Flashback: September 1994, McDonald’s, 1st Avenue between 6th and 7th Streets, Manhattan.
The woman has straight, blue-black hair tied away from her face; it reaches the middle of her back. It is obvious from his own dark looks and by the way she handles him that the little boy closest to her is her child. Though they sit at the same table, there is a discernible distance between them and the other little boy; about the same age as her son – five or six, tops – blond; dressed better. Not her child.
I unwrap my Filet-O-Fish and dump the fries next to it on the paper wrapper. I bite open the Hellmann’s tartar sauce packet and squeeze it out next to the fries (it’s for them, not the Filet-O-Fish). Next to all that is one of those little pleated paper cups of ketchup dispensed from the ketchup pump (I like a little dipping variety for my fries). I always get a medium orange drink if I’m having the fish sandwich and fries because its sweetness sets off the salt in the fries, and the artificial citrus flavor is a nice complement to the artificial fish. Hey, if I’m gonna eat at McDonald’s, I do my best to rationalize it culinarily. My drink is medium because in my view, that’s the size meant for humans. I don’t understand how people can ingest a half-gallon of soft drink at one sitting.
There’s a low hum in the restaurant.
Welcome to McDonald’s. May I take your order?
Muzak overhead. Sounds like “The Pina Colada Song” at first, but it turns out to be something else; not sure what.
Not too busy today. A man with full, thick head of silver hair sips coffee under an art-deco style plastic-framed Erte’ poster; head in his paper, a neighborhood tabloid knockoff of The Village Voice. He has a gaunt, DP-camp face.
For herself, the woman got a Big Mac, fries and an orange drink (with a Big Mac?!); a Happy Meal with McNuggets for her boy. She grabs him around the torso, his arms flap up; she repositions him in his seat, says something to him in Spanish. He too has an orange drink, child-size. She helps him with the straw. It makes that straw-scraping sound as it moves through the X cutout in the lid. His toy is a man in a blue bathing suit and orange life-vest riding a yellow jet-ski. Not sure what its commercial tie-in would be. Doesn’t matter. He does indeed seem quite happy with his Happy Meal.
Once the woman is done sorting out her boy’s needs, she reaches into a carry-all and pulls out a little Tupperware container; inside is a neat little white-bread sandwich. No crusts. She sets it in front of the little blond boy. Then she pulls out one of those spill-resistant child’s cups with a mouthpiece. No straw for him. He won’t be getting a blue bathing-suit man riding a yellow jet-ski, either.
Welcome to McDonald’s. May I take your order?
The Muzak song is now “Something.” (It makes me think of Shirley Bassey first, then The Beatles).
I watch his eyes; he looks down at his crustless sandwich, then across the table, at the Happy Meal, then down again at his sandwich. He says nothing as he nibbles, but his sad little eyes keep moving, back and forth, back and forth.
Doesn’t she notice this? Isn’t it killing her inside like it’s killing me? Where is her head? Has his evil, prim momma told her NOT to feed him McDonald’s? “SHE’S NOT HERE, WOMAN! NO ONE HAS TO KNOW!” I scream at her to myself.
I can’t bear this: silent nibbling; eyes darting back and forth, back and forth, ready to cry; a slight, but perceptible quiver in his lower lip. How many kids would say nothing when they have to watch some other kid at their table with a Happy Meal? This little boy is a saint! I want to scoop him up and take him to the counter, buy him a Happy Meal, make him happy, too.
I want to but I can’t. Still, I think seriously about getting up, buying him a Happy Meal, and bringing it to him. Welcome to McDonald’s. May I take your order? By the time I get it, they’ll all be done and gone, and it will be moot, and I’d be standing there at an empty table holding a lame Happy Meal.
So I watch all three of them as I eat my damned Filet-O-Fish.
The woman is oblivious. Her son is ecstatically bobbing his head up and down as he makes the yellow jet-ski bounce across an imaginary lake. The little blond boy, meanwhile, nibbles quietly, toyless, in agony. Some would surely say this is a good lesson for him – that he has to learn someday that he can’t have everything everyone else has. The sooner the better.
I’m not interested in eating any more. I just want to leave. But they’re still there – two eating contentedly and oblivious; one in misery. It occurs to me by then, of course, that I had plenty of time! I could have gotten him that Happy Meal twice by now. What would she have done? Not allowed it? Would my showing up at their table with a Happy Meal for him have made it even worse? Would I be informed that indeed he was forbidden to eat McDonald’s food; that his mother had made him a perfectly good home-made sandwich; that I should mind my own business?
Or maybe his mom didn’t know the babysitter was even going to McDonald’s. Maybe it would have been perfectly fine with her – especially knowing that her own little boy would have to sit there watching as another little boy luxuriated in his Happy Meal.
Why didn’t I act when there was still time? Why? Now I’m screaming at myself.
I could have simply asked before getting him one. Maybe it would have been totally cool with her. Or maybe it hadn’t dawned on her that her little blond charge would be tortured with desire while she and her son had their McDonald’s right under his nose. Could she be that callous? That clueless?
I now hate her. I hate myself. I hate this whole scene.
I can’t look any more. I pick up my tray, head for the door. Toss the remains of my Filet-O-Fish, the wrapper and medium fries, the little pleated paper cup of ketchup, the flattened Hellmann’s tartar sauce packet – all of it – into the bin, and head out onto First Avenue with my medium orange drink, scraping the straw through the X cutout in the lid.
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