She’s in her late thirties, a soft face, and a crooked smile. She’s curvy in a feminine way, her cropped hair hidden under a utilitarian cap reminiscent of those hairnets worn by school lunch ladies from the 1970s. I don’t know her name. She’s from Central or South America, but I’m not sure if its El Savador or Peru. She has a strong accent and speaks quietly, meekly, although I have a feeling that underneath her obsequiousness is a woman of strength and dignity. I imagine a noble heritage somewhere in the past. I see her every day. She is the woman who cleans up in my local McDonald’s, sweeping, mopping, and cleaning the trays. She has a crush on me.
I have had so many crushes on women through the years, from girls in high school to married bloggers online, that it’s surprising how blind I’ve been to it when the tables are turned.
My relationship with this woman started one morning when I was sitting at my usual table, my laptop in front of me, using McDonald’s free wi-fi.
“You working on school work?” she asked, as she swept up some salty french fries playing hide-and-seek under the brown and orange cheap plastic fast-food style table.
I looked up and saw her for the first time.
“No, just regular work,” I said, lying, of course. I was on Facebook.
“I need to buy one of these things if I ever go back to school.”
“Yeah, they’re pretty useful. And they are getting cheaper. Wait until November when the sales come out.” I said, giving her what seemed like solid practical advice.
A few days later, I was back at the table, drinking a cup of coffee, writing in a composition notebook. It was my old school way of preventing myself from going on Facebook.
As I wrote some bad dialogue for a mediocre screenplay, the woman came over again, and looked over my shoulder. She laughed at my penmanship.
“Yeah, I know. I have the worst handwriting.”
“Let me ask you. In English, which are the twelve months, in order of them happening. I need to know this for planning something”
“January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, Novemeber, and ends in December, after Christmas.”
“Yes, yes. Will I remember this?”
“You want me to write it down for you?”
I started to scribble down the months when I could feel her getting tense behind me. She was gripping the top of the seat. I looked up. At the front counter, the franchise manager, a heavy-set Indian woman in a poor-fitting mud-brown jumpsuit, was giving my “friend” a dirty look.
“I must leave. They are looking at me. They’re animals.”
Weeks passed. My friend was always there when I showed up for my coffee, sweeping up or cleaning with a mop. On some days, when I was busy, I would try to ignore her, not looking up from my notebook, wanting my space. But she always found her way to my table.
“I’m so glad to see you!” she would say.
I always had a brief conversation with her. She seemed lonely, and her job was thankless. She hated her it, not the menial labor, but the way the others treated her. I never asked for the details, but she always called the rest of the staff by the ominous sounding description — “animals.” I knew nothing of her personal life — if she was married, had kids. Nothing. She was just the woman who cleaned up at McDonald’s. Still, I was impressed with her. She did her job with commitment and pride. She kept the McDonald’s spotless. But I could tell that she thought that she was better, that there was something work out there more in line with her poise and self-respect.
In September, she approached my table with excitement, but with a strong sense of indecision.
“There’s a job as an assistant checker at Key Food in Howard Beach. Do you think I should apply? I hate being here. Such animals.”
“Sure. You should try. If that’s what you want.”
“What if I don’t get the job? What will I do?”
“Just try your best. I have confidence in you.”
“Please let God hear you. And then you will come there to buy your food!”
“Sure. Maybe.” I said, knowing that Howard Beach is nowhere near where I live.
As many of you know, I recently took a trip to Paris. Today was the first day I returned to my McDonald’s. It’s been almost a month since I stepped inside.
As I passed under the familiar golden arches, I felt a wave of depression, remembering how just a week ago, I was sipping espressos in a quaint cafe on the Left Bank, where Sartre and Hemingway once flirted with beautiful women. And now I was back in the land of the $1.00 sausage burrito.
“It’s you!” said my cleaning friend, waltzing over to me the second I walked in, as if she was waiting for me. She smiled, a larger grin than usual, revealing a missing back tooth.
“I’ve missed you,” she said, cleaning off the dirty brown trays sitting on the trash receptacles. “I’m glad you’ve come back. I’ll be with you right after I finish!”
I ordered a cup of coffee, and sat in the corner. There was a new Happy Meal being advertised on a poster to my right. My friend approached, cheerful in an understated way.
“I got the job!” she said. “The job as the assistant checker.”
“Congratulations! That’s great!” I said, shaking her hand, authentically happy for her.
“This is my last day here. I can’t wait to leave these animals.”
“I’m so glad for you.”
“Yes, yes. I start on Tuesday. Everyone at Key Food is so nice. I hope I don’t disappoint them.”
“You’ll be good. I know it. I see how hard you work here. They are LUCKY to have you there.”
“Thank you,” she said, leaning in closer. “And will I see you there? Will you come to shop at the store?”
“I don’t know. I’ll try. It is far away.”
At the front counter, a frazzled mother with two yapping kids, dropped her orange juice from her tray, and it splattered onto the floor in an orange-colored mess. The store manager snapped her fingers at my friend.
“I have to go,” said my friend.
“Good luck in your new job.” I said. “You’re going to be terrific.”
“Thank you. I hope to see you there buying your food. I really do.”
She paused for a second staring at me, as if she wanted to ask my name. But she never did.