I have something to admit. This summer the boys and I have, on occasion, stopped for lunch at – wait for it – McDonalds. I don’t recall when the first time was, but it only took one time to get us hooked. Maybe it was the special toy in the Happy Meal. Maybe it was the Play Place. Maybe it’s because McDonald’s Cook was Daddy’s first job title many, many years ago.
Perhaps it’s because the sauce in a Big Mac is special in a magical way, or “You Deserve A Break Today” resonates deep inside me. Whatever it is, as we are out and about in between swimming, karate, the park, library and play dates, the boys ask – scream actually – for that nine by nine by nine inch cardboard box that holds the reprieve from their sudden deep hunger. It includes 4 chicken nuggets, which are breaded pieces of chicken whose contents appear quite similar to anything you’d buy at the grocery store.
Reach deeper in the box and you get a small (I mean small) order of French fries. Maybe there’s a dozen in the order, all about the size of my sons’ index fingers. To minimize mess I’ve chosen to order these without sauce or ketchup (sometimes we do drive thru), and so far so good.
A highlight of the box contents is the bag of apple slices, consisting of 7 or 8 undersized pieces strewn about in an oversized bag. The boys call them “dessert.” I watch them crunch away on these and it does make me feel better overall, which I’m sure would make the McDonald’s executive who thought of this laugh out loud. They also get a drink, and we alternate between milk one day and apple juice the next.
The coup de grace is when McDonalds puts the surprise toy in the box. This plastic toy can be Sponge Bob, or a Disney character, or a Smurf. Whatever it is, you can be sure of two things: it performs some kind of useless action (like opening or closing its hand with the press of a button, simply for the sake of opening or closing its hand), and it will be discarded to the floor of the minivan after about 20-25 minutes max. I’m constantly raking up small piles of little plastic toys and quickly tossing them in the recycling bin, never to be missed by the boys who had just been cheering over (or crying over) their prize earlier that day.
Many of my peers apparently look at a McDonalds visit in disdain, but I see it as a slice of Americana. A study in diversity. A lesson in life. As my sons and I peruse this particular McDonalds today in the middle of Los Angeles, for example, we can see a guy getting arrested just outside our window. We’re so close we can see the serial number on the handcuffs. Who knew handcuffs had serial numbers? In contrast, the table next to us is shared by four professional soccer players still wearing their soiled uniforms and planning their game strategy for next time. A few tables have business suits between business meetings, grabbing a bite to eat while clicking away at their laptops and iPads, taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi that is available at this and every other McDonalds in the country.
Of course there are a huge number of families coming in and out, with kids enjoying some recreation in the bacteria-laden plastic tubes available where a child can literally disappear for a while, occasionally letting out a deafening scream which you just have to trust is your child having a good time.
Retirees come and read the paper while chatting about the weather and politics, lovers come to have a stress-free all-you-can-drink date, and the local police come for their reduced price Quarter Pounder with Cheese.
This particular McDonalds seems to be buzzing with homeless, and they can be seen sitting at a table here and there. One looked particularly uncomfortable, fighting off the hunger that appeared to be banging on his stomach wall. My sons found this scene particularly sad, and just as they were remarking about it, a mother from the table next to us left her 10-year-old son and walked over to this man’s table and offered him half of her burger. When he took just 10 seconds to finish that, the woman took action and bought him another one, with fries and a drink, as her son watched with wide adoring eyes. When the mother returned to her table, the boy remained silent but rose from his seat, walked over to his mom, and gave her the longest, tightest hug.
My oldest son, arguably the most sensitive of our two, got out of his seat, walked around to my seat, and proceeded to give me an identical hug. “That was a really nice thing that she did, right Daddy?” he asked. “Yes, it was,” I replied.
“Can we do that sometimes too?” he pleaded. “Definitely,” I answered.
An extraordinary life lesson in a very ordinary place. I’m lovin’ it.