In my pack I carry raisins, a chunk of summer sausage, and dozens of wild cherry Life Savers. In a side pouch I have a 1.5 liter unbreakable water bottle that my friend William gave me as a parting gift. There have been a few times when nibbling on the sausage has kept hunger at bay. For everything else, there’s McDonald’s.
Yes, I know that I can find healthier food, and I should support local restaurants, but thus far none of those healthy locavores have set up any place near the ramps and roadways that I’ve been practically living on the past two weeks. Right now I am sitting with my son in a lovely cafe near the campus of Colorado State University, and the coffee is excellent and the sandwiches big enough for the two of us to share for lunch – but the Wild Boar is miles from the nearest highway.
I’ve eaten more Big Macs and EggMcMuffins since leaving home than I will ever confess to my doctor. I have swallowed at least a gallon of McDonald’s coffee, which the people at the counter will happily refill for you without charge. I fill up my water bottle with clean cold water, brush my teeth in the men’s room, splash cold water on my face, charge my phone in the outlet near the booth, and use Ronald McDonald’s Wi-Fi whenever the signal is strong enough (it usually is).
I’ve seen volleyball teams and trucks filled with migrant workers form lines out the door, watched families parceling out french fries to make their funds last for the ride, heard a dozen or more languages, and listened to stories of workers and visitors alike. I’ve had truckers and bikers and grandmas watch out for my belongings while I used the rest room, and returned the favor more than once. Here’s something you might not expect, but McDonald’s on a roadside, which might seem like the most transient of places, is actually a community center. It’s a place that Glenn, who has been riding the rails and biking the country almost non-stop since retiring from the Navy in 1993, can rest and wait out the heat.
It’s the place where Jimmy and his new titanium hip re-entered the work force after four years on disability. He and his wife still sell their blood plasma twice a week to pay the bills, but he likes being back at work. It’s a place where practical considerations force multicultural cooperation, where over the din you hear an anglo manager call out, “Yo necesito French Fries!” to a new hire.
It’s a day-care center and a drop-in center for the mentally ill. I saw a girl of about the age of ten spend an entire day on a booth seat, alternating between sitting and sleeping, while her mother, who can’t possibly afford child care on McDonald’s wages, worked behind the counter. I saw a middle-aged woman, her red hair perfectly knotted at the top of her head, come in and out ten times in a day, picking a different seat each time, pretending to talk on the phone, acting like she was waiting for someone. She goes out to her car for a little while every few hours, until the crowd inside has turned over and she can make a new entrance to the same place she has spent the whole day, and probably every day. The staff had to know her deal, and still she is treated just like anyone else.
These were the snatches of McDonald’s life that I glimpsed in between my shifts standing on the roadside. Every two hours I had to get out of the heat. My water bottle nears empty, mostly from pouring it over my head, and my sunscreen starts to lose the battle with the insistent scorching sun rays. Toward the end of each shift, I tell myself that I’ll wait another 100 cars. After counting to 100 I strap up and walk back in to be greeted by my new friends. By now I have told most of the counter people my story and they are wearing wristbands saying “Nobody HitchHikes Any More.”
I buy something each time I stop in, and I try to be as polite as I can be. I was heaving my pack onto a booth when a tall, white man asked me about my sign and where I was going. He and his daughter were on their way to church and then to a basketball tournament. “Her game is at 2 – if you’re still out there I can take you about two hours west of here.”
And that is how, finally, I got out of Omaha. Thanks to Scott, a Mennonite basketball coach from Henderson, Nebraska. And thanks to the Golden Arches.