Late Saturday night becomes Sunday morning. It’s about 3:45 A.M. I pull into McDonald’s on Michigan, south end of South Bend. I order a six-piece Chicken McNuggets. I think about a McFlurry, but it’s too many calories.
“Please pull around to the first window.” There is a car ahead of me. I wait behind, my window still down. Fresh spring air wakes me up for that forty-minute drive home.
Footsteps rushing at my car. Startled, I jerk my head to the left as a kid screeches to a halt. He is maybe seventeen or twenty, has a little mustache. He recognizes immediately that he made me jump; he saw the surprise on my face.
“Whoa, no, no,” he says as he throws his hands out to the side, “Look, I ain’t got no gun or nothin’, look, see?” Puts his hands behind his head as though I’ve arrested him. Panic on his face. Approach the wrong car that way and he’s maybe dead right now, and he knows it. “No, I’m not… I just, I’m hungry, I wanted to ask, could you get me just like a chicken sandwich or somthin’. I’m not, look, I’m sorry. I just…” Sweats at nearly half-mast, hoodie not really enough for the cold. It’s April 3 and we somehow had a mini-blizzard that decorated the daffodils, the roads are icy tonight. Lots of accidents out there. “I’m hungry you know? I don’t get my paycheck til Friday, and, anyway I’m not homeless. Well, mostly not.” Kid needs to just ask for the sandwich and shut up, let me draw my inferences. He doesn’t even know how to beg, and that’s clear more by the way he rushed my car than anything else. He’s new to this. Paycheck? Friday? I sort of doubt it.
“Hey kid, you gotta be careful. Come on, walk up here with me.” I roll up to the window, ask the lady to add a chicken sandwich. It’s under $2. At these prices anybody can afford to eat this shit, can’t they? But not this kid. He’s not anybody.
Over at Notre Dame the kids about his age go to the bars and blow hundreds in a night. This kid could buy dozens of hoodies at Wal-Mart for the price of a single black party dress the young ladies wear, shivering, colder than he is, with their legs exposed, but unconcerned about what they will eat and where they will sleep, clothed to impress, not to survive. Those kids are anybody, they are somebody, when they want a chicken sandwich they just get one.
The other McDonald’s employee comes up and tells the girl who took my order, just loud enough for me to hear, “we’re not supposed to serve walk-ups, that’s how we got robbed the one time,” but I am there, so I instruct the kid to walk up ahead into the parking lot and I’ll meet him there.
Later I realize that kids like this are like little animals, like a fang-less garter snake or a bunny in a cage, hearts beating two-hundred times per minute, and when you are a little kid and nervous about touching the pet, your parents tell you, “he’s more scared of you than you are of him,” and it gives you courage to reach out and touch the thing and you find that it is smooth or furry and not bad at all. Just scared, just like you. Human, really, in that way.
Why do we go back to being afraid of people as adults? Because they make sudden movements? Because they don’t look safe? Because they dress funny? Because they’re nocturnal?
No, I think it’s because we have some sort of cognitive dissonance between the rhetoric that “our nation is founded on equality and the public education system making it possible for anyone to succeed,” versus the reality that there are lots of people who don’t have jack squat, zilch, a big X, for opportunities. That’s what scares us. It means we’re all closer to the bottom than we care to admit, because until this moment we preferred to believe there is no bottom. And we’re afraid of people because we’ve forgotten that when it comes to those who are at the bottom, usually they’re more afraid of us than we are of them. The Psalmist said “the Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” (Psalm 27) But we fear the bottom.
I give him a sandwich and he is Jesus, I have given Jesus a sandwich, and so now that I am on the upside of the deal, not at the bottom, only encountering it briefly, and somehow I think I’m in a position to advise, I’m no longer afraid. So I tell him “be careful out there, don’t scare people so much, you could get hurt,” because that is what I always tell Jesus. I, too, am closer to the bottom than I care to admit, and I am very, very tired when I get home.