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The Golden Arches of McDonalds are a lighthouse! The highway between anywhere you are and anywhere you want to go is an ocean! On the path home it is good to know that there is always another home. Parked underneath the cocktail of red and yellow light dancing in through a windshield, the grease is bright enough to see your reflection in. Every meal should be its own mirror. I look into my palms and see who I was and who I might be later. On long drives, I pour my fries from their container into the bag. It’s easier to imagine them as endless this way. Once, I kept them in the container on the Mass Pike and I pulled them out of the bag and the fries spilled everywhere. I swerved and nearly hit a guy on a bike. He gave me the finger, but I think we’re cool now. The loss of fries was the real tragedy in that situation. I keep them in the bag now and I reach into the bag without looking and I shove some into my mouth on the road of some freeway that looks like it could be anywhere. Not to be critical but if their fries aren’t fresh they’re a little less enticing. But you could say the same for me I guess.
I eat at McDonald’s only inside of cars hurling my deteriorating body from one place to the next. I guess you could say it’s like building a small funeral inside of a machine. But there’s something to be said for consistency. In every state you can find a the hovering golden curve of an “M”. Even in the states where people have houses bigger than entire neighborhoods. Even in the states were people run mischievous kids off of their lawns with shotguns. Listen, I’m saying I want no part of any American Nostalgia that might want me dead, but I don’t mind a dollar menu if the hour is right and the road ahead is dark and long. Fine dining is a myth anyway. Someone somewhere has to suffer for everything we take into ourselves. I don’t want to know what masters my food have bowed to before I pull them out of their cheap wrapper and put them in my mouth without looking while one hand is on the wheel and out of the speakers blasts some song I know all of the words to but will not sing in this moment, for the fries demand attention. For the chicken nuggets demand attention. For the sins we commit to our own bodies in the name of the road demand attention.
The drive between New Haven, Connecticut and New York city is tedious. The largest portion of it exists on Interstate 95 — which stretches along the coast of the United States, but is also used as an interchange between the northeast, where cities and states fall on top of each other in closer proximity than the Midwestern expanse I know best. The mileage-to-time ratio on this trip is the most stunning part: There were maybe 70 miles between my apartment in New Haven to any place I’d need to go in New York, and yet, the trip would sometimes take over two hours.
The Metro North train — which was conveniently located mere steps from my apartment — would be a better option, certainly. The train takes just as much time, or less. It doesn’t require the harsh navigation of traffic and the unexpected dice roll of parking. Still, I often walked past the train station and to my car, in order to make the drive. The train, for all of its joys, does not allow one to be the master of their own trip. Something that, as a Midwesterner from a city with no train station, I became so accustomed to, it was hard to shake.
When going home to New Haven became harder — in the late fall and early winter of last year, when I most missed my hometown of Columbus — I would find myself in a usual position: underneath the lights of the McDonald’s in a service center, sitting in my running car. There was some comfort in this. At a time when my life felt as though it could be tumbling apart at the seams, to know that there was one consistent place I could run to and feel less empty was a blessing. All of the service centers along I-95 in Connecticut have one constant: There is going to be a McDonald’s, and it is going to be open for 24 hours. Everything else is a toss-up. There might also be a pizza joint, or a candy shop, or a froyo spot. But when you are driving with the clock pushing past midnight, as I often was, there is a single certainty.
I am aware now — and perhaps was then — that I wasn’t chasing a specific hunger, but looking to expand distance. The space between myself and that which had become unfamiliar to me. On road trips as a child, my family would stop at McDonald’s when we ran out of pre-packed lunches. Everyone would get the same thing: Filet-O-Fish sandwiches. The tartar sauce on them would be both bitter and aching with a rapidly fading sweetness. All of my memories of eating McDonalds involve being in a car, sometimes with people I love, but lately not. But, under the lights in Connecticut service stations, I was trying to summon that past. Sometimes, I would merely order a drink and let it sit in my hands, the condensation from the cup running over my fingers while I stared out into the vast nothing.
I don’t mean for this to be so sad. I’m saying that I needed to be tethered to some unmovable memory then, as you might need to be now. As you might do with a smell, or a toy, or a color. I was a boy once and ate greasy fish sandwiches in the backseat of a van on the way to somewhere impossible and new with people I love. I am a man now who, last year, held those same sandwiches in a running car, using what I knew to keep me from returning to what I knew.
In my father’s house a few years ago, he lamented the fact that the Filet-O-Fish sandwich hadn’t ever changed. That it was the same formula it had always been. For as long as I’d been alive.
When people talk about jobs “flipping burgers,” the avatar for this is often McDonalds. When there is a fast food place to be mocked in a film, say, Coming To America for example, McDonalds is the softest of soft targets. It’s an American institution in that way. Growing up on the east side of Columbus, there was a lone McDonald’s in the shopping center with the flea market and the beauty shop and the bingo hall.
I think, in the hood, space has to be malleable, because not only do you not get a lot of it, but you have to make the most of it while you have it. The McDonald’s was the only fast food outlet within walking distance of my house, of many houses. It was also a bedrock in the community. People who otherwise couldn’t get jobs worked there: hustlers, high school students, single parents. Because of this, it stayed protected, in some ways. When the Little Caesars a block over was robbed, or when the Flea Market or CVS was shoplifted from, the McDonalds stayed untouched.
I think what I’m getting at here is an idea that there are many ways for a thing to be a beacon. I could rarely afford the extra money to ride my bike over to the McDonalds when it was right at my doorstep. Most of the money I had went to basketball cards or the occasional candy binge. Yet, my friends would work there and sneak food out at the end of their shifts for their families and friends. They would sneak discarded toys from happy meals home to their children or younger siblings.
When the McDonalds went away — first turned into a check cashing place, and then turned to nothing — there was not only an employment void that was left for some, but also a void of actual food. It closed down shortly after the nearby grocery store closed down. Leaving little access to any hunger being fulfilled.
Now, on the east side, there is a newer and fancier McDonalds, and a new grocery store. They sit across from each other. I went through the Drive Thru last month, when driving back into my hometown from West Virginia. The person who handed me my food looked like they didn’t want to be there, and since it was a Saturday night, I imagine they truly didn’t. I took one bite of my Filet-O-Fish sandwich and the tartar sauce danced out the back of the bun, landing square on my pants. In the shape of an arrow towards home.