ESSAY

When McDonald’s was America and America was McDonald’s

How do you eulogize a fast food chain that is not quite dead, that is at the root of many ills, personal and public, of our world, and that was also once the glowing sign at the very tip top of president Reagan’s metaphorical shining city on a hill? Imagine a world with no Big Macs. It’s easy if you try: McDonald’s earnings are falling, again, and more changes to previous changes are coming down the line. It’s hard to remember a time when the restaurant defined America, but that time existed, and I remember it well.

I come not to praise McDonald’s, but not, exactly, to bury it either. As for every other American kid growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, McDonald’s was The Special Treat. Especially when the kid was under the age of, say, 10. In the mall (another dying institution), for being good during mom’s race through the department stores, coupons in hand, a Happy Meal. Thru the Drive-Thru, after school, when mom had to go to work the overnight data-processing shift, and hadn’t had time to make a meal for me and my dad, chicken nuggets. For dad, who would be on his way home from his 5am-4pm shift at the machine shop, a Big Mac, though he would complain that it was “too much.” At a rest stop, during the grueling drives to vacation spots, up and down the Eastern Seaboard, in the days before everyone flew everywhere, who knows? Maybe a cheeseburger, maybe an exotic delicacy like McPizza, maybe a deep fried Apple Pie and decaf.

Sure, at times Burger King and even Roy Rogers would sneak into the mix, but the Golden Arches gold standard was McDonald’s. And when, at 15, I applied for a job all over my working-class New Jersey town—the pizza parlor, the bowling alley, the video rental store, appealing to friends whose parents owned small businesses—only to come up empty-handed, it was Al Garcia, a Cuban emigree who drove an aging white BMW and owned two McDonald’s restaurants in the two towns flanking my own, who came through with my first job.

It was 3pm-11pm four nights a week, sometimes a weekend shift, too. No wonder my grades suffered. But the gig was marvelous. Learning French from the Haitians in the kitchen, Spanish from the managers and janitors, even some Arabic from a petite woman, Aisha, from Egypt, I was the white kid who fit in perfectly, needed the job as much as they did, if only to develop my own sense of freedom, responsibility and control. The system for cooking was, as they say, so simple anyone could be trained to do it. I learned everything on my first shift, just by looking at the posters stuck to the walls. The magic was figuring out how to keep up with the rushes. The corporate handbook demanded that batches of the staple menu—hamburgers, cheeseburgers, Quarter Pounders, Big Macs, McChickens, fries, nuggets, and later the ill-fated Arch Deluxe line—be made on a constant basis, and thrown away after a 13-minute hold in a hot tray. It would’ve been the height of insanity to run a business that way in real life. So cooked meats would be held in steam cabinets for hours, and the sandwiches were assembled to order. Which was fine when one customer strolled in. But then would come another, and another, and all at once, a rush would be on. Heaven help the unprepared.

Rushes could hit at any time at all. 10:45pm, when everything was half put away and the kitchen was being mopped. 11am, Sunday, when a woman driving a Mercedes might ask for 10 Egg McMuffins as the crew was switching to the lunch menu. My first day, I was put on the second Drive-Thru window—responsible for assembling orders and getting the cars cleared out. I worked far, far, too hard and efficiently for anyone’s good, especially my own. I showed up the rest of the crew, without meaning to, and started reconfiguring the Drive-Thru station’s supply of napkins, ketchup, soda cups, to match my own thought patterns as I attacked order after blinking order on the green computer screen above the soda fountain. Still, the manager looked on in wonder. I was his new guy, accidentally. It took weeks of lackadaisical effort before I was able to get off that nightmare post, where chaos could hit at any moment and I was dependent on so many other minimum-wage workers to keep the food coming, for assembly and hand-off, even though any backups in the line of cars would be blamed on me, and no one else. Where restocking the station during downtimes felt something like scrounging for ammo belts in a trench, between bouts of fast-food combat.

I also often envisioned, late at night, a man coming with a gun to the window, to rob me and then shoot me when no one was around for what felt like miles in the dark suburban night. That never came to pass, but what did happen late one weird New Jersey night, a few months into my stint, was that the manager took me with him from our McDonald’s to Al’s other restaurant two towns over, to redistribute some boxes of supplies. On the return trip, for some reason, he let me drive his stick-shift Jetta. Me, who did not have a learner’s permit, or even any time behind the wheel. I think he may have been drunk, which is why I got the nod. I do know that the cop who moonlighted as security during the weekends clearly saw my face behind the wheel as I pulled back into our restaurant. He knew my dad would wait to take me home at night, because I was too young to drive. The cop said nothing when I came back inside; neither did I.

My dad, waiting at 11pm in the gray Chevy S-10 Blazer that would later be my first car, expected nothing, the first night of my employment, but to take me home. Instead, I walked out with a huge bag of unsold leftovers—cheeseburgers, chicken nuggets, fries, and more (we did prepare some food in advance, at times, but certainly the age of these sandwiches could not be measured in minutes)—that we scarfed at the kitchen table that night, as my mother watched with something like scorn and pride washed across her face. Her son, making his way.

Soon a half-filled bag of McDonald’s leftovers became a staple in the crisper drawer of our refrigerator. Or two bags did, or three. Lunches would be McDonald’s leftovers. They were free! They tasted good, when reheated, kind of. The reward, the Special Treat food, became the daily, the monotonous. And that’s sort of what happened with America as well, as our obesity levels soared and our vital signs plummeted, and the Drive-Thru lines became ever more packed, forcing my colleagues into the parking lot with wireless order-taking computers.

Despite my steadily increasing pant size, Al had a pat greeting for me whenever he was in the restaurant, usually a couple times a week at the start of my shifts. “Paul, looking good! Have you lost a few pounds?” Nothing could warm the heart of a rapidly-growing—in the horizontal and vertical—teenaged boy more.

My junior prom date was a coworker from a neighboring town, who I would’ve never met without the job, and the type of girl I would’ve never been able to talk to, for all sorts of reasons, most of all her devastating beauty, but whom I could charm and get to know while whiling away hours between in front of the milkshake machine and behind the formica counter, on countless weekday afternoons.

Eventually I was fired, in an answering machine message, by the manager who let me drive his car on a busy four lane road while he lolled in the passenger seat and told me to not to grind the gears. I was a reasonably smart kid, but I was also too precocious. When I explained to him that all the food we sold was a loss leader for the high-margin sodas that were at that time coming in 48-oz. cups, he was fascinated, having never considered the economics of operating the restaurant, beyond daily sales figures, but also threatened. I hadn’t learned the lesson of that first day on the 2nd window; I showed him up.

After that, I quit eating McDonald’s for the most part, though I would occasionally return for sustenance and nostalgia. I had a serious fling with the on-campus Burger King in college, and a decade-long bout with my weight that only ended when I cut out all processed foods and began weighing myself every day to be sure I was losing, or at least maintaining mass, on a 10-day trend line.

These days, a friend tells me his wife informs their toddler that McDonald’s is “poison food” and the company’s claim on our national and even global stomachs continues to erode. Even a video where McDonald’s, in a grasp at transparency, explains the bulk of the 19 ingredients in their french fries are actually chemical agents present in two cooking oils falls flat. The potatoes I fry at home don’t require a defoaming agent in the oil, or a chemical “to keep them from going gray.” Our standards for freshness, quality and taste, mercifully, may have risen beyond the thousand-link logistical supply chain required to keep a place like McDonald’s perfectly homogenous around the country and the world. But, there was a time.

Al, when he heard how the manager had treated me, called to offer me my job back, with a raise, but I had just been nominated for Boys State by my high school, which is a kind of civics sleep away camp run by the American Legion veterans association. Instead of returning to my post, my new girth and I schlepped down to a college campus in South Jersey, where I learned how talk about fake politics, and was two petition signatures away from getting to run for Boys State governor, after having started the week as a di Blasio-style operative, lurking in the shadows and side conversations of our fictitious “town.”

When I last saw Al, I brought him my two teal uniform shirts, my hat, and also my collection of pins—those enameled pieces of flair advertising products, characters, positive attitudes, can-do willingness and bon-homie—that had been pinned neatly on my shirt, and my name badge.

As seems to be happening with McDonald’s across America today, in our fast-casual Chipotlified world, my era of McDonald’s was over, and I wanted to forget the whole business, that I had ever been there at all. Al asked me once more if I would consider returning to the job, but I declined. “No, no, one thing,” he said, as I walked toward the back door of the store for the last time. “The pins, the name tag. Those are yours to keep, forever.” I still have them.

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