Today I drove to Oceanside along Canyon Drive, a road I haven’t been on in years. There is a McDonald’s restaurant there. It was built by my parents; in fact, acquiring that franchise was the means by which they were able to move from New Jersey and their two record stores to California in 1966. The store wasn’t built that year, but soon afterwards. I remember playing in the dirt piles from the excavation of the basement, and visiting the long-gone gas station on the corner where the manager gave me promotional posters of drawings of movie stars. KFC was already across the street and still is there. It is an ancient KFC, possibly built by Spaniards along with the nearby Mission San Luis Rey. There was a drive-in behind our store. Sterling Homes was across the street, which was miserable, crowded, dilapidated military housing for Camp Pendleton, which has long since been bulldozed.
My first job was in that McDonald’s, putting together the paper collars that went around Big Macs all summer long when I was a young teen. I stood on a stool and hefted the heavy bags of shake mix to fill the machine, stocked supplies and ran errands. My father gave me ten dollars for that summer. Later I became an official employee when I was sixteen, in my blue polyester pants and zipped uniform shirt with stripes on the sleeves, and ball cap. Dad gave me rides in to work because I didn’t drive, and in breaking those long car silences he opened up to me just a little.
I worked there a third time, just after I was married. By then my parents owned all four Oceanside McDonald’s franchises, working extremely hard and putting money back into the businesses and their employees. Workers received Christmas and birthday gifts, bonuses, and a sympathetic ear. They loved my parents, who spoiled them all. Most were Marine wives, under twenty years of age with several children, an occasional bruise and a long way from home. I was hired to ‘help’ my father since he had heart trouble, but I knew they wanted me under their eye and protection (and control), with the idea that I’d want to inherit the business. I didn’t.
My job was as S.T.A.R., someone who developed local store marketing, booked and trained crew on giving birthday parties, arranged crew birthday and job anniversary celebrations and employee picnics. It was a legitimate position, but I couldn’t help feeling the taint of nepotism. It was when I was returning from Costco with a station wagon full of picnic supplies, now dressed in dark blue polyester pants that fit better than the generic employee uniform, a blue manager shirt with name tag and small blue tie, that I was stuck behind a line of cars. There was a four-way stop on Canyon, linking an area with grocery stores and small businesses with tiny inexpensive apartments, then on to the Samoan church and then McDonald’s. I was about the fourth car back, with that many cars in all four lanes converging on the stop signs. I heard honking from various cars as they pulled through, but I couldn’t see at what they were honking. I imagined a lost dog, terrified in the middle of the street with cars blaring as they sped by. Finally I was next in line, and to my horror I saw what all those cars, with white and black drivers alike, were honking at: a small black child, about two years old, standing in the middle of the four-way intersection, crying for all he was worth, snot flowing down his face, and cars edging past him as they honked their horns for him to get out of their way.
I pulled over and jumped out of the car, waving and shouting angrily at the other cars which still wanted to get past. I grabbed the child and ran back to the side of the road. He was past the point of comprehension. I wiped his face, bounced him on my hip (motherhood was another year and a half away from me) and looked around expecting to see a parent searching for him. There was nobody except the indifferent traffic. The child was no help; even calmer as he was, he wasn’t old enough to put together sentences. I couldn’t help but believe that his mother would be frantically looking for him, and bet that he had come downhill from the apartments rather than uphill from the businesses. So I began to walk.
The first apartment complex was foreboding. I met a black man getting into his car and asked if he knew the child. He didn’t. He wished me luck and left. Not knowing what else to do, I figured I’d better call the police, and in those days before cellphones, went up to the nearest apartment door and knocked.
To set the scene, if you don’t know me, I was then about 23 years old, a short 5’3″, very pale white complexion with light brown hair, wearing a wholesome McDonald’s blue manager’s uniform with tie and sensible non-slip shoes: a Norman Rockwell kind of appearance. I was holding a very dark black child still whimpering with a continuous stream of green snot running from his nose. The door was opened by a tall, lean, suspicious black man in his twenties, and farther in the apartment was another black man who looked, as I reflected later, as if he’d spent most of his life in prison. There was a funny smell in the air. In my own guileless manner, of course I immediately asked, “May I use your phone to call the police?”
There is a certain comic beauty about that moment. There was a look exchanged between the men. I went on to explain that I’d found the child in the intersection with cars speeding past honking at him, and I’d walked up the hill looking for its mother and couldn’t find her.
This explanation changed the atmosphere in the room from one of tension and readiness, to a sympathy and righteous anger that firmly moved me over the line from threat to -if not comrade, then at least not one of the oppressors. There was a melting in their general attitude. I then walked into the apartment of my new friends in these days before cordless phones and called the police. I reflected that that phone had certainly never called that particular number before.
The woman with whom I spoke was not interested, saying that the mother would probably show up soon, but they would dispatch someone and I should wait outside for about half an hour for a squad car. It made me wonder how many lost children were being found every day in Oceanside. I thanked the men, with whom perhaps four sentences had been exchanged, and still holding the child on my polyester-clad hip walked back out into the apartment’s parking lot and heard the door click firmly behind me.
I realized that what I had just done in all innocence and without a second thought in my righteous anger would have been my mother’s worst nightmare: what she had been warning me about since birth. I had walked into the apartment of two possibly dangerous men and if something had happened, no one would have known where I was. My car was down the street. But that never occurred to me. What is more, they were black and my mother had been raised to mistrust non-whites. The race issue didn’t bother me (my best friends in Kindergarten were Michelle Chen and Rosie Lopez, and a Mexican and a Samoan in high school), although I had limited exposure to people of color in the seventies and early eighties in the Vista school system, and at UCSD and UC Berkeley. There were economic barriers as well as fear of the unknown between races. In my high school in the late seventies there were perhaps five blacks, and at the end of middle school when Vietnam fell, and Camp Pendleton hosted a tent city for the refugees who had gone from people of wealth and position to paupers overnight, we saw our first non-American born Asians. I didn’t think about it at the time except I was obviously looking for a black mother, but when looking back I realized that I, a young pale white girl, was the odd girl out in that apartment complex.
Shortly after, the mother came running up the road. She’d left the baby sleeping in her apartment with her boyfriend and had walked down to get groceries. The child had woken up and found the boyfriend asleep and the mother gone, and had tried to find her down what little he’d remembered about the much-traveled path to the grocery store. I had the distinct notion that the boyfriend wasn’t going to be on the scene for much longer. I gave up the baby, a batch of hamburger coupons, and drove the two to another apartment complex farther down the road. Then, wiping drying snot from my shirt, wondered if my boss would ever believe my story when I had to explain why I was a good hour late returning to work.