onsdag, august 30, 2006

City of Lost Children

One of 1976's many cowboy fashions. And that's a Winnie the Pooh sleeper beneath the vest...which seems to be 75% tassel.

When I was 16 I worked at one of the three McDonald's in town. I worked at the "Train Car" McDonald's, so named because it had a train car attached as its dining space.

Next door was a hotel of the sort I now associate with hard luck and murder (the latter of which is really just a grim subset of hard luck, I suppose). It was a two-story affair, at least in my memory.

As with many low-end hotels, there were always residents, some temporary, some having decided that was just the way their life was to be. And this included, invariably, a few children, though I do not recall there ever being more than a couple children at any one time in the hotel.

When they were present, they were often sent to the McDonald's, unaccompanied, of course, to occupy their time. The teenagers working there didn't much mind because we felt sorry for them. We probably felt like them. The supervisors, though--those people responsible for making sure we at least had the appearance of observing health codes--were put in fits over their presence. These children would hang around for hours at a time. The supervisors kept asking the kids to leave. The children would return.

Many of us began coaching these kids on how and when to behave. Sometimes we'd send them into the bathroom or ask them to hide up in the train car, whatever it was we thought would keep them out of trouble when the supervisor was near.

One girl began to spend a rather severe amount of time in the restaurant. She chatted constantly. When the supervisors would tell her she needed to go home, she'd either freeze for a moment, never looking at them, then act as if nothing had occurred and resume talking, or she'd say "Okay," motion as if to leave, and as soon as the supervisor's back was turned would duck down in front of the counter and hold her knees. When people would walk in, she might put a finger to her lips. They'd look towards her, puzzled. Then at those of us behind the counter.

"It's all right," we'd say quietly. We wore uniforms. We had authority.

One particular day didn't feel right at all. The girl seemed desperate to stay. She was around all day. She was around as we headed towards close. I was working a double shift that day--Idiot; What did I think I'd get for my time? A Cadillac?--I saw the whole thing, whatever it was I witnessed.

In the breakroom, we talked about it. A single mother who worked as a manager, and who wore, it seemed, a cardigan even in mid-August, asked if any of us had noticed any bruises on the girl. We did not remember any. Could we recall her wearing shorts or short sleeves that summer? We couldn't...but we'd never thought to look for such things. We just didn't know how to be properly concerned, how to be observant. Also, we didn't know how to balance the competing feelings that one should distrust hotel residents and that one should not judge them just because they live, at least for the moment, in a low-end hotel.

Finally, things came to a head. The girl kept wandering behind the counter. The supervisor flipped. He walked her outside. He told her not to come back again without a parent. This was perhaps 10 o'clock, an hour before close.

She walked away towards the darkened lot of the hotel. We never saw her again.
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