If you’ve been following my blog, you already know a little bit about my background as a filmmaker and former cult member. Now I’d like to share a little about my childhood, and anyone who’s spent more than 45 seconds with me won’t be surprised to learn I was an opinionated, high-strung, type-A little kid.
If you take my McDonald’s, I’ll kill you with a spork.
Okay, I didn’t stab anyone…but I sure wanted to! By the 1980s fast food had perfected marketing their products to children. Kids need little convincing to enjoy french fries and toys; I was was no exception, and McDonald’s was my favorite chain (naturally). I had a place in my heart for Burger King’s flamed-grilled food, but no one could touch McD's fries. No one. Plus McD's had a playland with a whole bunch of fun characters, many of whom were retired when a copyright lawsuit by the H.R. Pufnstuf creators drove them into McPoverty. Last I heard (former) Mayor McCheese owns a real estate firm in Studio City.
The year must have been around 1985, placing me in kindergarten. I was downstairs watching TV, probably Scooby-Doo or Charlie’s Angels, when my 16-year-old brother Mike walked in with one of our neighbors, “Billy.” I was always excited when Mike was around because he had a guitar and a bedroom full of albums, though gaining entry there was harder than Studio 54.
“Hey, we’re goin’ to McDonald's to get some cheeseburgers,” Mike said, fiddling with a portable radio. My ears perked up, since I’ve always hated cheese on my burgers. Ditto for tacos.
“I don’t want cheese!” I reminded. Aside from foods like ravioli, mac n' cheese, and ice cream, I hated milk. In fact, I even have memories of being in preschool and intensely grossed out as my classmates eagerly gulped down their Hydrox cookies with milk. My throat would close if I tried to drink it, and if some stupid kid breathed on me with his milk-breath it would make me want to either puke or punch him. I don't believe I did either of those things; I wasn't a "puker" growing up, and the only kid I remember hitting was my next door neighbor.*
“Can I come?” I thought if I accompanied him to McDonald’s, I’d possibly get a Happy Meal out of it, but Mike shook his head.
“We’re going to Radio Shack first,” Mike informed, adjusting the laces on his Adidas. Maybe he was eager to redeem his free Battery of the Month perk.
“Don’t worry, I’ll make sure you don’t get cheese,” Billy reassured me. I liked Billy because he was really nice to my sisters and me, possibly because he had a younger brother around my age. Mike’s other guy friends usually ignored me.
“Okay,” I brightened. Mike and Billy left, and I happily turned back to my cartoons and commercials…but this happiness would prove to be short-lived, for I was about to be introduced to the horrors of steam-grilled food.
Some time passed until I heard the front door swing open, followed by my brother’s trademark foot-stomps. I jumped up, ready to slide down those Golden Arches but stopped dead in my tracks when I spotted a white bag with a blue castle on it.
“What’s that smell?” I asked, wondering if this was a separate lunch they bought for themselves. Maybe they left my Happy Meal in the car?
“We went to White Castle instead,” said Mike.
“Better than McDonald’s!” Billy added, emphatically. I wasn’t convinced, watching the tiny hamburger greasily slide out of its cardboard case.
“Why's it so small?” I inquired, my little brain trying to figure out if I was being tricked. My older siblings were notorious for teasing me mercilessly and playing pranks.
“Because you’re supposed to eat a whole a bunch,” Mike said, easily demolishing a burger with one bite. He raised his eyebrows as if to say, "See? Nothing unusual here."
I took a bite, grimacing at how the mushy food collided with crunchy onions. I quickly opened the burger and found it square and full of holes! WTF?!
“It’s broken!” Before my brother could stop me, I grabbed a second one and tore it open like a starving racoon. Five more sad little holes stared back at me. I panicked. “What’s going on?! Mom!!”
“They’re supposed to look that like!” Mike snapped, annoyed. I guess teenagers don’t remember how annoying they were at five. “Here, have some fries,” he offered, hoping to shut me up. Little did he know this would just worsen things: one look at those crinkle fries almost made me blow a gasket.
"Mom makes these!" I got angry, thinking he had eaten the "real" fries. The great thing about fast food fries are how salty and crispy they are, right? Well, these White Castle fries were no different than the crinkle fries Mom pan-fried in Mazola. What the hell?!
It would be another 25 years before I would eat White Castle again, due to a film shoot that went into overtime. Just seeing those burger sacks brought me back to 1985. I gulped down a burger and ate a few fries, only to end up hugging my toilet later.
They hadn't changed a bit.
I would like to think this was the last time I had to defend my McDonald's from my brother, but sadly no. I was actually at Billy's house one day, playing video games with his little brother. Seeing as it was getting dark, I walked back to my house, just up the street. The unmistakable smell of McDonald's hit me, and I skipped up the steps, ready for dinner...
...only to discover Mike had eaten all my food since I was late getting home. Naturally I was upset! Mom was working late and Dad was in a food coma, so Mike had the difficult challenge of placating me solo. I watched as my two sisters chowed down, making my nine-year-old self feel worse.
"You know what? I got something better," Mike promised, heading over to the freezer. My eyes lit up, because the freezer meant one thing: ice cream. I probably would have been happy to replace my McD's with a big bowl of chocolate ice cream...
...but instead I was handed a Steak-Umm.
"These are awesome," he tried, but I knew the voice he was using. It was the Lying Voice of the Older Sibling, and all younger kids' ears are attuned to this. He knew that I loved him and wanted to hang out with him all the time, so often this Voice was used to his advantage, like running little errands for him. But lots of times it was sweet. I remember falling off my bike and skinning my elbow, and there was Mike rubbing my back, "C'mon, you wanna be tough like He-Man, he called to tell me he wants you to be a toughguy...you wanna get Mr. Softee?" That got my tears to stop :)
But I wasn't crying this time, just whining. I'm pretty sure my brother returned to the the drive-thru, which was just a few blocks away. If you're a younger sibling then you know all too well THE FEELINGS OF INJUSTICE when one of the elders "takes" something from you. In the White Castle memory, I was upset because I hated being deceived, and even though that's not what happened my 5-year-old brain interpreted it that way. I think this is common, since most toddlers I know can have a meltdown over "nothing." Maybe adults would better handle these moments if they understood why their child was upset? I think the trick is to make your child feel listened to without giving in to their every whim (a difficult balance, I know).
The second story caused me to throw a tantrum because I was the youngest and always felt slighted; this is so common! While I don't share a lot of the "youngest child personality traits," being taken seriously was and is a big issue for me. I saw my older brother as someone who had a job, a car, and the ability to eat McDonald's whenever he wanted, which made his eating my dinner feel much worse than it actually was. I'm sure I could've eaten that stupid Steak-Umm or boiled up some Ramen, but I was still a young kid feeling like she didn't matter. I remember eventually getting to eat my McD's dinner, but I didn't enjoy it as much.
Again, this was my interpretation, for what happened was much less sinister: my family probably thought I was at someone else's house for dinner and figured the food was up for grabs. Being the end of a long work day, I bet my Dad was simply too exhausted to think about getting in his car to grab one silly little meal, and my brother forgot what it was like to be very young and feel powerless, with no "say" in your little life. Besides, kids are gonna throw tantrums for all sorts of reasons, and guess what? So do many of your adult heroes! Seriously. There's a lot of them.
*I bet you wanted to know about the time I punched my neighbor "Stacey." I was four and she was five at the time. She was on our little patch of lawn, hitting me repeatedly with a bald Cabbage Patch kid...those hard rubber heads hurt! So I told her to stop.
"If you hit me again, I'm going to punch your lights out," I warned. I had seen both Rocky and The Karate Kid, so I figured I could handle myself. Stacey grinned devilishly, her eyes not believing me.
"I mean it..." But all this did was invite another blow. So I gave her a right hook.
She went down like a sack of potatoes. She looked stunned for a minute, but then the water works started. Stacey ran home crying, and I ran home to hide under my bed, pretty sure I was going to get in a lot of trouble. I don't have any memory of a punishment, leaving me to guess that even if she did tell her parents, she would have to admit to being the bully. The funny part is that my sister still keeps in touch with Stacey, who has no recollection of this little fight!