December 03, 2008

Corner of Hopelessness

By Paul McGuire © 2008

I'm the only soul in Los Angeles who walks anywhere. The relentless California sunshine has warped the brains of the locals who are mercilessly addicted to their metal coffins on wheels sputtering about on the surface streets and congested freeways. The only people you actually see walking around the city are the poor schmucks who couldn't find an ideal parking spot or were too cheap to valet their vehicles so they had to park a block or two away.

If I can walk to my intended destination, I will do so even if I have a car. That's the New Yorker in me. My girlfriend was out of town on business and I had the apartment and her car all to myself. It was Friday afternoon and instead of driving, I opted to walk to Jack in the Box. The hippies would be proud that I was reducing my carbon imprint and getting some exercise in the process.

I craved a big ass iced tea. I loathed all forms of fast food including a disdain for the appalling crap that Jack in the Box passed off as food. However, they serve tasty and very strong iced tea in a massive plastic cup which holds well over a few hours. The iced tea is the perfect drink to set aside during a writing binge. That afternoon, I wanted to settle in and watch an NBA doubleheader on ESPN. The undefeated Lakers were taking on the Detroit Pistons and I didn't want to miss out on the action. NBA, bong hits, and iced tea. The iced tea was the missing ingredient.

I left our apartment in the slums of Beverly Hills and glanced at the lush Hollywood Hills. I walked away from them down our empty palm tree lined street towards Pico Boulevard. It was like a ghost town aside from one or two SUVs that whizzed by me. The Jack in the Box was located on the corner across the street from a somewhat infamous Chinese restaurant. If we lived on the fringe of Beverly Hills, well that corner was on the fringe of the fringe.

The Twin Dragon was a dive in every sense of the world. It’s the kind of place where drug fiends might engage in a shady coke deal in the parking lot or where a capricious married forty-something executive would hand off blackmail money to a fling on the side that went awry. A friend of mine who used to work in the music industry told me he scheduled a couple of secret meetings at the Twin Dragon because that would be the last place anyone would find him.

A collection of older cars sits bout a half of a block away from the Twin Dragon. Each of them was parked with the windows wide open and included a sleeping Chinese guy in the passenger seat. I have seen that random sight many times before. Sometimes the guys were fast asleep. Other times they were reading copies of various Chinese print newspapers like Sing Tao.

That afternoon, I spotted three guys sleeping in their cars. One of them had the back door wide open as he slept with a windbreaker pulled over his torso. Another guy was slumped over a small pillow with the passenger door ajar. He was barefoot and his shoes and socks sat on the grass next to his car. The last car was so cluttered with junk that I suspected that guy actually lived in his vehicle.

I deduced that the sleeping guys were either delivery drivers or kitchen workers slaving away at the Twin Dragon. They were on a break and used their free time wisely to take a nap. It was a dead hour for most restaurants -- way past the lunch rush and not quite dinner time. I wondered how much the cooks were getting paid. Since it was the ever-sketchy Twin Dragon, I'm guessing a buck or two below minimum wage. Maybe some of these guys were working more than one job and the only time they had to sleep was during the lull in between lunch and dinner.

I sidestepped the guys sleeping in cars and wandered inside the bleak Jack in the Box. In my estimation, Jack in the Box is the lowest rung on the fast food food chain. In & Out Burger, Subway, and Wendy's sit near the top, the omnipresent Burger King, McDonalds, and Taco Bell are in the middle, followed by KFC, Popeye’s, and then the repugnant Jack in the Box chain bringing up the rear.

As soon as I opened the door, the aroma of desperation mixed together with days-old grease from the deep fryers attacked my senses. The floors were dirty and slippery; a lawsuit waiting to happen. Garbage and empty ketchup packets from previous customers cluttered the tables. I would never eat there because I didn't want to catch E. Coli.

It was supposed to be a quick trip. Get in and get out. No harm. No foul. Alas, no such luck. Like the majority of fast food chains in America, "fast" was replaced by "pathetically mediocre."

For some reason, I'm always on alert when I walk inside that particular Jack in the Box location. Even during the daylight hours I have this odd fear that I'm going to get shanked by a gangbanger with a spork or mugged by one of the homeless people who live behind the dumpster and feast on half-eaten Jumbo Jacks and pieces of raggedly yellow leaves that they pass off as lettuce.

I expected slow service, but man, the cashier moved slower than a snail on Valium. There was a single line with five or six customers ahead of me. The line never moved and several minutes later, it grew longer. I anxiously stood in line awaiting an empty cup. That's all I was buying. An empty cup. The soda machines and a tank of iced tea were situated next to the cashier's counter. Once you paid for your order, they handed you a cup and you poured your own drinks.

I should have saved a cup from my last visit and pulled a sneaky self-service move. I don't think anyone would have noticed or even cared if I walked in off the street and poured myself a new batch of iced tea. After all, that's the scam that down-trodden customers regularly pulled. They asked for a water cup, which was free of charge and was supposed to be used for the tap water that ran out of the self-service beverage machine. But of course, the aggressive ones bucked the system and used the water cups for Coke and other drinks. The angle-shooters took full advantage of the opportunity to scam free drinks because the dumb-witted fast food workers were not going to enforce the rules.

As I contemplated a future scam, a young child banged into my leg. I glanced down and the boy could not have been more than two years old. I assumed that he belonged to someone standing behind me. I whirled around to see who spawned the wee one. One middle-aged lady that looked like J. Lo's thugged-out sister loudly spoke on her cell phone. I assumed that she was the guardian of the rogue child.

The little boy walked up to the counter and began crying for his mommy. I kept glancing over my shoulder towards the woman on the phone. She rambled on with her conversation as her kid aimlessly wandered around one of the most unsafe fast food eateries in L.A. County.

The kid pointed up at a display of toys which accompanied various kiddie happy meals. He pointed and screamed and pointed and cried and pointed and wailed. I understood the kid's tantrum. He wanted a toy and I wanted an iced tea. I almost burst into tears, too.

"Momma! Momma!" he cried as he pointed at a pieces of plastic junk most likely thrown together in an unventilated sweat shop in the Philippines by child workers only a few years older than him.

A young girl about five years old darted over to the crying kid and shoved a pacifier in his mouth. He stopped crying for the moment as she took his hand and led him over to a booth with a couple of coloring books and several broken crayons on the table. The little girl sat down and scribbled for a few seconds before the kid yanked the pacifier out of his mouth and dropped it on the ground. He immediately ran towards the counter shouting, "Momma! Momma!"

I gave the woman on the cell phone the evil eye, something that self-righteous people without kids give to despicable people whom we deemed bad parents. Thugged-out J. Lo didn't even break stride in her conversation. Perhaps the kids were not hers. If not hers, then whose? I sized up the other people standing in line. The kids looked Hispanic with jet black hair. The people in line were white, black, and Asian. I could not find a match.

"Where's Momma?" I started to wonder.

The moment finally arrived and I stood next in line ready to order my empty cup. That's when the kid cut in front of me and slapped his hand on the counter. He could barely reach the counter and screamed, "Momma! Momma!"

That's when it all made sense. The kid's mother was the cashier. She couldn't answer his pleas because she was working. In an attempt to soothe her child, she poured him a small cup of orange soda. He took a small sip on the straw and darted back to the booth. His older sister sat in silence and focused on her coloring books. As I slowly digested the desperate sight, a bit of melancholy fell over me.

The woman behind the counter was six months pregnant and looked like she was not even old enough to vote, let alone have two kids. My mind raced with questions. How old was she? Did she always bring her kids to work with her? Or did her babysitter bail on her at the last minute?

Although I initially wanted to chastise the mother, a wave of sympathy overwhelmed me as I discovered her plight. A tinge of humility and embarrassment erased my initial thoughts. She instantly impressed me with her courage and strength trying to support two little ones (along with another bun in the oven) by humping a crappy McJob. Then again, she controlled her own destiny. A three-pack of condoms costs the same as a Sourdough Jack.

I grabbed my empty cup and filled it up so quickly that I spilled iced tea all over the counter. I didn't bother cleaning it up and rushed out the door. A wave of depression attacked me up and I glanced up at the houses that speckled the Hollywood Hills. Vain movie stars and strung-out musicians and other Hollyweird types were the only ones who could afford those majestic homes in the hills. Meanwhile on the streets below, illegal Chinese immigrants slept in their cars and a pregnant teenage mom stuffed her kids into a dirty booth in a fast food joint where she earned a measly $8 an hour slinging curly fries and kangaroo burgers.

Next time, I'm driving.

Paul McGuire is a writer who splits time between New York City and Los Angeles.

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