Discovering Neighbors at the Fast Food Store

“This place has gotten @&#$-ing run down,” said a man in disgust, setting down a tray of paper-wrapped food at the table where his companion awaited him. He scowled and looked back over his shoulder toward the front of the store as he sat down opposite her.

“This place” was the McDonald’s restaurant where I had stopped, mid-afternoon, for a bathroom break and a snack on my way home from preaching in northwest Iowa. I had noticed nothing unusual about the quality of this standard-looking location, as I hurried toward the back. I did notice that the registers were clogged by several teenagers noisily hanging out up there, clad in blue and green t-shirts.

I don’t like it that I very quickly thought to myself that these were not your typical Iowa teenagers. Whatever that means. They certainly were not the mostly blond, blue-eyed teens of my small-town upbringing. None had skin like mine that won’t tan even under frequent sunshine.

Was this that man’s objection? Was he reacting not to the McDonald’s but to its clientele?

Arriving at the restroom, I had more time to reflect. Two of those teens were ahead of me, clogging that space as well.

As we waited for a stall to open up, I found myself pondering what they were. As soon as that question emerged into conscious thought, I recoiled at it. “What they were”? Of course I knew the answer:  they were young people, human beings, people like me! It is a vestige of my more homogenous, less open past, that those words even came to my mind in that way.

But were they Latino? or maybe a group of exchange students from more distant countries? Were they a team? or a youth group? Sadly, it did not occur to me to strike up even the slightest conversation, or simply to ask. There was plenty of time as we waited! My lips were stopped not by unwillingness but by scant imagination.

When a mom came out of the largest stall with her little girl, one of the teenagers spoke. The girl had skin even darker than the teens did, and long frizzy hair that framed her face. The teenager commented on her eager beauty. “I’ll take her home with me and have a new sister,” she said, smiling. The mom took this banter in stride, and laughed along as she washed her hands. This exchange brought an unexpected ease, lightening the space among us.

Back out by the counter, those teenagers seemed to have multiplied. I silently stepped around them. But now I heard their giggling, I saw the intricate dance of their movement through the lens of similar fast-food stops with my classmates decades ago. They acted like we had. They were as self-involved as we were then, equally inattentive to the presence of the grown-ups who inhabited that space with them. I imagine some of those grown-ups, back then, lamented how those spaces had deteriorated.

I hope, though, that others among them saw neighbors, emerging and energetic, whose presence was a promise of good already coming into being. Some of them surely had the open-heartedness to initiate a bit of conversation along the way. Next time, I hope I’ll be among them.