A large Diet Coke and a medium fry.
It is the second day of January and I am on the 5th day of a “vegan cleanse.” I’m not quite sure of what I am cleansing myself. I agreed to the cleanse because it felt, somehow, like cleansing myself of the worst parts of American capitalism. Those parts that reduce thinking creatures to so many dollars realized per dollar spent, no matter the cost in misery, in health, or whatever other problems we imagine we could escape if we just had enough money. Enough money to be somewhere else when the knocker and the butcher come for us, too.
I said yes to the cleanse, but here I am: in the drive-thru line on a rain-soaked Saturday afternoon, waiting impatiently for the line to move up so I can find something, anything, without animals or their “products” in it to go with my drink. I still think like an omnivore, so I consider for a moment picking up a sundae as a surprise for my wife at home. It takes me a beat too long to realize why that is a bad idea, why it might be a different sort of surprise than what I had in mind. It’s got to be fries, I learn. That’s all there is.
There is something vaguely shameful about McDonald’s. Even if you don’t mind the cruel calculus of fast food, if you love the idea of an international supply chain delivering dripping death from the killing floor to the PlayPlace in a neighborhood near you, you’re still likely to feel a little shame waiting in the line at McDonald’s. You’d rather be somewhere else. You probably wouldn’t want a friend driving by to see you there. Perhaps our willingness to wallow in this shame, time and again, for food that nobody seems to actually like, is evidence that we’re all in an abusive relationship with the golden arches—but that is a thought to unravel some other day. Right now my order is up at the window.
I take a sip and pull around the building. My dog pokes her little shaggy gray head into the space between the driver and passenger seats, her eyes boring a hole in the bag of fries in the passenger seat. For her this is what it’s all about, really: food, always. I share a fry with her and think, in that warm glow of peace and well-being unique to salty, fried foods, that it’s much the same for us. Down there at the bottom of everything it’s always about food. Our lust for travel, our finest memories and innermost desires: food. Everything else, from sex to symphony orchestras, is a distant runner-up.
It is in this salty afterglow that I reflect, too, on the good radiating from this building. The teenagers working their first jobs behind the counter. The managers—if they’re good ones—imparting a new category of knowledge to their young charges. The meals on the table, directly and indirectly, for which this place is responsible. I think about the homeless men and women inside, safe from the rain and cold in one of the few places that won’t turn them out. I think about my father-in-law, for whom McDonald’s is somehow a wonderful meal, and the complicated generational differences underlining my inability to understand his opinions about this and everything.I think about my mother, who passed a tiny portion of the damage our culture has done to women down to me in the form of a deep and abiding taste for Diet Coke.
This place smooths, in a small way, the jarring gaps of age, of race, of gender and wealth and sensibility and morality that divides us all. Maybe that good flowing out of the front door offsets some of the bad flowing in through the back. I take a sip. I pass a fry to my dog. She takes it, ever so gently, from my hand and retires to the back seat. She’ll be back for more before I can finish my own. I eat another fry, savoring the salt, the hint of oil, and think, soon the rain will stop. Out in some featureless place, where I don’t think it ever rains, McDonald’s will continue turning cows into dollars. Tomorrow my cleanse will continue. But today we have shared some fries, we two, and that is all we really need.