President’s Day Weekend. Saturday, February 17th. Dead of winter, Massachusetts.
Almost immediately, I regretted turning in at 1:00am the previous night. A quick glance at my phone said it was 7:02am. Certainly not my best sleeping performance, but some strong coffee would have to suffice to make this day tolerable.
So what? So what if I didn’t have any plans on the Saturday of a three-day weekend? So what if I had the apartment to myself for quite possibly the first time in three and half years, for a full weekend? Today was not going to be a day of feeling sorry for myself. Today would be a day I overcame.
This situation had presented itself more frequently in recent weeks. All dressed up, and no place to go. In my first encounters with free time, I would be stir-crazy, not sure what to do or where to go. I learned that it was important to stay busy—talk to my friends and family, run errands, read a new book on my Kindle—anything to avoid the feeling of self-pity and loneliness. On this particular day, I took action. I braved the 25-degree weather, started up my car and began driving. At 8:05am, on a precious weekend off from work, in the dead of winter.
I’ll be honest, I had no idea where I was going. Maybe it was instinct that took me to my hometown. It’s the one place that always has been safe, the one place that provides comfort, no matter what chaos surrounded me. I thought about going to our local “hotspot”, Bagel World.
“No, I can’t do that. What if I see someone I know? I can’t have that, I look like sh*t,” I contemplated. I didn’t go there. Instead, I went to the last place anyone would expect to see me, McDonald’s.
Yes, McDonald’s—and not even the one in my hometown. It was the same one I went to in high school with my friends when we first got our driver’s licenses. We would roll up to the drive-thru and yell at the top of our lungs about the deals we scored with dollar McChickens and McDoubles, without a care in the world.
This time, I didn’t revisit the drive-thru. I walked inside the establishment wearing Jordan sweatpants, a black winter hat that looked like I was the third member of the ‘Sticky Bandits’, a sweatshirt, and under that, the same t-shirt I wore to bed the night before. It was 8:25am, on a precious weekend off from work, in the dead of winter.
I walked up to the counter where there was no line, and no waiting. A very nice high school student was behind the register and politely asked what I wanted to order. I stared back and him as if I was stunned by the question, and said nothing. I didn’t even know what I was doing there—let alone what I wanted to order. After a few seconds had elapsed I think I said something like “An egg McMuffin and a large coffee,” but I would have accepted anything he gave me. After the order was placed, a gentleman came into line behind me. We exchanged our ‘New England nods’ essentially acknowledging that he too was at a McDonald’s, on a precious weekend off from work, in the dead of winter.
I sat down in a booth in the center of the restaurant, with something that looked edible sitting on the table in front of me. About halfway through the sandwich, I took my first look around the restaurant. Save for the respectful young man who took my order, I was the youngest patron in the restaurant that morning—by a long shot. The average age of the restaurant that day was quite possibly 79 years young. But somehow, (to the surprise of probably no one who reads this), I was perfectly content with my surroundings.
I looked at the faces of those around me and saw how genuinely happy they were to be at McDonald’s, at 8:35am, on a precious weekend off—well let’s be honest, they all were clearly retired. But I saw how they spoke to each other; asking about each other’s families and loved ones. “Jackson is playing at Burbank tomorrow morning at 9:30. Why the hell do they make those games so late?” one gentleman asked to anyone who was listening.
I was listening. I was listening to all of it. I was there with them in that moment. I thought about how life was truly a gift to them all and how special these opportunities were. They wanted to start their days with each other and share stories about their past to a captive audience. I thought of my grandfather, who every morning would go to the Route 99 McDonald’s in Everett, just to see his pals and reminisce. He always wanted to start his day with the ones he cared for most. “The good ole days,” he’d tell me.
After finishing my sandwich and half of my coffee, I set back out into the New England cold to embark on my next journey to nowhere. I made the trek up Route 28, turned left at the old Sunoco Gas Station (now called something with initials), up Pearl Street and Beaver, to Colonial. Colonial Drive was our place for the previous 29 ½ years of my life, until it was sold the previous summer to a married couple with a young daughter. I slowed up past white pillars, turned down “God’s Plan” by Drake, and parked in front. It looked relatively the same, save for the butchering of several bushes in the back (yes, Mom your setup was better), and the bright white garage doors that replaced the “Mickey Mouse” job one of my Dad’s students’ had done putting ours in several years ago.
I felt nothing. I was expecting to have a reaction, but I didn’t. It wasn’t our place anymore. The Power’s had moved from across the street. The kids had left the Sage’s house to start their own lives. I think the D’Agati’s sold their place a few years back. This wasn’t my ‘hood anymore. It belonged to the new generation, a new wave of Rockets. I had overstayed my welcome.
I continued on towards 128 and 93 deciding that my cruising for the morning was over. Besides, as the elder gentleman in McDonald’s had said, 9:30am is awfully late for a game. I walked up the snowy banks of our deck back into the house, closed the door behind me and said aloud to no one, “Now what?”—Dear God I’ve become my father. I paced the small square footage of that second-story apartment, with the wood floors creaking below me. My landlord Kathy, who lived below us, must have known that this morning qualified as a “can’t sit still” type of day.
The sun was beginning to warm up a seemingly endless winter. “Finally” I said, again to no one in particular. I decided that my head could use some fresh air. I decided to go for a walk through the mean streets of Medford. I walked up Fulton, and turned towards Wright’s Pond. My roommate and I had just discovered Wright’s Pond a few weekends prior, when there was a break in the winter action on a long walk one Sunday. I think I even said to him, “Who said there was no beach in Medford?” I think he laughed, but as always, I think I’m funny.
The pond was quite peaceful that day. A few brave souls were out walking their dogs. It almost made me wish I had a four-legged friend to join me—almost. I had my Steely Dan playlist cranking, and made my way through the woods, to paths I had never been to before. In the midst of this walk, I noticed off in the distance some people out on the ice. At first I was concerned, wondering what in the hell they were doing out there. As I continued up the path, I noticed they weren’t walking on the ice. They were skating.
Skating. I had never even considered it. A few years earlier, I had this idea that I should get a pair of skates “just to have”. I think they had been used twice before on Frog Pond in the time I owned them. I still had my hockey stick from my 4th grade birthday party that was signed by all of my friends in attendance, and just that summer, I purchased a few hockey pucks and a pair of gloves at a yard sale for $4.
“I have to do this,” I said to myself.
I quickly switched off the Steely Dan to get into attack mode—Migos because a big idea calls for a big sound. I briskly walked through the cutting wind back to my apartment. I made myself a peanut butter sandwich, packed up a bottle of water and some granola bars along with my hockey gear, and set back down the road to the pond.
In that moment, I felt like a 10-year old again, eager to get to the rink to get on a fresh sheet of ice. I had played hockey at a very young age, and I truly loved the sport. I still think it’s my favorite to this day. Sure I had some skill, but I was no Bobby Orr. I played until my mother’s constant complaining about the early morning games (I guess 9:30am isn’t late for everyone) and my realization that maybe I’d get a little bit taller someday to become a basketball player. I found an opening to the pond, laced up, and took my first step on the ice.
No, I didn’t fall. I glided. I glided for hours. I felt truly disconnected from everyone, and everything. I pretended I was Orr stick-handling, firing pucks down the long patch of ice, sprinting after the disc, and seeing if I could still skate backwards. I could, and it felt so good. Others going for a walk around the perimeter of the pond were watching me. Intrigued, fascinated, confused—I didn’t even see them. I just saw what felt like miles and miles of my ice.
About two hours into my free styling, I noticed a middle-aged man dressed in camouflage approaching the ice with his young daughter. She couldn’t have been more than five years old. She was bundled head-to-toe in pink, just happy to be out walking with her dad. Kids that age are so fearless, and she was no exception. She walked straight up to me and said, “What are you doing?”
I didn’t really have an answer for her. Reliving my childhood? Escaping? Hiding? “Just out skating,” I replied.
“Skating? Dad, when can I skate?” she excitedly asked.
“Well, when you’re older,” he answered.
I locked eyes with the father, and he gave me the same ‘New England nod’ I had received at McDonald’s a few hours earlier. “Well, today’s your lucky day, because we are going to go out for a quick lap, if that’s OK with your dad,” I said with confidence, having no true idea if he would agree.
“That’s OK with me,” he responded after taking in the strange request.
She took hold of the hockey stick and I led her around in figure eight circles. There were a couple of close calls around some protruding branches in the pond, but the smile on her face was priceless. Even if she had fallen, she was so enamored with the idea of gliding; she would have picked herself right up and kept going. She even took hold of the stick herself and proceeded to whack the puck down the pond. After a few slap shots, she had had her fun for the day. She wandered back over to her father who thanked me, and they receded towards the street. I couldn’t help but smile.
On Wright’s Pond, I felt as free as I had ever felt in my life. I left behind my stresses—at work, in my personal life—everything. I truly found my “nice”, something I had been searching for, for quite some time. The decision to lace up and hit the ice changed my life. I left the pond that day with a clearer head, and a willingness to go outside of my comfort zone. It helped me to put aside my self-pity and expectations about where my life should be at this point to instead focus on the present and enjoy the simple things in life. Sometimes it takes an early morning trip to McDonald’s to learn from our previous generations about living for the moment, and making the most of your time on earth. These were my revelations at 11:55am, on a precious weekend off from work, in the dead of winter. Thanks for reading.
(Post courtesy of Drew Guarino)