"I want McDono's!" Tyesha yells from the backseat, her high voice almost a shriek. "Me too!" Travelle says, balling his little hands into tiny fists and smashing them into his thighs.
I glare at them in the rearview mirror, worn out from having been at the mall all day with a nine-year-old girl who thinks she needs to go to school looking like a supermodel and chooses only the most expensive items in the store that show cleavage she doesn't have and an outie belly button damn near bigger than my breast that she doesn't seem to understand should stay hidden. And a six-year-old boy who thinks a trip to the mall entitles him to at least a hundred dollars' worth of candy, cinnamon rolls, soft pretzels, and frozen coffee drinks and who wants to impress all the little first-grade girls with gym shoes that cost more than my mortgage.
"Yeah, mom, we want some McDonooooh's!" Tyesha sings.
"And I told y'all 'nooooooo' a long time ago, so quit asking every time we pass one. We got plenty of food at home and we been to McDonald's 50 times this week. I'm not giving one more single solitary nickel to that old moneygrubbing, redheaded, yellow-jumpsuit-wearing hamburger pusher. I said no, and I meant no."
"But mommy, I want McDono's too," Tia says, and in the rearview I can see her squirming in her car seat. Tyesha and Travelle gaze down lovingly at their little sister, who's strapped in between them, then look at each other and smile their biggest, cheesiest smiles 'cause they know I can never resist Tia when she's strapped in that thing, which I know she hates. They are starving, and by the time we get home and I get dinner on the table it'll be past their bedtime...
I'm only a block past one McDonald's, and I can either turn around or put up with whining till we reach the next one--or better yet, till we get out of the hood and closer to home. But then I look in the rearview again and Tia bats those eyelashes at me, so I do a quick U-turn. The guy behind me slams on his brakes and honks like a madman.
The kids cheer. Tyesha starts clapping, and they all start chanting "McDono's! McDono's!"
I swerve right up next to the curb on the other side of the street and stop at the stop sign. One of the men standing uselessly on the corner bends down, a 40-ounce dangling from his hand, and looks into my window. The kids stop chanting and look at him curiously.
"Damn, baby, is it that serious?" he says, then adds, "and if it is, can I go wichoo? We can drop ya kids off at my mama's house."
The kids look at me to see if I'll accept the proposition.
Somebody behind the guy shouts in my direction, "Eh, is yo' husband married?"
"Get a job!" I yell back as I hit the gas. They got their nerve--think I want them. They were probably born on that corner and ain't left it since.
The kids resume their chant. "McDono's! McDono's!"
I pull into the drive-through and cringe as we crunch over broken glass. A reverential silence comes over the car as the kids prepare to yell out their orders. We wait for the familiar crackle of the microphone.
Finally, from the little speaker we hear the clear sound of someone smacking on a wad of gum. After about five minutes of that the gum smacker decides to grace us with words: "The drive-through ain't workin'," she says. "You gotta come in."
"Excuse me?" I say, trying to make sure I heard correctly.
"I said, the drive-through ain't workin'!" she yells, louder than before. "You gotta come in!"
I sit there a minute thinking about whether I should waste my time attempting to explain to her that if I can hear her and she can hear me, then the drive-through is obviously working fine, but I decide against it.
I pull into a parking space, thanking God for the promotion a few years ago that got me out of neighborhoods like this. On the other side of me is an old, brown, beat-up 1960-something Buick with shiny silver rims that probably cost more than my annual salary. The guy inside is all laid out in the driver's seat, which is pushed back to almost horizontal. The only thing I can really see is the top of his cornrowed head--the cornrows confirming he didn't get those rims by moving up the corporate ladder. Probably bought them with all the money he saves living for free in his mama's basement.
I get out of the car, as do Tyesha and Travelle, who has resumed the McDono's chant and is jumping up and down. As I unleash Tia from her chair and prop her on my hip the guy in the Buick sits up. He looks me over, and then looks at my Camry.
"Hold on for a minute," he says into his gold cell phone. Then he turns to me and says, "You want me to watch yo' car?" He smiles, showing his two gold-capped front teeth. One has the word "big" cut out of it and the other says "money."
I start to say "And if I get you to watch my car then who am I going to get to watch you?" but think better of it. "No thank you," I say, grabbing the children by the shoulders and marching them inside.
We almost collide with an old man who's standing in the line that stretches almost to the back of the store. I feel sorry for the old guy 'cause he's probably 87th in line and he's all bent over and looks like he's going to fall to the floor any second.
"Watch yo' ass fo' I pop a cap in it," he shouts at me through bare gums. Travelle bursts out laughing and Tyesha puts her hand on her hip.
"Don't be talkin' to my mama that way, you old gym shoe." Tyesha gets an attitude real quick and always calls people names that on the surface seem to make no sense, but if you ask her about it she'll be able to explain why she chose that name. Like she'll say, "I called him an old gym shoe 'cause the kids at school tease anybody who's not wearing the most up-to-date gym shoes, so being an old gym shoe is really the worst thing in the world to be 'cause you all beat up and don't nobody like you and you get teased all the time."
I snatch Tyesha's hand and drag her to the end of the line before grandpa decides to make good on his threat. Travelle is still laughing, holding his belly and pointing at the old man, who keeps turning around and looking at us. He puts his hand in his pocket. I bend down and tell Travelle that if he doesn't stop laughing I'm going to take his gym shoes back to the store, and he stops, like somebody flicked a switch.
There must be at least 70 people working behind the counter, so I can't understand why the lines are so long, but then I realize that only two of the six registers are open and half of the teenage workers are just standing around, staring into space or huddled into little chitchat groups by the french fry bins. I consider trying to get a manager to open up another line, but I see the girl in the blue-and-white-striped managerial shirt standing in the center of one of the french fry social groups. I wonder why black folks in these little fast-food joints think that "manager" is synonymous with "vacation"--like that raise from four dollars an hour to five has moved them to the top of the food chain, and now they can just kick back and let the big bucks roll in.
The little girl sitting next to where I'm standing, who must be about five, smiles at me, and I wait for her head to tip over from the weight of her damn-near-floor-length curly-weave braids, but she must be used to them, 'cause she holds her head up just fine. She picks up a crop of french fries drowned in so much ketchup they lie limply across her fist. She's about to put them into her mouth, but the boy next to her, who looks to be maybe two years older, snatches them from her, leaving the tips squashed in her hand, and stuffs them greedily into his mouth.
The woman across the table hops up, snatches the boy's arm, yanks him out of the seat, and pulls off her belt all in one motion. She gives the boy several whacks on the butt, each one punctuated with a word, "Didn't--I--tell--you--not--to--eat--your--sister's--french--fries?" The boy starts crying--probably more from embarrassment than anything else 'cause the belt, cheap patent-leather-look plastic and spaghetti-strap-thin, can't be hurting him much. The little girl is laying her head on the table, and I can't figure out if it's because she's crying or because the heavy braids are finally too much for her to bear.
Travelle tries to hold back a snicker, and Tyesha is still staring angrily at the old man, who's finally placing his order.
I peek out the door and make sure Mr. Goldfinger isn't hot-wiring my car.
After what seems like hours, we make it to the front of the line. The girl behind the counter mumbles something unintelligible. I say, "Excuse me?" and she yells at the top of her lungs, "Hello, welcome to McDono's, can I take your order!" Her tone is so hostile she could have added the word "bitch" in there and it would have fit perfectly. Her eight-foot-high blue-streaked French roll, partially covered by a too-small hairnet, stands defiantly as she rolls her neck. She rolls her eyes too. Her blue eye shadow matches the streaks in her hair perfectly.
I say as calmly as I can that I would like a Filet-O-Fish meal and I order a Chicken McNugget Happy Meal for Tia. The girl punches in the order with the tip of her long curving nails, which are covered in some pasty-looking polish. Trapped in the inch-thick gook are bits and pieces of torn-up one- and five-dollar bills with fake diamonds scattered on top. The crooked greenish tattoo just above her wrist, which she probably did herself, reads, "Peachy love Pee-Wee," and after I read it I wonder why black folks always have to give themselves all these weird names and nicknames. It's like we still ain't got over the fact that during slavery we couldn't name ourselves, so now we're making up for lost time, and you got folks going around saying "My name is Lacretia Barnetta Kenyatta Shardonay Jones, but everybody call me 'Coochie.'" I swear, it's just a mess.
I tell Tyesha to give the nice woman her order and Tyesha says, "I would like a cheeseburger Happy Meal with an orange pop and no mustard on the cheeseburger, please." I smile proudly, glad that I got her out of the hood before she picked up bad habits from the hood-rat kids who probably would have said, "Yeah, I wont me a mu-a-fuckin' cheese-buga happy mu-a-fuckin' meal." Travelle starts off nicely too, saying, "I would like--" but he's interrupted by the cashier who screams, "Wait a minute! Wait a minute! I gotta find the mustard key!" All four of us stare at her dumbly while she stares, just as dumbly, at the cash register's keyboard.
"Hey, Aquamonetta!" she yells across the room.
I look around for a mermaid, but Peachy seems to be talking to the blue-and-white-striped manager, who pokes her head out from the center of the french fry huddle and yells, "Hunh?"
"Where's the mustard key?"
The manager makes a wet, clicking noise with her tongue and stomps over to Peachy. "Here it is, right here." She points to a big yellow key and turns back to her group.
"Oh," Peachy says to herself. She still takes another hour to finish punching in Tyesha's order.
Some lady comes in the side door, ignores the line and walks right up next to me at the counter. "I called in an order," she announces, and Peachy looks up at her.
"What's the name?"
Peachy yells toward the back, "Tito is here to pick up they order!" and some man comes from the back carrying a greasy-looking bag. He tells the woman to step over to the last register.
The three young men behind us start snickering, and one of them says, "Eh, I put a Big Mac on layaway and I'm here to pick it up!" They laugh, but Peachy and the rest of the workers ignore them.
Peachy finally finishes with Tyesha's order. We can tell she's done 'cause she looks up at Travelle and stares at him until he rattles off his order. "I would like a cheeseburger Happy Meal with--" I hold my hand up to stop him from saying "with no pickles." We don't have another five hours to waste while Peachy searches for the pickle key. Travelle is just going to have to pick them off today.
"What-choo want to drink?"
"I would like an Oreo McFlurry."
Peachy sucks her teeth and looks at him with her lips poked out sarcastically. "What-choo want to drink?" she says.
"He said he wants an Oreo McFlurry."
She rolls her eyes and turns to me. "I asked him what he want to drink. A McFlurry is ice cream."
"Well, just give him a Coke and a McFlurry on the side," I say through clenched teeth, not bothering to tell her that every other McDonald's we've been to has let us get a McFlurry in place of a pop. I'm trying hard to hold back my temper. The old ghetto in me is dying to get out, but I keep it civil for the kids' sake--and Peachy's, too, 'cause she don't want me to get black up in here.
She punches in the order, then says unenthusiastically, "Would you like to add crispy bacon skrips to your orders for the low price of 30 cents each?"
I ask Tyesha and Travelle if they want bacon strips on their cheeseburgers and they say no.
"You want bacon on yours?" Peachy asks.
"I ordered a Filet-O-Fish," I say.
She just stares at me
"No, Peachy, I do not want bacon skrips on my fish."
Peachy saunters off to get our order and I look up at the smiling picture of Ronald McDonald, who looks severely out of place here.
Years later, Peachy returns with our order. She collects the money and just as we're about to trudge away from the counter, she smiles and says, "A'ight, girl, have a good night!"
Ain't too many places you can go where somebody can call you "girl" and it just sounds so...right. I look at her, for the first time really, and smile back. "You too, girl, you too."
The kids and I stroll out into the parking lot. I strap Tia in her seat, where she immediately falls asleep, 'cause it's way past her bedtime. Tyesha and Travelle hop in and start digging for the prize in their Happy Meal bags.
The guy in the beat-up Buick next to me pokes his head out of the window and says, "I watched your car for you anyway," and I say thanks. He reaches into his inside coat pocket. "I own a little shop down the street." He hands me his card. "You ever need some rims, you come see me. I'll give you a good deal."
"Thank you, I sure will." I climb into the car and drive off, nibbling on my fries.
"We were in there forever," Tyesha says to no one in particular.
"Yeah," I say. "Next time I'll call in our order."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Paul Stroede.