Money for Nothing and Drinks for Free

Man, it’s not easy to get a free lunch anymore!

When I was growing up in Los Angeles, money wasn’t flush in my family. We weren’t bad off but we didn’t have what it takes to be flash.

For a kid, this meant that treats were not always forthcoming. Certainly they came, but with five children my parents kept their spending on candies and stuff rather tame. My mother would take my two brothers and me to the beach by bus (she didn’t drive) and we’d have a blast and eat our home-prepared lunch on the hot sand, first, of course, running to the ocean to wash the sand off our hands. Then we’d bolt back and bolt down our sandwiches and crackers and fruit before bolting back to the ocean, or trying to at least after heeding our mother’s warning that you have to wait 30 minutes for the food to settle before going into the ocean. I think she let us wiggle away after we whined for 10 minutes straight.

On occasion she’d treat us to a cake at a café in Santa Monica, dividing in half the bus journey home to Brentwood.

They are memories we still savor.

And maybe this was because we weren’t hitting up the sweetshop everyday, a practice that didn’t kick in until we were old enough to go on our own after scraping together a few coins ourselves or by “borrowing” from my father’s stash in his closet, unbeknownst to him.

Hunger, thirst? We knew the feelings when out playing in the neighborhood or walking back from the bus or school or the beach, and we’d get home and dig into whatever we could, the fridge door ajar (this was before the days of the open-door beep warning) as we stuffed ourselves.

Then a joyous day came.

All three of us boys were on Little League baseball teams, and on one hot Saturday afternoon we had back-to-back games and somehow the organizers had selected my mother and one of our older sisters to run the canteen as volunteers. They had to open up for a few hours and sell food to players and spectators.

I couldn’t believe my luck as I walked inside the canteen and gazed at all the delicacies: candies, cookies and soft drinks.

Then the heavens opened up when my mother or sister handed me a chocolate bar and a can of 7-Up.

I don’t know if they paid for it or considered it a fringe benefit, but I savored every bite and sip of my free food, not wanting ever to reach the bottom of the can.

I remembered the story the other day when I picked up my youngest daughter from school.

It was hot and the four-year-old was grumpy, and the only thing that would improve her mood was if we went to the kiosk and bought her a sweetie.

I told her that my wallet was empty, which was true because my wife had gone out with all the money.

She stammered.

I said, “Sorry.”

Then she went silent for a minute before coming out with her plan. “I know,” she said, her face brightening. “We can have the kiosk guy pay for us. He can buy me a candy.”

I let her continue to dream of how to score a free drink and sweets because it is a good dream and, who knows, maybe one day I will have my very own canteen.

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