I was not prepared for my first job. I was a 14 year old who was painfully shy and had absolutely no business counting other people’s money. I’d scored the gig only because my cousin had worked there before me. My cousin Angela may have looked like me, but she was much milder mannered, better dressed, and trumpeted the oodles of common sense that I so blatantly lacked. I was, however, fond of magazines and felt that hanging out at my local newsagency would be an ideal arrangement – if for no other reason than to dodge the pain and sweat of early Saturday morning sporting activities. I worked two half-days on weekends and was payed in cash – sometimes a bonus strawberry milkshake was thrown in to sweeten the deal. The cash register was pre-computer era and I was required to add up sales in my head – let me assure you, this is no simple task for a maths-loathing teen. Sometimes I’d tidy greeting cards, sometimes I’d sweep floors, and occasionally I’d sort sour lollies into little bags for the neighbourhood children to purchase at 10c a pop. I sold lotto tickets, scratch-it cards, cigarettes, nudie mags and a little bit of my soul on those Saturday mornings. Older men, who brought with them a malodorous cloud of cigarette smoke, requested I kiss their lotto tickets “for good luck”, and often joked that I could keep their phone numbers for a rainy day. The thought still makes my whole body shudder and my face resemble a baby who’s sucking on citrus fruits for the first time. I dealt with newspaper delivery complaints; stalked sticky-fingered adolescents with hoodies pulled high; and chatted with elderly woman who frequented the craft magazine section. I may not have been hard-wired to lead the life of a passionate retailer, but my fondness for printed publications persisted many moons on.
I couldn’t wait to get my first job and as soon as I was legally employable I hot-footed it down to my local cinema – handing in an almost-blank piece of paper that listed my likes, dislikes, and a reference from my neighbour for babysitting her three-year-old terror. The cinema itself wasn’t in the best shape, but I spent some of my happiest days cleaning up popcorn, making choc-tops and surreptitiously eating lollies from the pick-n-mix. I gradually worked my way up the ranks from cinema attendant, pouring fizzy drinks for hyper primary schoolers and getting paper cuts from ripping tickets; to cafe chick, serving poorly frothed coffees to tired parents during school holidays; and then finally progressed to Duty Manager. There were many high points during my time at the cinema (which lasted close to six years), including gossiping in the choc-top room about who you would rather date out of all the boys who worked at the cinema, while grooving to whatever pop music was on the radio. I loved a captivated audience and would always jump at the chance to give a speech to a sold-out session of cinema patrons. There were definitely some low points too, like the time I was convinced by other staff to stuff myself inside a cupboard and was locked in there for longer than was truly necessary. I also had to deal with more overflowing toilets and up-chuck than a fifteen-year-old with a weak stomach wants to be exposed to. All of this was worth it when I became a manager and could delegate the not so great jobs and kick out rule-breaking pre-pubescents. Teenagers sneaking into MA 15+ movies had no chance against my quick thinking and years of cinema know-how. Occasionally, I still long for my days spent shovelling popcorn and yelling at kids for graffitiying the toilet walls.
In an ideal world, every person would be required to do a year of service – hospitality, that is. My first job taught me more about people than I could ever have imagined. From sixteen to eighteen, I worked as a waitress at a kind-of fancy teahouse in a nice, leafy, inner-city suburb. It was a great job, mostly, and it left a mark on me. The lessons I took from that job are a mix of the practical and the interpersonal. It taught me how to make a decent flat white and how to sublimate the urge to roll my eyes at people who thought it was beneath them to show any sense of civility to ‘the help’. Fun fact: I served two then-future Prime Ministers and I only had to use one of those skills… I could micro-foam that milk like democracy was going out of style. Carrying three plates? No problem. Navigating a deck full of tank-like prams and marauding toddlers? Please. Fixing on a smile — that if you stare at a second too long does look pretty demented — to reassure a customer that changing your order three times isn’t a problem? Done. We had lovely regulars whose stories would be revealed during their daily or weekly visits; personal crumbs swapped like change. Some of the stories were so heartbreaking that they were eye-opening to a naïve seventeen-year-old who thought the hardest thing the world could throw at you was being unable to go to an 18+ gig. It wasn’t all warm and cherished interactions, of course. The smell of coffee is so pervasive that I swear it could keep me up some nights, as if the caffeine had seeped through my uniform and into my pores. Actually, in an ideal world, people wouldn’t need to serve their time in hospitality to not be an inveterate jerk, but I’m a realist.