Memories of Happy Meals, Quarter Pounders with Cheese, and hot fudge sundaes.
In the house where Grandma lived in my earliest memories, she was a quarter mile from the nearest McDonald’s. Some of my earliest memories, thus, were of my sister her, and I making the journey there for an afternoon snack. My grandmother, who must not have eaten lunch those days, always ordered the Quarter Pounder. My sister and I stuck to ice cream, and occasionally French fries. One fateful day I decided that I wanted a cheeseburger—typically an entrée, absurd to think of as a snack. And to our collective shock and awe, Grandma thought that was fine.
I remember running ahead of my grandmother on the walk home, despite her calling after me that I shouldn’t and complaints afterward that I could have been hit by a car. She didn’t stay angry for long, if she had gotten angry at all, though. That’s the thing about Grandma, and about that period in my life, and these first trips to McDonald’s. There’s nothing to taint them. As much as I was a moody and sensitive little boy—prone to tears and tantrums—I recall all of this as feeling like treats, unmitigated by any perceived slights or outbursts. I remember not aspiring to anything greater than those walks, than those fatty, fried indulgences.
The summer before I left for college, I needed a job. My previous gig, folding sweaters and working the cash register at a discount clothing store had fallen through when I would only agree to work weekend hours during the school year and so the manager stopped giving me hours at all. I filed applications at other mall shops and at local grocery stores, but nothing panned out—fair enough given I was really only looking for about two months of work.
Finally, I applied at McDonald’s.
I went for an interview, clad in a button up shirt and khakis. I even brought a resume which, at my father’s insistence, included my SAT scores, which I recall Debbie the manager raising her eyebrows at, maybe because they were relatively impressive, but just as likely because literally no one had ever shared their standardized test performance at a McDonald’s job interview before.
I got the job and started on a Monday morning at 8 a.m.
I’ve never been a morning person and had yet to discover the virtues of coffee at that point, so I recall starting work pretty bleary eyed. What followed over that morning and for a week or two of mornings thereafter were some of the most miserable times of my life. It was hot and everything smelled of grease or the bleach-based disinfectant we sprayed over counters and trays under the mantra, “If there’s time to lean, there’s time to clean.” I grew particularly discouraged after a morning of so often being told that the wrapper on particular breakfast sandwiches was wrong and it was really this one, that I started grabbing sandwiches at random to give out to customers, only for them to one-by-one come back and complain, only for the manager on duty to give me an earful about giving out the wrong food to the wrong people.
But things settle. I got to know the menu, the register, and the functions of the job. I acclimated myself, alternately, to early mornings and late nights. I got to the know the regulars—the old man who always brought home coffee for himself and his ailing wife; another old man who made a habit of making a mess by pouring of half his coffee into a the lobby trash receptacle; my old pediatrician who didn’t offer any suggestion he remembered who I was; a firefighter and his wife who not-so-good-spiritedly joked that if we didn’t get their order together fast enough, they might not be able to put out the next fire they were on their way to and what if that next house is yours?
I found a certain kind of peace there, not just that summer but coming back to work over winter break and spring break, then for the few weeks before I started my summer camp job year after year after year. There was something to be said the physical tiring of being on your feet for an eight hour shift, the satisfaction of having cleaned out Playland, the occasional nicety from a customer who was willing to break the script of exchanging pleasantries and making their order in favor of asking where I went to school and what I was studying and what I intended to do with my life.
And over breaks, I indulged in Big Macs.
In Baltimore, I lived less than a half-mile from a McDonald’s for a period of years, and found myself placing an order at their front counter about once a month. An impatient traveling salesman once told me, as we waited, that he had been to McDonald’s locations all along the east coast and this was the worst of them.
I wanted to tell him that they were probably trying their hardest.
My next stop, in Oregon, the nearest McDonald’s was a mile or more away from any of my day-to-day business and my apartment, and I only made it over once, for an afternoon of eating Big Macs and grading student papers.
As I left, I thought to myself that that was what McDonald’s ought to have been.
Let’s be clear—I hold no illusions about McDonald’s being a good company. They sell objectively unhealthy food at prices cheap enough to seem like bargains to consumers but high enough to still achieve a staggering profit. They underpay workers. They hurt local businesses by using the scale of their operation to out-market and under-price goods relative to the competition.
And yet, when taken in extreme moderation, Big Macs, French fries, two-for-a-dollar apple pies, and Shamrock Shakes are good for the soul—my soul, at least. They take me back to summer afternoon with grandmother. They take me back to my first honest days of work and the first paychecks I earned. And, oh hell, I’ll confess that I’m sucker for every excess grain of salt and speck of grease and that confounded secret sauce.
It’s all horrible for me—not least of all that I can genuinely, and without irony link such nostalgia to this most consumerist of junk food, oft-marketed based on this very principle of manufactured memory.
If I’m going to be honest, I can’t resist the trap.
I’m lovin’ it.