I apologize for the length, but everything in here is relevant to what I’m trying to say.
My wife is an assistant manger at a McDonald’s near the elementary school where I teach. She doesn’t drive, so I drop her off and pick her up when her shift is over. Usually, she’s ready to go when I arrive, and comes bouncing out the door when I pull into the small group of spaces off to one side where the employees usually park.
Last week, I pull into the parking lot. I’m driving a new car, still has the dealer ad plates on it because we haven’t recieved the plates from the state. I must have looked like a prime mark to the homeless couple prowling the parking lot. A middle-aged man walks up to me and says he doesn’t want any money, but could I buy him and his wife a couple of hamburgers. I’m in a good mood (I just got a new car, so I’m no ordinary human, I’m NEW CAR MAN), and he’s polite, so I tell him I’ll get him something. He cosults his wife, and asks if I could get him some chicken instead. Fine with me. I go in, and Mrs. Six is getting off; she’s ready to go home. I say just a minute, I’m going to get some food. The senior assistant manager on duty that night likes my wife a lot, and gives me Mrs. Six’s manager’s discount, 50% off. A McChicken is a dollar, so I get two and a large fries for the couple–less than two dollars out of my pocket, an amount I won’t miss. I give the couple their food and Mrs. Six and I leave. I hadn’t thought about it again until tonight.
When I arrive at the end of Mrs. Six’s shift, I see three buses in the parking lot, with people still walking from them into the restaurant. I know immediately that she’s not getting off on time tonight, so I go inside to wait, and to watch people. I find watching people interact fascinating, and a crowded fast food place makes for interesting interactions. My wife doesn’t understand this, and is convinced that when I do this, I’m ogling attrictive women.
The buses are filled with high-school-aged kids, mostly Hispanic, which is hardly surprising in central California, but it is a little unusual for this restaurant. Most of the time, when I arrive to find buses at the restaurant, they’re filled with a Chinese tour group traveling from LA to San Francisco or vice-versa.
As the line of high school kids begins to thin out, I notice a man in his mid-thirties getting in line. Actually, he’s milling about, studying the menu board. At first I assume he’s a teacher, and this is a school group. He’s dressed in an outfit I’ve seen many a male teacher on an outing wear, and one I’ve been known to sport myself–sport coat, sport shirt with no tie, jeans, sneakers. He’s wearing round, steel rimmed glasses.
My attention wanders to someone else, then I hear him speaking to another person in a tone of voice that makes it clear that the other person is the one making the decisions, asking, “Well, if they don’t have [something] fries, how about a hamburger?” I don’t hear the reply, but he says, “Can I have one?” He says this in the tone of a 10-year-old asking Mom for a toy. I notice “Mom” (Though I will call her Mom here, I have no idea if she actually was his mother or not, for reasons I’ll explain later, I think not) shaking her head, and signalling with her hand, “2.” Mom is standing only a few feet away from me. She’s in her 50’s, has dirt and grime on her face, her hair obviously hasn’t been washed in weeks, and her dress is wrinkled and dirty. Her face shows a woman who’s been beaten down by life and is frustrated with the younger man at the counter.
I look more closely at the man, and see where my fleeting glance before was mistaken. The “sport coat” is a suit jacket, and it’s two sizes too small, worn over a shirt at least a couple of sizes too large. The jeans are grimy, and the sneakers appear to be those rubberized shoes/socks designed to be worn on an ocean beach. Though his hair is neatly combed, it isn’t clean. My people watching powers appear to have failed me miserably this time.
The students are finished, or nearly so, and the 30-something man reaches the counter. He orders, and the young black man at the counter rings him up. I can’t hear their conversation, but the man is constantly counting a handful of change and talking to the man taking his order. He changes the order once. He recounts the change in his hand, then turns to ask the woman behind him if she has another 18 cents. She shakes her head no, then goes back to the patient young man at the counter, and changes his order again.
While this is going on, I notice another person, a man, also in his 50’s, dressed in shabby, dirty clothes, walking hunched over. He’s obviously part of this group. The man ordering continues to negotiate with Mom and the counter worker. It becomes apparent to me through the snatches of conversation I pick up that he was supposed to order three small fries, but didn’t have enough money. He changed the order to two fries, then finally tried to get one large fries to split, which cost 1.92, and this is when he asked if Mom had another .18. He and the man at the counter spend some time consulting the menu board, and finally find something the man can afford. As the man walks away, he tells Mom, whining and apologizing at the same time, “I only had enough for one, I’m sorry but I can’t go without food.”
I do a little math, and realize that these people had $1.74 to feed the three of them supper. The man who ordered was, compared to the other two, much more neatly dressed and much cleaner, which is, I assume, why he was chosen to get the food for the group. The businesses in the area routinely ask homeless people who come in for shelter without ordering anything to leave, and the older man and woman gave off the vibe of people who are used to being asked to leave. The younger man seemed less used to the situation; I think he may be new to the group.
$1.74 to feed your family, such as it is, supper. I get the sense, though I have no evidence to confirm it, that this money was some kind of unexpected windfall, and that eating at McDonald’s was expected to be some kind of rare treat. The people involved seemed genuinely surprised that they didn’t have enough money for three orders of fries.
What saddens me is that, just like last week, I had the opportunity to do something for these people, but this time I sat there and did nothing. It would have been next to nothing to me to give the man one of the quarters I keep in my pocket for trips to the pop machine for a caffeine fix during the day.
I realize that I am not responsible for the situation that these people find themselves in. I realize that had they been smart, they could have spent their $1.74 at the grocery store down the block and gotten a bag of discount cereal which would have been enought to feed all three of them a relatively nutritious, if unappetizing meal. I don’t know anything more about their situation than I’ve reported here, so I don’t know to what degree they are responsible for how they find themselves. I feel like Tom Joad, who kept wondering whom he was supposed to kill when his family lost their farm. I feel as if I should be upset with someone, but I don’t know who. I feel a little guilty for not helping when it would have cost me nothing to do so, and I will keep this in mind the next time I have a similar chance. I don’t know if these people are to blame for how they find themselves, but I wonder who would choose such a life if there were something better available.
Mrs. Six and I work hard for the money we make. We’ve earned the home we live in, the new car we drive, the small monthly vacations we take, the three-times-a-week dinners we eat out, the once a week trip to the theater to see a movie. But sometimes I think we don’t take the time to appreciate that we can do these things.
When we sit down to dinner at Denny’s, we say grace, just as we do for every other meal. We express our thanks for the meal we are about to eat. Too often, though, it’s done by rote; I’m not really thinking about the fact that we have the luxury to go spend $20 on a meal just because we don’t feel like cooking that night. I should.
Yes, I’ve earned the nice material things in my life through my hard work. Sometimes it takes something like tonight for me to appreciate what I have.