When I was ten, McDonald’s Monopoly came to Canada for the first time.
First off, when you’re ten, McDonald’s has a major impact on your entire life. Our local McDonald’s – the one just down the street from my school, St. Clement’s – got a drive-thru when I was eight, and for all of us this was an amazing thing. (My mother complained about it for months. She suspected it would cause traffic accidents. She was not correct.) When I was nine, they built a Playland in the basement of the McDonald’s, and by god you better believe that, regardless of the fact that at nine we were definitely stretching the possibilities of what Playland could offer, we played in that goddamn Playland like there was no tomorrow.
It wasn’t that we didn’t understand that McDonald’s did contests. But prior to McDonald’s Monopoly, we had never really known a contest that was really understandable on a kid level. It was always your basic sweepstakes for a plane trip or something, and you had to fill out a card. You know. Adult stuff. (Kids never want to fill out cards. You give a kid an entry requirement of ten jumping jacks, that’ll work. But a card? No.)
McDonald’s Monopoly was different. You collected pieces to win prizes, and they were Monopoly pieces! We all knew Monopoly. Most of us hadn’t yet realized that Monopoly is a terrible game, so additionally we all liked Monopoly. And the prize was a million dollars. When you’re a kid, you understand a million dollars: it is money forever. This was relatable. So we all started collecting pieces.
Now, as adults, we know that McDonald’s Monopoly is just your basic lottery draw. One of the properties in any given set is rare: Atlantic Avenue and Marvin Gardens are a dime a dozen, but Ventnor is as rare as a high-value scratch-and-win ticket. That’s how the prize system works. But the thing about being nine is that you don’t understand that, not at first anyway. You think all you have to do is get Ventnor Avenue and you win the trip to Disney World, and clearly someone must have it, because you have the other two.
An schoolyard black market in McDonald’s Monopoly pieces arose almost immediately. Trading was fast and furious: everybody had two or three pieces, and some people had as many as six or seven. The smarter kids soon realized that piece-for-piece deals were mediocre compared to “a piece and something else for a piece and something else.” My best trade, in retrospect, was Illinois Avenue, Tennesee Avenue and Park Place for St. Charles Place and a COBRA trooper. (My reasoning was that COBRA had lots of troopers, so when I played with GI Joes I clearly needed more COBRAs. The trade brought me my second – who never actually had his own gun, so he had to borrow the other trooper’s pistol. I never actually got another basic COBRA trooper. Cobra Commander thus had two flunkies, which later in life would make The Venture Brothers‘ 21 and 24 resonate for me.)
However, I was not the best trader in the schoolyard. That honour went to Sammy. Sammy wasn’t especially brilliant at haggling or quicker on the draw than average, but he had one advantage the rest of us did not: both of his parents worked, so they brought home McDonald’s for dinner a lot. This meant that Sammy ate a lot more McDonald’s than the rest of us. We were relying on the one family trip per week or every other week to Mickey D’s, plus begging for game pieces when we went there after school.
Sammy, on the other hand, got the equivalent number of game pieces that the rest of us might get in a month in the first week of play. This meant two things: firstly, he had a lot more pieces to bargain with. And secondly, he figured out much sooner than the rest of us that the game was not a simple “collect pieces of equal rarity to get a prize,” but that it was instead a lottery and that all the pieces that weren’t rare were completely worthless. What this meant, in practice, was that Sammy was willing to trade multiple pieces for absolutely anything else he considered to be of value: baseball cards, comics, toys, you name it. He sometimes asked for a piece, presumably just to keep up the illusion of piece equality for as long as he could.
Sammy’s dominance in the market demanded challenge, and my friends and I tried our best to match his seemingly inexhaustible supply. We went after school every day, asking for free pieces. After a week, the McDonald’s stopped giving out free pieces, so we upped the ante, buying small ice cream cones. (Which were thirty-nine cents, just to make you sick at the sense of inflation over time.) Two weeks later, the McDonald’s stopped giving out free pieces with small ice cream cones, so we upped the ante again, buying regular hamburgers – but hamburgers cost seventy-nine cents, and that was too expensive to be a daily purchase for schoolkids in the mid-80s.
The black market lasted about a month. That was about as long as it took us to realize the true nature of McDonald’s Monopoly. Sammy, by that point, had cleaned up on a level previously undreamt of on the schoolyard – he was the Proposition Joe of St. Clement’s, except nobody shot him in the end. The pieces we had collected were thrown out, worthless. When McDonald’s Monopoly came back the next year, we were not enticed. We had been burnt.
We knew now that Ronald McDonald was not a friendly clown. He was a lying bastard, and Grimace, Birdie, Mayor McCheese, Captain Crook, the McNugget Buddies and the Hamburglar were his willing accomplices, his McDonaldland Mafia. And, thanks to McDonald’s, we were never that young again.