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When I was a kid I loved McDonald’s. I loved it because of the Chicken McNuggets and the colorful, plastic jungle gyms that were large enough to get lost in. They don’t have jungle gyms anymore - not since that Minnesotan boy suffocated after being stampeded in the ball pit. There are still McNuggets, though, with real white meat.
Nowadays I don’t eat at McDonald’s much, only during the odd late-night hunger attack, and then it’s the drive-through. McDonald’s at two-thirty on a Saturday morning is a place of feigned companionship during solitude. It’s the lowest common denominator of the food-service industry. I drive into the wash of red and yellow light that emanates eerily from the giant, neon menu. I expect communication here - I never get it. The cashier’s speech is distant and mechanically distorted, I try to place an order calmly but my voice sounds forced and anxious, I’m not even sure the cashier is listening, I find myself tensing my legs and straining my neck out the window. But the food is inevitably waiting at the next window, usually in the hands of a bored teenager who asks if I want ketchup, I take it and sit in my mother’s car eating like a Velociraptor.
Today, I pulled into the McDonald’s on Putney Road as I was driving home. It was about six o’clock and the dinnertime crowd was showing up. The air inside was oily and wet, heavy with the smell of fried grease, processed meat and ammonia; I was breathing deep-fried oxygen – very comforting.
The man at the counter was ordering a number two meal. His body looked like a hard-boiled egg wearing green canvas pants and a brown canvas jacket. He was short and his belly quivered as he spoke, stretching his belt out and down. His head and neck were like one piece of rectangular flesh perched on his shoulders. His dark hair was short and thick as were the irregularly shaved patches of facial hair that grew around the moles on the side of his face. Two dark lips like tapered sausages smacked across the bottom half of his face as he spoke. He lumbered to a table and I listened to the horrible Dan Fogelberg song drifting sterilely from the PA speakers in the ceiling, “My life has been a poor attempt to imitate the man. I’m just a living legacy to the leader of the band.”
My turn. Placing my hands on the greasy counter I mumbled, “I’ll have a large fries please.” I keep my eyes down.
“Is that all?”
“Yeah, thanks.” Looking up, I saw a short, thin woman punching my order into the electronic register. She was easily over forty and her command of the simple computer was shaky, but after struggling with it for a moment she looked past my right shoulder.
“…The leader of the band is tired, and his eyes are growing old…”
The age of the employees here is always surprising and unsettling. Seeing them, I’m plagued by the thought of the mindless, tedious jobs of my youth becoming lifelong careers; after all, someone will always have to flip the burgers.
Placing the brown, plastic tray on the brown, flecked, plastic table, I settled into the hard, contoured bench. A family walked through the door proceeded by a vanguard of two young boys swaddled in down jackets, snow pants and winter hats with flaps secured tightly over their ears. They jabbered excitedly, weighing the pros and cons of each item on the menu.
Some people say that seeing such young children in fast food-joints is depressing. I don’t mind it. At least the place represents excitement, hope. In my eyes the solitary old lady hunched over the corner table is a far more tragic figure, as is the middle-aged couple out to dinner. Those who are drawn here by the promise of the golden arches, the lure of convenience, quality and happiness but realize all too late that they were duped, that a façade is only recognizable from behind. The people who are compelled to come here by necessity - or a perceived necessity are the source of aesthetic discomfort in this room.
To be sure, the atmosphere was melancholy. I felt un-cleanliness and tension, but also camaraderie; I was one of many men stranded in the great American desert. But the emotion evoked was by no means pessimistic. It was less a feeling of depression than of fatigue, bleariness. The faux-wood décor and bland, yellow-red-brown color scheme was anesthetizing, numbing, but not entirely unpleasant. An isolating, blurry affect, embraced by every patron in the room.
America is a country of individualists. McDonald’s is full of weary individualists. It’s a place where lonely awkward people come to be lonely and awkward together.
This is it, I thought as I squeezed ketchup out of a plastic packet, the heart of the American Dream. The clogged, failing heart of the American Dream.
The French-Fries were delicious.