McDonald’s is just one of those places that can restore that sense of stability and order when I’m travelling in unfamiliar locations. Love it or hate it, you can’t argue with the fact that this company has a solid system they’ve perfected and exported throughout the world over that makes the service uniform and dependable.

So when I step into the McDonald’s on the side of a major road in a busy southern Texas city, that cookie-cutter smooth service is what I expect.

I’m on my way to look for a campsite several miles up the road. McDonald’s for a quick washroom break and a ‘guilt purchase’ seems like the logical choice.

I get that washrooms are for customers only, so I always buy a little something to ease my conscience—it’s the price I pay for relieving my bladder of its burden.

Now, I know it’s Texas and that it’s hot, but in the same way that caffeine addicts irrationally order scalding coffee on a blistering day, I love my hot chocolate. So when I see my beverage of choice on the digital menu just to the right of the customer line, I make up my mind that that’s what I’m going to order.

The quest begins

There’s an elderly lady in line in front of me and a (perhaps) 17-year-old with ‘David’ on his nametag serving her. There’s been some sort of mistake in the order that the white-haired woman leans in to explain. She points at the dollar bills and change in front of her to emphasize her point.

I hear David say, “I’ll get the manager,” after which a short, surly looking redhead appears. Without saying a word to the customer, she performs some sort of magic on the till and quickly vanishes.

The elderly lady, with the corrected purchase amount already separated, hands over the cash. She looks the young server in the eye and says to him, “Now I want my smile.”

I don’t know if he remembers the days when McDonald’s had ‘Smiles—Free’ listed on their menus. It put a smile on customers’ faces to read that line and reminded servers to treat their customers cheerfully. And this lady wants to end her interaction on a positive note.

With a bit of an ‘aw shucks’ look, the teen lets open a big grin and bids the lady a good day.

As I take my place at the front of the line, the smile transfers to me and David and I start on the right foot.

“Can I get a hot chocolate?” I ask in my polite Canadian manner.

“We don’t have hot chocolate,” David confidently proclaims.

I know what I know from having already scoured the menu. I point to ‘hot chocolate’ on the digital board above my head—going so far as to touch it—and declare triumphantly, yet with a joking tone, “I can read!!”

I’m aware that my proclamation could have been taken in a lot of different ways, but David, being the good smiling sport that he is, gives a little chuckle and diligently studies the cash register buttons.

“Oh, there it is,” he says sheepishly.

We both enjoy the humour of the moment and I hand over the cash. David gives me a receipt with a customer number on it so I can wait for my chocolate fix.

The prospect is bleak

I stand back, and decide to treat the scene of McDonald’s employees buzzing around filling orders as a form of entertainment as I wait. And the longer I watch, the more I notice the drama, humour and suspense that’s unfolding before me.

David has left his post at the till and—without washing his hands—is suddenly backstage flipping burgers. The surly manager is running around clutching the corner of a take-out bag in one hand, yelling to no one in particular, “These people have been waiting 25 minutes for their order!”

The next thing I know, David’s running out the door with the bag, presumably to give it to someone who’s come through the drive-through and is parked outside waiting.

At the side counter, there are a couple of grim-faced patrons holding out a disassembled burger that must not have been prepared according to their specifications. A blonde teen, ponytail bobbing, takes the burger away and disappears into the back.

At the deep fryer, a short man with awkward movements lifts up the basket full of freshly fried potatoes, only to drop it back into the bubbling oil as he fumbles it off the hook.

The fries continue to suffer an ill fate as another employee spills half of them when he tries to pour them into their new cardboard home. Some land back in the fry bin, while a few take a nosedive to the floor. The rest flop around aimlessly instead of standing at attention in the corner, mirroring the lack of order in the staff.

Meanwhile, the sundae machine continues to spit up ice cream long after there’s anything there to catch it.

The suspense inside me starts to build: How is my order going to be messed up? It isn’t a question of ‘if’, but only ‘how.’

David to the rescue

Time ticks by as disaster after disaster continues to occur: misread orders, jumbled ingredients and debris on the floor mounting.

After about 20 minutes, David suddenly remembers the lady who can read. He locks eyes with me and exclaims, “Hot chocolate!” I smile and nod, re-entering the drama as a participant and not merely an observer. Without leaving his post, David calls over his shoulder, “I need a hot chocolate!”

More orders are taken, more mistakes made, more time passes. But David doesn’t forget my quest for that hidden menu item.

I begin to admire this teenager’s tenacity amid the chaos. He’s turned my nonsensical order of a steamy sugary beverage on a hot Texas day into his personal quest.

He turns back to a small group of co-workers and pleads, “Can someone make me a hot chocolate?” I’m impressed with his determination—which soon turns into frustration as he dances around behind the till calling out, “Hot chocolate, hot chocolate, hot chocolate!”

I begin to admire this teenager’s tenacity amid the chaos. He’s turned my nonsensical order of a steamy sugary beverage on a hot Texas day into his personal quest.

And finally finding no one to help him, he rolls up his sleeves, so to speak, goes to the hot beverage machine himself and asks the blonde ponytailed girl, “How do I make a hot chocolate?”

When he hands me the covered drink, that free smile is back on his face. As I take the hard-won prize, I feel the passing of the torch, as if he were saying to me, “I fought for you today. I did my best to get others to do their job and when that didn’t work, I went into the trenches and did it myself. Remember this moment and fight for others as I have fought for you.”

I place the open palm of my right hand over my heart and bow my head with respect for this noble warrior.

Walking back to my car, I carefully remove the lid from my cup to let some steam escape, only to discover that my exposed hot chocolate is somehow white and watery. This, after all of David’s hard work.

But there was no way I was going to return this symbol of fortitude and the desire to serve. True, I was leaving with a mess I wasn’t going to drink, but I was also leaving with something much more important. I’d found just a little faith that with committed people like David around, though we may not always get it right, there’s still hope in the midst of the chaos of this world.

And besides, I wasn’t going to wait another 20 minutes for an order that wasn’t done right.

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