop to JB Hi-Fi. Later, I’d put my CDs in alphabetical order, confident this would impress somebody someday.

Soon, my friends started joining McDonald’s down the road. The pay was bad – $5 an hour – but there were boys and half-price meals, so after leaving Rob’s I decided to join them. We watched some training videos, got our unflattering uniforms, and boom! Our social lives expanded. We went to parties. Gossip, sweet gossip, went through the roof.

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At work, we listened to the muzak and repeated the corporate mantra, “Time to lean, time to clean”. If we didn’t clean, we slipped on the oily floor. We stole fries from rude people and took the chocolate sundae sauce home.

We were sexually harassed by customers and occasionally, a manager. We gave discounts to police officers. The elderly visited during the day for free refill coffee. One old lady regularly ordered six icecreams and threw up in the toilets. Our uniforms, our hair – everything about us stank after a shift.

Our managers were happy to roster teenage girls on the overnight shifts, despite the drunken boys and men that dominated them as customers. I only did one of these shifts before my mother rang and told my manager never again, which was mortifying at the time but now seems entirely reasonable with adult eyes.

There was a process for everything at McDonald’s. Things were meant to be just so, so that every store across the country was exactly the same. In quiet times, we would prepare for busy times. But the busy times still felt chaotic, especially Friday nights and Saturdays.

Pickles thrown at the walls, spilt drinks on the floor and moonies in the drive-thru window. In many ways, it was demeaning work. But somehow, I remember it as fast and instructive, helping prepare me for the messiness of adulthood.

Madeleine Heffernan is an education reporter for The Age.

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