It’s 6 a.m. in Princeton, Illinois. I have a six-hour drive to Rochester, Minnesota, where the Mayo Brothers will take a look-see at my 80-year-old ticker. Some reason for stress.

I stop at the drive-thru window at McDonald’s, a mile up the road at the interstate. My car won’t function properly unless I am holding a paper cup of coffee high in my right hand, elbow firmly on the leatherette armrest.

I pull around to the pay window, which slides open. A 30-ish lady, wearing the standard issue headset, is juggling multiple orders. She is all business as she turns to me. “Seventy-five cents, please, for a senior coffee, black.” Then, she smiles; I smile back.

At the pick-up window, the sliding door blocks my view of the busy-ness inside. The door opens, but a nano-second later than its usual promptness. “Where’s my coffee?” I demand, in mock upset, to the grandmotherly lady holding my coffee. She has a square face, friendly powder-blue eyes, bits of frizzled hair sticking from her cap.

“Grandmother” gives me a mock look of being taken aback. She pulls my coffee back just a bit. “Now, look here, sonny, don’t you sass me.” We both smile.

“We need to smile,” Granny says, as if she does need to smile.

“Life can be tough,” I respond, as if in sympathy somehow. I take my coffee, moving it from the left to right hand. My left is still out, dangling. I reach and grab her hand. We both squeeze, holding for a second, and smile. I drive on.

An hour later, north of Davenport, Iowa, I stop at McDee’s again. I am ready for my morning ice cream cone, which can be a problem in the early a.m., so I walk inside this time and order.

“We don’t serve ice cream cones for breakfast! Nobody eats ice cream for breakfast.” The diminutive young lady at the counter is about the cutest thing I have seen. (I know I’m not supposed to say that). Her thin voice comes out of the top of her throat and cracks as she speaks, adding to her charm.

Young lady is also joshing with me. We both know, from experience, that the early a.m. is often when the ice cream machine at McDonald’s cleans itself, and thus is unavailable.

“I’ll take a look,” cute young lady says, voice cracking, as if her vocal cords are smiling somehow. She comes back in a moment. “Nope, not ready.”

I don’t know why I crave an early ice cream cone when I travel. I tell myself it has calcium in it, though I have my doubts the concoction has ever been within 100 miles of a cow.

As I leave, I tell young lady that with her fun personality she can go far.

“I’m interested in health care,” she says, with a note of determination. We wave; she hustles back to the kitchen.

Another hour later, now near Dubuque, Iowa, I stop again at you know where.

A trim, bright-eyed young man is at the cash register. “I’ll check to see if it’s ready,” as he turns to the machine behind him.

“You’re in luck!” He pulls a cone out of a tube, and twirls it as the soft serve rises above the cone. He turns back to me. The cone tops off a bit higher than the franchisee would probably like; there is even a curly cue on top. Nice.

“A work of art,” I declare. He beams. We both chuckle.

I appreciate the forgoing is maybe trivial for busy readers, yet the experiences that morning gave me a good start to the day, from people who didn’t have to be quite so warm, friendly.

I have read that one in eight Americans has worked at some point in a McDonald’s. I am sure the quality of the work experience varies by store owner.

Folks born with silver spoons in their mouths don’t have to work at McDonald’s.

For those who do, the fast-paced work provides valuable lessons about teamwork and especially in the development of “people intelligence.” The pandemic aside, life is a people game. Learning diplomacy, for example, with cranky, never-satisfied people (a distinct minority) is invaluable.

To the extent there is still a meritocracy at work in America, these young people — it won’t help Granny — will take what they learn at McDonald’s and apply it in later business, health care or whatever success.

I simply want to report that McDonald’s made my day, one recent day.

Jim Nowlan writes a column about “Understanding Illinois.” He is a retired community newspaper editor and publisher in central Illinois. He has been a state House member, senior aide to three unindicted Illinois governors and former chair of the Illinois Executive Ethics Commission.

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