once a year

i don't know if it's true or not, but somebody told me that once a year, the Dalai Lama smokes a cigarette.

just to keep it real. to remind himself that we're all human, and therefore absolutely perfect in our own unique brand of imperfection. to allow himself the righteousness of being just like everybody else, even if only for one little day out of his great big year.

if the Dalai Lama can confess to that, i think it's about time i confess to this:

once a year, i eat a vanilla ice cream cone from McDonald's.

i didn't stutter, so don't ask me to repeat it. i once forced a girlfriend in DC to promise with her life she wouldn't tell a soul about my dirty little secret, as we slammed two cones each just before midnight.

the dairy industry. fast-food global nation. enough chemicals to kill a donkey. trash mountains produced on the daily. neo-slave labor packaged with a smile. it's McDonalds for fuck's sake. and it's completely against everything i breathe for.

healthy living. sustainability. alternatives to capitalism. social justice. real food.

so once a year, not unlike the Dalai Lama, i find myself at the doormat of those golden arches, fumbling my way through the drive-thru, ordering my disgustingly delicious vanilla ice cream cone, swirled to perfection, and dancing mytongue around every last lick to my heart's utter discontent. and i love-hate every unbearable second of it.

yesterday, after a three-day surf trip camping off the grid and swatting mosquitoes through epic rainstorms and mediocre waves, i decided it was time. Liberia, Costa Rica. a town big enough to host a McD's and a place where absolutely nobody knows my name.


a dollar and change later, vanilla cone in hand, i wheeled around to park the car, boards still stacked and strapped on top, and savored the anticipation of this year's creamy little secret.

a young, dark-skinned boy in a blue-collared shirt motioned me into the spot, like a child actor imitating the parking guards who work for tips in cities across Latin America. i smiled and gave the thumb's up, wanting him to feel like he mattered, or at least like i saw him, anyway.

i turned off the engine and looked down at that neon white swirl awaiting my taste buds and inevitable indigestion, and noticed that the boy was still there in front of my car, opposite a waist-high cement wall, staring intently at me and my cone.

it wasn't his first time working the guilt of privilege to his advantage, that i knew. quickly, i hated him for ruining my moment. an entire year lost to his impossible gaze, piercing straight to my sad little heart and its ideological obsession with righting the unrectifiable wrongs of this cold, hard world.

i'd have given him five bucks to get the hell outta there and let me enjoy my chemical-infused treat in peace. but that wouldn't have changed a thing. his mom would still be lying there under a urine-soaked blanket beneath the freshly constructed overpass. and he'd still be twitching in some sort of withdrawal symptom before his eighth birthday, i calculated. and i'd still finish my vanilla swirl cone without tasting a dismal drop of it and drive a few hours to my cozy mountain home at the beach, far far away from the city that cares to know neither of our names, in the car i'd just bought, packed with the privilege of a week's provisions and the unjust safety nets of a middle-class family and a university education he'd never have, even if he did survive adolescence on the street - the cards of life stacked higher than surfboards atop four-wheel drives, against him.

no, five bucks could never erase the unsavory shame of privilege on my tongue and the bitter injustice in impossible realities like that.

i crunched the last little corner of my kinda stale waffle cone, dug up a few dollars from my purse and held them out the window, safe between the lines in my spot at the McDonald's parking lot. the boy in the blue-collared shirt gestured toward himself and raised his eyebrows as if to say, "you mean, me?"

i nodded, encouraging him over.

his reaction made it clear that five bucks wasn't exactly a regular occurrence for him on that street corner. maybe like once a year, i imagined.

he thanked me with an innocence i couldn't stomach as artificial vanilla flavor threatened its revolt inside me. i pulled away and turned the corner, made the light and didn't look back. heavy raindrops bombed the windshield as my gaze grew blurry in the infinite sadness i never wish to learn to shake.

because you can give the girl her McDonald's vanilla cone once a year for the rest of her life, but you'll never turn her numb to the suffering of this far-from-perfect planet of man and the injustice served in perfect swirls to our heart's insatiable delight.

because even though it hurts like hell to see and feel all that, i imagine it would be a whole lot worse if i didn't. if no one did.

i know my five bucks in his hands, in the grand scheme of things, doesn't change shit, and it certainly doesn't keep me from the privilege of my guilt. it won't give that boy a leg up in the world today. and it may very well contribute to his ongoing drug addiction tomorrow. but it also might let him know that someone sees him. and it might even buy him a few moments of whatever fleeting joy helps him survive a life i'll never know for longer than the time it takes to eat an ice cream cone in the McDonald's parking lot.

at least until this mixed up world starts changing a little more for the better.

...even if, like cigarettes and McDonald's ice cream cones, five bucks only happens once a year.