Chicken & Fish

Me and Dad had a problem. I didn’t like to do any work around the house and he never wanted to pay me when I did. We’d reached a stalemate. I’d lie in my bed reading or watching the portable TV and he’d be in the kitchen, getting mad at me for not doing anything. It suited me, because I was 15 and I could sleep for days. I didn’t like to work and if my father couldn’t remember to get the money out of the bank to pay me it was the perfect excuse. Anyway, it was the 1970s and in the seventies the Unions went on strike if things were fucked and not actually getting paid for actually working was fucked. So I was on strike.

Things were tough and time seemed to drag. I had no money and the benefits of shoplifting were limited and dangerous. I had some plans for money if and when I got it. I’d decided I wanted to buy a Super 8 camera so I could make sci-fi movies. But cameras were like $750 or more and there was all the other stuff you’d need. Even assuming I wasn’t on strike, my goal seemed an impossibly long way off. It’d take years. Something would have to give.

One day I noticed a McDonald’s was being built in the new extension to Carlingford Court. My Dad told me – sniffing over his newspaper – that if I wanted a job there I should write a letter to McDonald’s HQ in North Sydney. I wrote the letter on a blank page I tore out of my school book, found an envelope and posted it off. I got an answer back a couple of weeks later in an official McDonald’s envelope telling me that they were having an afternoon signup session at the new store when anyone who wanted a job could come along and fill in an application.

It was late summer and hot when I went to the new McDonald’s store. The restaurant was only half finished. There were ladders, sheets hanging down and all the kitchen gear was under wraps. It looked pretty modern. You could obviously buy all this stuff pre-made and just fit it into place. Like the modular furniture you’d see in Farmer’s Department Store, but industrial. Modern. That was pretty good.

A lot of kids from school had turned up. Some guy in line reckoned that probably everyone could get a job if they wanted to but I’d seen enough World War 2 films to know that some of us would make it and some would not. I knew that I would be one of the ones who made it. It was a numbers game.

There was a guy dressed in a white shirt with a buzz cut and moustache handing out applications and little pencils. We all sat down at the dusty tables and filled in the forms. One of the questions asked how many shifts you’d be willing to work in a week. I wrote down three shifts at about four hours a shift. I based this on the amount of money I thought I’d need to buy a Super 8 movie camera. At $1.25 an hour I would need as many hours as I could get.

I looked around at the other kids filling out forms and wondered what my chances were. There were a lot of older kids from my school. They’d be hard to beat. They had ties and white shirts and looked confident. There were girls there who’d put some effort into getting dressed up, makeup and shit, and I thought they’d probably get jobs.

Then there were a bunch of guys – Gary and Tony and those guys – who I knew from school. They were dickheads. They lived in the Dundas Valley and were always getting into trouble. Not that I was particularly good myself, it was just that their level of trouble was much bigger than mine. They did things like calling the teachers cunts to their faces and rode unregistered mini bikes on the road. I looked at them and knew that I could beat them easily. My chances were like 50/50.

A month later I found out that I’d got a job. My Dad was pleased that the stalemate was broken. He was supposed to be giving me pocket money for mowing the lawn on our big corner block and washing the Morris 1100 and the Holden with the vinyl roof. Now that I had a job at McDonald’s I could give all that away. And my Dad was really pleased with me – which was always a nice, if unusual, feeling.

All the people who got jobs were asked to come to the store one Thursday afternoon at 3.30pm. School finished at 3.15pm so I had to really hike it up Mobbs Hill to get there in time. I made it hot and sweating. I put my school jumper over my wet shirt and sat down. I looked around. Almost everyone was my age. Only a few of the older guys had got jobs and none of the Dundas kids were there.

The meeting was brief. The two managers introduced themselves. The guy I had seen with the square head and the Freddy Mercury tash was named Leo. The other bloke was Chinese and was named Charles. He had a friendly smile but he just sat there smiling and smiling. It was Leo who did all the talking. He was the most business-like and a bit frightening, and he kept his hands on the waist of his tight grey slacks.

Leo said we were chosen because we had the right stuff. Everyone nodded. We were all to be given two shifts a week, four hours each, tried out in different sections of McDonald’s. Depending on how we did, we might be given better jobs. There was Chicken & Fish, Fries, Burgers. There was a Set Up Crew who’d do early morning shifts and Close Up Crew who’d work late. There was also Register Crew and Clean Up.

I wasn’t that confident I’d escape Clean Up. I wasn’t good at team sports because I preferred talking or standing around. Instead of playing sport on the weekends I liked watching war movies or Dr. Who on TV. I’d been in a soccer team but that was when I was 8, which was also the first time I’d ever heard the phrase ‘weak link in the chain’. I felt destined to work with garbage. Leo concluded the meeting by saying – ‘you’ve all got the right stuff and remember – we’re gonna close them down!’ He was pointing out the window at the Kentucky Fried Chicken store. Everyone cheered and I cheered too even though I quite liked KFC when my Dad brought it home after late night shopping on Thursdays. It was good to be part of a team that didn’t involve kicking a ball around a field, and they gave me a uniform.

When I showed up for work for my first Tuesday 6pm to 10pm shift, I was rostered to Chicken & Fish. The chicken pieces came from places unknown and were packed dry in the storeroom. The pieces were then deep fried in a big vat and served in a box. The Fish part was the Fillet O’ Fish that went between the steamed buns and the tartare sauce. The fish came frozen in rectangular blocks in boxes marked Produce of Canada. They were pre-crumbed and were stacked 20 boxes high in a freezer at the back of the work area.

My job, dressed in a blue smock and cardboard McDonald’s hat, was to crumb the chicken after removing bits of gizzard still stuck to the bones. Then I’d roll the chicken in bread crumbs and throw no more than 15 pieces into the pressure cooker. You’d just flick a switch and wait until the light went off. Then you’d put the chicken in a heater box until an order came through. You’d toss the pieces – depending on the order, no more than two or three – into a box. The Fish was even easier. You’d stick the rectangular fish pieces into rectangular slots in a steel basket, then lower the basket into hot oil. It was amazing how the fish fitted into the slot so perfectly. You learned pretty quickly when to take the fish out – when it went golden brown it was done. Some buns would be heating away in the steamer and you’d just slide the fish pieces onto the bread. There was a squirter gun that fired tartare sauce on to the fish in big sticky globs. All that was left to do was to wrap the burgers and slide them down the chute.

I didn’t have to worry about Fries, which was located right next to the Chicken & Fish section. That was a tough, high-pressure job and they only had one kid whose entire responsibility was to keep making fries until someone said stop. All the girls on the registers were trained to ask every customer – ‘do you want fries with that?’ – and since everyone said ‘yes’, Fries was a job I knew I didn’t want. Leo rostered a hyperactive guy named Mario to work Tuesdays and he was really on top of the whole deep fried potato experience.

It wasn’t a hard job and I got paid in cash. I didn’t spend any of it. I would look at my Colonial Building Society account and marvel at the power of 22 per cent interest. If I kept at it I would have enough for a Super 8 camera and a projector.

When I went to school the day after a shift I was always tired. I never actually fell asleep in class but I was struggling to get from one part of Cumberland High School to the other. The subjects that I hated the most – maths, science – went west. I didn’t even try to pay attention. I worked at Maccas on Saturdays as my second shift too – sometimes six hours – and when I got home I’d fall on to my bed or lay in front of the TV.

One day store Management decided that night shifts early in the week didn’t need three people in Chicken & Fish and Fries anymore. I’d been working with a guy named David and we’d split the fish and chicken duties. Under the new rules I was pulling shifts where I was working on my own and had to do Fries as well. It got to be a high pressure job. Fries there, chicken here, everything going at once.

McDonald’s was a new thing. There were only three stores in Sydney. We’d had KFC since I was a kid and fried chicken in paper buckets was part of the modern world, but buying hamburgers like that was weird. You bought them in milkbars and they came with beetroot and pineapple. KFC had the Colonel who was human, but McDonald’s had a clown who was just gay. A lot of people couldn’t cope with the McDonald’s universe. Customers seemed pretty comfortable with saying burgers because that was a lot like hamburgers but the big problem was the word fries. Employees were trained to say it and you could get fired for saying ‘I’ll have a hamburger with egg and chips, please’ even as a joke. It took at least six months of constant TV advertising to get the customers to say the right thing.

As management had originally promised, the staff were eventually trained in other areas. I couldn’t do the Burgers because I was too slow. It was a real glamour job. Those guys were the chosen few and they had the right stuff that meant they could toss half a dozen all-beef patties off a small spatula and juggle toasting buns at the same time. They talked and laughed as they worked and had all the Coke they could drink.

They tried me out on the Registers for a night. I told them in advance that I was terrible at maths but Leo insisted. It went well until a customer came back and complained that I had over charged him. I think I must have forgotten to carry the one. I asked to be made part of the Start Up or Close Up crews because they had no contact with customers and the whole job was just cleaning. I didn’t like people, didn’t like the public and being away from them was a good idea. I was knocked back because I wasn’t ‘ready’ for it.

Since it wasn’t really working out for me anywhere else, I stuck to C&F. I’d watch the guys in Burgers really ‘going for it’ and something clicked. I wondered why they were knocking themselves out for $1.25 an hour. I practically slept on the job and still got the same pay. My real problem was that I couldn’t handle the pressure of doing Fries and C&F at the same time. Whenever the management needed a volunteer to do the garbage compactus I’d volunteer, and then spend twice as much time doing it as anyone else. I’d tell Leo it was because I was doing a good job with the garbage. It was great to get away.

The garbage compactus was a massive, metal box with a moving steel arm. It could crush anything – big oil cans, bits of wooden pallet – and it reduced anything in its path to about 10% of its original size. I’d never imagined there was so much garbage in the world. There’d be huge piles of plastic garbage bags, towers of boxes and a dozen steel drums left over after busy shifts. The stink was awful. It was a sour smell that fizzed inside your nose with the faint tang of diseased milk. I got used to it and spent as much time there as possible.

Then I had a garbage moment, a sort of epiphany. One afternoon as I was staring at the metal arm crushing boxes and bags, I realised that the entire planet was producing fantastic amounts of shit and I had no idea where it went. I’d never thought about it before. I’d seen a few films at school that showed the terrible devastation of pollution. There would be grainy shots of garbage tips in New Jersey with lots of seagulls flying around. As far as the birds were concerned, garbage was a boon, but I’d never really thought about how garbage moved from one place to another. Trucks would come and take it away. To where? I had no idea. But it was building up. If the world wasn’t destroyed with atom bombs, it was going to sink under an avalanche of burger trays. We were living on a garbage planet

When I turned 16 I started earning $2.25 an hour but my enthusiasm for the job had ended well before that. I was extending my meal breaks as long as I could. I ignored the meal allowance and just took whatever I wanted. I let my hair grow back to its usual shoulder length and I refused to wear a hair net. Ross, the Tuesday manager, kept reminding me to get it cut but there was no way I was doing that. Fuck you man, I’m punk rock.

I was pretty bored with my job but then so was everyone else. We were told there were going to be changes. Carlingford McDonald’s had been rated top store in the state when it had opened but now it was rock bottom – even below McDonald’s on George Street in the City which we all knew was shithouse. I was secretly relieved that I wasn’t the only one who was slacking off because then there was a good chance I’d survive the changes.

Ross was the first to go. It turned out that he’d been in charge when the McDonald’s secret agent came around, the man who went from store to store rating how good or bad they were according to a check list. We’d heard about these secret agents and I had imagined that you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart from any other customer, like the CIA or the KGB, undercover and all that, but they were more like the SS. They wore official McDonald’s uniforms. This guy came in and we all knew who he was. He bought a burger, examined it, then binned it. Then he left. No chicken, no fish. Not even fries. All McDonald’s stores were rated solely on the quality of their Big Mac. Our Macs must have been just one grade above dog food. Although none of the customers had complained, Ross was gone.

Everyone who worked at Maccas knew there was built-in obsolescence. The older you got, the lower your chances of staying on. I was 16 and there were only a handful of 17 year olds on the roster. Not that they got any shifts, they were just there for the sake of appearances to placate hostile unions. A group of the older kids had got together and complained to management that they weren’t getting any shifts. Leo listened to their complaints. A week later they were all sacked. A few more weeks passed and no more kids were sacked. I decided I was safe. I figured I had probably a year left.

I went into work for my regular Sunday afternoon shift. When I got there a guy said, ‘wow, Leo is really mad with you’. I asked why and he told me I’d missed my shift the day before. A Saturday shift? I hadn’t worked a Saturday shift in six months. The roster was usually put up on Tuesday and I would check it during my regular Tuesday shift. I’d looked at the roster and I was sure it had said Sunday shift. Maybe I’d made a mistake? I saw Leo and he was mad. He sent me home and then later that day I got a phone call. I was sacked.

I told my Dad what had happened and he rang up to complain. It was con job, a set up, but Leo told him that I was a bad worker, that I’d been warned about my hair and my meal allowance and he talked about the incredible amount of time I’d been wasting in the garbage room. There was no come back. Dad hung up the phone with the resignation of a man who had come to expect disappointment. He sat down at the kitchen table, picked up his newspaper and sighed. We were back to the stalemate again. It was a familiar feeling that I could live with.

As I watched TV that night I knew that the future was certain. I would go back to washing the car and mowing the lawn. It was good, honest – if poorly paid – work and me and Dad could put an end to the stalemate. I had enough for a camera and probably a projector was well. McDonalds didn’t need me, but I didn’t need them either. But there as a bigger issue in my mind. The end was coming. It was a fact that I lived with every day, a terrible certainty that guaranteed the world would end either in a fireball or a slowly disappear under ever growing mountains of garbage. I’d seen the evidence. You could get ready for the end, prepare yourself for the brave post apocalyptic world that was to come, or you could just sink lazily into the mire.

Published as Garbage Epiphany in Runway, Issue #8 ‘Trash’

©Andrew Frost, 2016.


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