Two girls who looked to be around the same age as my daughter sat in a booth with laptops, taking advantage of the free wi-fi. They looked to be creating beautiful pictures on Instagram.
"Wow, you can just sit here and do that?" I said. "You can do your homework here?"
They told me they could. I asked them if they had ever tasted the great malts or shakes from the soda fountain.
"I've never had any shakes because my parents can't afford them," she said.
I felt such pity for the girl I wanted to buy her a malt, but that would be a bad call. I didn't want to look like a weirdo. Then I wised up and remembered the kind of bullshit my parents used to play on me. She might've asked for a malt and her parents probably gave her that line so she wouldn't bother them about it. Close the case. I live a hand-to-mouth, paycheck-to-paycheck existence and I scrounge up for a soda fountain malt at least once a month.
When my mom was a little girl in Jett, Kan. (pop. 3,000 in the '50s), her family was poor. She was embarrased about living in a shack and didn't want to bring friends over to see it. The McElroys were one of only two families in town still using an outdoor shitter. The other family, the Whites, lived a hop, skip and a jump from them near a place the poor neighborhood kids used to play around called "the hill."
For Mom's family, ice cream was a rare treat. Every New Year's Eve, Vickie (Mom) and her brother David (Uncle Dave) got to stay up past midnight and celebrate with root beer floats. It may be the only time they'd get a root beer float 'till the next year.
I'm in my 40s so I've seen a lot of New Year's Eves. I've had great fun at parties with my filmmaker/sportscaster friend Adam Knapp and the Roger Sterling of our gang, Russ Thomas, at New Years parties.
I remember one New Year's Eve in Beulah, Kan. where I'd attended Grossmont Community College. It was the early '90s. I was around 21. I was at Centerstage night club when I wound up at a table with my old college journalism teacher, Bill Bidwell, and his friend Bev Beaman. We all counted down as the ball on the TV above the bar was about to drop in Times Square. Dick Clark was on TV, smiling like he was born with a microphone in his hand. The bar served us all free plastic cups of Champagne.
Bill died back in 2003. Bev died this year.
I've been forced this year to think about what really constitutes being rich and poor, about how I want my life to end, which I hope won't be for a long time.
My brother, Jimmy, and I see Mom at Homestead in Jett at least every weekend. It's a home for people with dementia-Alzheimer's. We usually visit at different times, but both of us have taken Mom out to McDonald's for their McFlurrys, which are to die for. Even though Mom's lost a lot of weight and doesn't eat that much anymore, she sure devours those McDonald's shakes.
We're still not rich, but it's a vastly different world from the family shack near the hill. I hope to do better as a person this next year (only my family knows my deepest flaws) and bring joy to Mom's life. (It could be five more years, it could be 10.)
And I hope in 2016, that I can touch more lives. Behind all the drinking, pissing, screwing and fighting of my young life, at the core, I think that's what I really wanted to be -- a life toucher.