BACK IN THE very early '90s, McDonald's is still number one. Before Nandos and Subway and juice bars, and Sushi Trains and fancy delis and alfresco dining. Before cardboard salads and Super Size Me and pistachio gelati, Maccas is still the thing. The big "M", the Golden Arches glowing on every built-up horizon; the only place open in Queensland apart from Seven Elevens and Night Owls and service stations on long quiet roads in the suburban night. One of the only places where a young kid can hang out, pick up or pick a fight.
I'm thirteen when I start work at McDonald's. You have to be fourteen to work legally in Queensland, but with my dad's signature on a yellow form everything is arranged. McDonald's is huge, part of the old school of Ronald McDonald; not express size or boutique, it is 'mega-80s and mega-American. The drive-through does not wind around the carpark; it's definitely hard on the clutch. You inch up to the Taj Mahal of cheese on a massive concrete ramp. Like something out of Star Wars, the cars bank up, headlights rearing, awaiting assignment or an expedition to space or another land. People queue endlessly, on the ramp or twelve deep at the registers in the dining room - an unquestionable popularity.
Maccas is the gastronomical monopolist and a certain amount of cred comes from working there. Every working-class kid I know is lining up for the big gigs - Hypermarket, Westfield, Pizza Hut, KFC or Sizzler (though Sizzler, it is widely known, is only for spastics). If you work at Maccas you're part of a scene, thanks to its public and covert reputations. Maccas, every kid knows, is no walk in the park. In the mini-nations of suburban megaplexes, Maccas is the warmonger. I know I'm up against the unquestionable standing and rhetoric of the great suburban coloniser, the international giant of late capitalism, and I'm determined not to get beat. I'd do anything to salvage my spirit and subsist. I get a uniform, a badge, a half-successful brainwash and the ability to develop my own cloak-and-dagger survival strategies. Failure is not an option.
Lots of cool kids work at Maccas in the early '90s. And there are many more who aren't cool; Maccas requires much young flesh to fill its coffers. There are hundreds of us. Kids working the vats and the grills and the double-decker drive-throughs like we're sending up coal from mines. Maccas likes us young; it takes us nearly three hours to make ten bucks. The going rate for your average fourteen-year-old is $3.75 an hour.
The amount we move, cook and pack is incredible. Every few days, massive semi-trailers come, subtly branded, opening their back doors and disgorging a torrent of perishables and merchandise. Sugar buns arrive in great yellow plastic tray towers that stack up everywhere in the rush. There are thousands of boxes of pre-cut meat patties and French fries in plastic bags and countless varieties of lids, cups, wrappers and accompanying implements. Buckets of pickles and packed down pre-shredded lettuce and great cylinders of sauces await, ready to be loaded into guns and shot over toasted buns at high speed. The stock is all downstairs in colossal bays and freezers. No matter how well prepared we think we are, kids constantly run down the stairs to collect more, coming back loaded with so many boxes and trays they no longer have bodies, just fingers and legs. There are always hundreds of buzzers going off. The last thing you want to be is a gumby. The last thing you want to hear is someone yell out, "Bus Load!".
THE ONLY STAFF older than sixteen are the managers and the day ladies who fill in when we go to school. The day ladies are cool - plucky, middle-aged women who find themselves, mid-term, wiping down plastic tables. They can never move fast enough. It's as if the tiny spaces, work stations and production units of the Maccas assembly line require the agility and fearlessness of youth.
Maccas managers are another species. They wear blue uniforms, just like cops. Steely and infallible. They don't pack guns, but something worse - McDonald's boot camp procedures; all laws, expectations and punishments are nonnegotiable. We all know that McDonald's managers have been to McDonald's managers' school: they are no longer human.
The worst and the most feared manager at McDonald's is Wendy: tall and thin as a steel pole with a manner and constitution just as hard. Her uniform, hair and shoes are always perfect. Wendy is never late and she never makes a mistake. Wendy is a machine. The skin on her face is smooth and taut with the thin drawn-on eyebrows and impenetrability of an old-school movie star. There is something Joan Crawford about her, nasty yet impeccable. Wendy doesn't like anybody, but if you're good at your job she gives you shifts. Playing ball with her is always tenuous. You must be nice, you must perform, even when all you want to do is tell her to fuck off.
Wendy is Store Manager - and often on shift. When I arrive (usually flustered and late), rushing through those great glass doors, my heart sinks if I see her. The vibe is edgy; inevitably she will strip shreds off somebody - it might be me. Wendy expects 180 per cent. She's the type of manager who asks you to mop the entire three-storey dining room 20 minutes before the end of a shift; who makes you wait in the dingy crew room downstairs for over an hour before the call is sent to start; who rags you out in front of customers for some minor trespass. Wendy reduces less capable crew members to tears and then bears down on them with her unfailing capability. Gradually they are reduced to mush. It's painful to watch. Kids shake and choke and stumble on their words. Whatever mistake they've made gets worse, as their cheeks burn and their tears slide unceremoniously into brown paper bags or hot vats. A strange kind of silence descends over the rest of us. We work harder to cover for them, doing penance for the fallen or as a mark of respect. In the end, there's nothing we can do. We know what's coming. This is their last shift. If Wendy is really pissed, she'll fire them on the spot.
There is nothing harder or more humiliating when you are thirteen than walking out of a McDonald's with your heart in your stomach and a bag in your hand, trying not to look back. Some kids are confident enough to rage against her, yelling out something funny as they leave. Most go quietly. Wendy will ring their parents three days later to ask for the uniform back. Wendy only smiles at customers, and even then the movement on her face seems mechanical, as though the button for her mouth is stuck and has to be held down hard to make it work. You can't fault her service, but something about it leaves me cold. She's drawn too tight, she's too officious. No wonder the more adventurous of us want to be rock stars. By the time we're seventeen, we know working for the man sucks.
Wendy only tries to fire me once. She calls me into the party room downstairs - the room she does the rosters in, the room where (on her good days) she lets me sit with her. There's a hint of something between us, but really I'm just trying to get good shifts for my mates. By this time I'm a bit of a Maccas favourite, a success story. I have mastered the transitions of Maccas stations from the prepubescent suffering of dressing, to chicken and fish, to fries, to front counter, to children's party hostess and drive-through Queen Bee.
It's amazing how important you can feel wearing a Maccas headset. When your voice is the one the boys on the grill hear when the relentless cars come in. Speakers pump the orders into the kitchen so the crew can be prepared for the call for twenty-five Big Macs which can throw the whole delicate system of sending those burgers down the chute out of whack. The boys at the grill keep half an ear out while doing five million other things at once. Because that's just the way it is at Maccas - no more staff to take the load, just more multi-tasking. I learn pretty fast how to have three conversations at once - to the speaker, to the car next to me, to the chicks on the floor. How to punch in one order while taking the money for another one, run two registers - left-hand punching, right-hand taking. Brain and body split right down the middle but not even thinking about it. That's the thing about being hot crew. You learn how to act like you're not even doing it. Getting flustered is not cool. Only when you get home do the synapses start unravelling. When you've had five showers and just can't get that smell of white fat off your skin and the phone rings and you say "Welcome to McDonald's Drive-through Can I Take Your Order Please?" That's when you know this imitation machine shit is just no good for you.
Sometimes when I'm up in the solitary confinement of the drive-through first window, I miss the rush and heat of the floor, my common days - getting down and dirty with the rest of the crew. I stare out the plate glass windows through the pixilated forms of Grimace and Hamburglar to the blue sky rising over the Hypermarket thinking that being here is like reaching any kind of pinnacle: you look around and there's no one there with you.
I liked it out back with the guys - cutting my teeth on the vats, pining for a chance to be on the front counter with the girls who weren't greased, thinking it'd be better. But Wendy keeps me on chicken and fish 'cause I'm a legend at it. I can make thirty Filet'o'Fish, sixteen apple pies, answer calls for packs of nuggets, and still have time to help pack for the fry guy and cut tomatoes in the mega-slicer for the geek who's losing it on dressing. Really, I'm not like those slick counter chicks with their perfect hair and big asses in tight Maccas pants out the front who act superior and yell at us when there's not enough hot stock. I'm one of the guys. By the time the managers eventually let me loose on the floor, I've got enough gumption to remember where I've come from. I can cut it on both sides.
BUT NOW IT'S all over. Leading me down to the party room, which looks sinister, unlit, filled with plastic and warped Ronald heads. What is it, I wonder, that I'm supposed to have done? I've done enough bad shit before and gotten away with it. I've filled those brown paper bags with free burgers for the cute friends of the cool crew. I've put 2,000 sachets of salt in a bag when some asshole screamed into the speaker for extra. I've told my dad to piss off when he pulled up at the speaker in drive-through - everyone thought that was a cack - especially when he leaned in and asked rather sheepishly: "Is that you, Sal?" I passed out one early morning under the front counter and no one found me until the store opened; stole a kilo bag of caramel sundae sauce when fetching stock, changed the timers on the food from "should throw out at big hand six" to "OK to sit here and harden until big hand hits ten".
Like everyone else, I've eaten and drunk anything I could - nuggets under the Bain Marie, orange juice in the walk-in fridge, apple pies in drive-through and handfuls of French fries on the way to the wash-up bay.
But it's not for any of this that Wendy calls me into the party room. Wendy wants me out for giving a staff member a Summer Size Chocolate Shake when he only paid for a standard. That's approximately fifty mls extra of sugared milk and he looked like he needed a decent feed but McDonald's is not in the business of forgiving empathetic lapses in judgment.
I look at her and wonder. How can she do this? How can she fire me for fifty mls of shake, after four years? Four years - nearly my whole high school life. I wonder why she's brought me down here into our room, why she didn't just fire me on the day. It's been three days since the alleged crime and she's been stewing on it. Like Terminator, like her programming has gone haywire: she wants to be human but the procedure, always the procedure.
We're in here and the lights are dim, as if she doesn't want anyone to see. I realise that I'm just not gonna let her do it. I need this job. How else am I supposed to get into town on all those nights I tell dad I'm closing and the boys pick me up from round the back, Maccas uniform and clothes suitable for a dark nightclub in the Valley in my bag. Maccas is where I meet the guys in the bands, for God's sake, the ones with the cars and the cool hair who pick me up and drop me off, who watch me take my legs out of trackpants and into black stockings in the backseats of their cars, Maccas is my ticket - for sometimes what amounts to less than fifty bucks a week - out of Albany Creek. There's no way Wendy could ever understand this.
I try a different tack. I incite her Maccas patriotism. I tell her this place is just like another family, that maybe someday I might wear blue, just like her, that I'm very sorry, it was a mistake, and I'll never do it again, that I'll work harder and never even spill a bit of shake, let alone black market it, that she can't do this because I've worked hard for her, that I've given my all to this place. I'm getting heated. She really can't do this. I look around the room for inspiration. My last line: "And anyway, I'm the best damn party hostess you ever had."
Then Wendy is crying. I can't believe it.
And it's not big crying with hints of sound and movement - it's as though her eyes are leaking. And they're softer, but her face is just the same. I know I've won. Won my freedom, my key to the city from the big suburban coloniser, from Wendy. I don't really hear what she says next - some quietly spoken spiel about chances and departures from courses of action and exceptions. I've had a victory, I've kicked a goal. I look up at her and catch the last sentence. "We will never mention this again."
"Of course. Of course," I say. "Never."
And I know Wendy means the crying more than anything else. When we leave the room, I almost salute her.