My first job was at Foodplus in Mont Albert, Melbourne. I was in Year 12 and I was there for two and a half years altogether.
I loved it because of the economic freedom – it was such an exciting thing.
It wasn’t a lot of money in retrospect. I think it was $9 an hour and double-pay on night shifts.
The guy who ran it was a really gruff Greek guy and once I turned 17 he started giving me late shifts. I really enjoyed it. Being on my own in there gave me a real sense of being adult.
The boss sold porn under the counter and once he trusted me enough, he told me the secret customers’ code. It was, “Have you got any good seventies movies?”
I didn’t have a problem with it. I didn’t feel morally compromised or anything like that. I just remember thinking I was opposed to censorship and that was partly because of the books and movies I was reading at the time.
I made some good friends with the people who worked there, James and Sally, who were a similar age to me. We had a lot of fun and we just laughed a lot. We were young.
We would often have a bong before work and because it was a supermarket, it was the perfect place to get the munchies. We would eat the chips and ice-cream.
I spent the money I earned on drugs and things you do as a young kid. Amphetamines were my friend.
What I realised while working there was I really enjoyed talking to people. I remember there was an older taxi driver who would always come in after his shift, about 4 or 5 a.m. You don’t realise this as a young kid, but looking back, I now realise he was quite lonely. I would make him a coffee and he would put his arm on the counter and we’d just chat. Talking to him showed me there could be something generous in the exchange between an older man and a younger man and it doesn’t always have to be fraught.
My night shifts were between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. Most customers were absolutely fantastic, but I remember one night these drunk guys came in with crossbows. One of them pointed the crossbow at me and it was the closest I’ve ever come to thinking something terrible would happen to me. Then he just laughed and shot an arrow into the milk and juice cartons instead. The milk and juice went everywhere. I knew I was going to have to clean it up so I started screaming at these guys, “You arseholes!” I remember they actually looked sheepish about it.
In my new book, the main character Danny has a sense of obligation to his family. When I started working I realised the importance of making your own way in the world. And as a Greek kid, I got a sense of how hard my parents were working to get me through uni.
At the time I was also struggling with the question of what it was to be gay.
I love my parents but I knew I couldn’t continue to live under that roof. The compromises would have been impossible. I moved out when I was 17. I got a room in inner-city Melbourne for $24 a week.
I was such a fresh-faced young thing. It was a different time back then.
Author Christos Tsiolkas’ latest book Barracuda is published by Allen & Unwin.