As I drove through one of my childhood neighborhoods, I was surprised to find Hoit Gardens only four blocks from Milpas Street, the main street on the east side of my hometown. As a child, I thought it took for-e-ver to walk to Milpas from our house.
Driving those few blocks brought back a poignant memory.
Hoit Gardens. I’m not sure who or what Hoit was, but that was the name given to the newly-built housing occupied by welfare recipients; public housing provided by the city’s Housing Authority. It was 1969 or ’70 when I, Mom, Dad, and five siblings first moved into a four-bedroom, two-bath, two-story duplex that we rented and paid for with the monthly welfare check. Nine other families did the same.
Milpas was the east side’s main street. There we would find restaurants, grocery stores, the post office, drug stores, and all the basics we needed for everyday life. Kids would go to “liquor stores” to buy candy, comic books, and soda. A parent could write a note, send a child to “Hi-Time Liquors,” and the clerk would sell cigarettes to the child. My parents did that regularly with us.
We had a McDonald’s on Milpas Street, one of the first built in town and where Herb Peterson created the original Egg McMuffin. Even though burgers were only 25 cents, they were still a luxury to us. We were poor and “on welfare.” If we had a quarter to spend, it was not going to be on a single burger. A quarter in the early 70’s could buy you a couple of candy bars, a comic book, and a soda. Or a carton of milk. Or a pound of hamburger. Or a pack of cigarettes. The times that we had McDonald’s hamburgers were few and far between.
So it was on a hot, mid-summer day that I made my plan.
Things were tough at home. Mom and Dad had separated, were on their way to divorce, and evil had been allowed to move in. We were subjected to physical and emotional abuse. School offered a respite, but now it was summer with no place of escape. Was there anything that I could do to help bring a bit of light to my siblings?
I remembered my report card.
At the end of the school year, McDonald’s had announced that students who received an “A” on their report card could come in, show the “A,” and get a free hamburger.
And, glory be! I had received straight A’s on my seventh-grade report card. Six classes equaled six A’s. That meant six McDonald’s hamburgers — one for each of us. For free! Joy! I imagined the smiles and thanks I’d receive from my brothers and sisters as they chomped happily on those burgers.
Summertime. We always had things to do — play games inside and out, steal from the grocery store, start a fight with someone, watch TV — but we did not always have things to eat. Hunger was the norm for the Lowe kids. We could count on one or two meals a day, and they sustained us with just enough room left to keep our stomachs grumbling until the next.
Today would be different.
Off I went with report card in hand, down Mason Street to Milpas, on that four-block journey that always seemed to take for-e-ver.
There it was: McDonald’s. Across the street and right on the corner. I looked forward to the coolness of the interior. Despite being close to the ocean, we would still get temperatures in the 80’s during the summer, often higher. T-shirt, cut-off shorts, and flip-flops weather. I crossed Milpas quickly, swung open the door, and went inside. It was my first time in the restaurant alone.
When it was my turn to place an order, I handed the cashier my report card with a smile. “I would like six hamburgers … for free!” The smell of french fries and hot apple pie, the sounds of soft drinks fizzing into cups, the sight of people with bags of food — how I wished I could have it all, too. But the burgers would be good enough. They were free, and my siblings would be fed.
The cashier didn’t return a smile, but he also showed no anger or annoyance when he gave me the bad news. “We only give one hamburger for a report card.” What I saw with those heartbreaking words was a face full of pity for a poor girl who had misunderstood.
I was crushed, and I tried to correct him. But even at the age of twelve, I could sense that the cashier wasn’t doing this for any other reason besides it being The Way Things Are. He handed me the burger in a bag and thanked me for visiting McDonald’s.
I left and began the walk home.
Anger never came. I could not grumble about it. Finding the answer to why McDonald’s would give only one free burger for six, hard-earned grades would have to wait. I faced a terrible dilemma. A huge problem was before me: What do I do with one burger in the bag when there are six of us?
And so, I had to deal with that.
Half-way home. The hamburger did not taste as good as I thought it would. I threw the tell-tale bag and wrapper onto Mason Street, looking around first to make sure no one I knew would see me.
Home. I wiped my face with my shirt, and I put on a smile so the siblings could not tell I had been crying. No one seemed to care that I had been gone. Mom was a no-show, and the siblings were doing their things that helped bring a little light into our ugly, dark world.
And I was full.
I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” - John 16:33
NOTE: Occasionally, I will share a sad story — from my childhood or adult life — to show you from where I came, which will give you a better idea of how far, by God’s grace, I have come.