Monday, 17 December, 2001

Lunch at McDonald's

McDonald's finest slouches behind the counter staring vacantly out the window, relaxing after the lunch rush.   His mouth hangs half open like he's waiting for something to fly in, and his head slowly swivels so that he's looking vaguely in my direction as I approach.

I stare back.

After about ten seconds he averts his eyes down to the polished steel counter.  His lips hardly move as he utters something that I can't make out.

"Excuse me?"

He brings his head up slightly, studiously avoiding any direct eye contact, and speaks up just enough to be heard over the kitchen noise:  "Miulp you?"

Figuring I've tortured the kid enough for one day, I place my order.  "I'd like a Big Mac meal, super sized, and an apple pie.  To go."

He looks down, pokes a few buttons on his computer, then looks up and speaks coherently for the first time:  "Would you like to super size that?"

" No thanks."

I didn't really want a pound and a half of fries anyway.  I just wanted to see if he was properly trained.  It used to be "Do you want fries with that," but McDonalds started bundling the fries with the burgers because the new crop of recruits is even dumber than the Liberal Arts majors who used to populate the lunch counters.  Now the kids dont have to think about whether or not to get fries, but only which oversized box to grab along with the burger.

Eyes down, more button pushing, eyes up.  "Four fifty seven.  Will that be for here or to go," he asks as he holds out his hand.  Where do they get these guys?

" Oh, for here."  I'm having so much fun I'm tempted to change my order just to see him panic.

He takes my money, returns my change, grabs a drink cup with his thumb and first two fingers (the index finger firmly grasping the inside), puts the cup on the counter, and heads off to the food delivery area.  I watch closely, but I don't see him squeeze a zit or pick his nose.  Probably did that right before I came in.

One thing about McDonald's:  they're fast.  In less than a minute I have a lukewarm hamburger and steaming hot fries still dripping with one hundred percent vegetable oil.  He pushes the tray towards me and fixes his slack-jawed blank stare on the woman who just walked up behind me.

" My apple pie," I say.

"Huh?  Oh."  He wanders over to the food area again, hands and face remaining comfortably distant from one another, returns with a pie, and tosses it onto my tray.  "Sorry."  I guess he's done with me because the woman is already ordering Happy Meals for her kids, who are over by the display case trying to get at the promotional toys.

McDonald's doesn't pour your drinks for you anymore unless you go to the drive-thru.  For my convenience, I get unlimited self-serve refills and an ice skating lesson.  By some fluke, I retain my balance as I negotiate the puddle of soda on the floor.  The ice dispenser is empty, of course, because they haven't refilled it since the lunchtime rush.  Walking back to the counter, I get a strange look from the manager when I ask if he can put some ice in the cup for me.  "The ice dispenser is empty," I say, as he takes my cup.  He nods, fills the cup, and hands it back.

Back at the drink station I put the cup under the Coca Cola dispenser, press the button, and get a cup full of foam for my trouble, plus a few drops on my shirt for good measure.  Guess that tanks empty.  Fortunately Coca Cola has the American people conditioned nearly as well as McDonald's does, so there's another Coke dispenser on the other end of the drink station.  That one's working just fine and I soon have 20 ounces of sweet brown carbonated water with which to wash down my meal.

I understand that McDonald's employees aren't necessarily the brightest bulbs in the chandelier, but you'd think they could get the napkins right.  Of the four dispensers, one is empty, one is packed so full that it's impossible to remove a napkin without ripping it to shreds, and one has the napkins in backwards so that you can't grab them.  One out of four ain't bad, I guess.  At least I won't have to wipe my mouth on the back of my hand.  The pile of discarded napkins scattered on the floor indicates that there's no paper shortage--at least not in this fine establishment--so I grab a couple of extras just in case.

Finding an empty table is no problem, not at 1:30 in the afternoon.  Finding a clean table, though, turns out to be impossible.  Locating a relatively un-dirty flat space surrounded by chairs, I use those extra napkins to wipe the table and my selected seat.  By the amount of food lying on tables, chairs, and floor, I wonder if people actually eat here.  As I sit in the little plastic chair, I'm thankful that I'm not trying to carry on a conversation with somebody else.  The 50's jukebox replica in front of the counter is playing Elvis so loud that I can barely hear the deep fryer's unearthly scream.

Opening my Big Mac box, I pour the fries into the top and rip open one of those little salt packets so I can dump its entire contents onto a single fry.  I'd rather use a saltshaker, but the one on the table is covered with tiny ketchup-colored fingerprints indicating that one of McDonald's newest customers hasn't yet figured out which of the products are intended for consumption.  I don't have anything against babies, mind you, but I much prefer unsalted drool.

Finally the moment arrives.  I take the burger in my hands, open wide, and take a bite of ... huh?  Bread, sauce, and lettuce?  What happened to twoallbeefpattiesspecialsaucelettucecheesepickelsonionsonasesameseedbun?  I remove the top bun and look.  The patties are off center, the sauce is on one side, and the three pickle slices are stacked in the middle on top of a small pile of onion-like substance.  Only the lettuce (wilted and brown) and cheese are arranged properly.  I'm happy to know that McDonald's quality training programs extend to their kitchen help.

It's hard to goof on the fries, though, and fortunately the idiots working the machine in this place aren't too ingenious.  Reassembling my burger, I proceed to partake in this most delicious bit of American pop culture.  I forgot to bring a book or a newspaper to keep my mind occupied while I consume dangerous levels of salt, sugar, and fat, so I spend my time observing the other customers.  I'm happy to see that I'm not the only one having trouble with the napkins, and now there's a line of people asking the manager for ice.  I guess filling the ice machine isn't in his job description.  Lovely little children are bouncing up and down in their seats, running and sliding on the grease-covered floor, and emitting shrieks that make the deep fryer sound like a Beethoven symphony.  This is more fun than Sea World.

A lone employee moves among the empty tables with a broom and dustpan, making a half-hearted attempt at sweeping up the lunchtime crowd's leavings.  It's likely that a crowd of squirrels would do a better job, and probably even lick the grease from the floor in the bargain.  I doubt, though, that the neighborhood residents would appreciate overweight squirrels keeling over from heart disease.  Having a fat fuzzy rat fall smack onto the picnic table during dinner is likely to cause unrest among the natives.

As the cleaning lady makes her way towards me with the broom I wonder if she'll ask me to lift my feet so she can sweep under them.  Since that would require her to actually talk to a customer, she leaves me to my own devices and cleans the floor around me.  A big piece of something stuck to the floor beside my table won't budge when she pushes at it with the broom, and as she bends to pick it up I get the kind of view that adolescent fantasies are made of.  I know McDonald's says "We love to see you smile," but I don't think this is quite what they had in mind.

I guess I wasn't so hungry after all.  I, too, leave a couple bites of Big Mac on my tray, but I finish all of my fries, savoring the few crunchy ones that by some small miracle actually got cooked properly.  The apple pie will return with me to the office where it will sit in its little red box growing green hair for a couple of days before it starts to smell and I throw it out.  Wanting to be a good little customer, I pile everything else on my tray and head to the trash bins, which are unambiguously labeled "Thank You."

But the lunch rush is over and the trash bins are full.  Another of McDonald's finest has removed the trashcans from all of the bins in preparation for a trip out to the dumpster.  In typical assembly line fashion, this mindless automaton has removed the plastic trash bags from the cans, very neatly tied their tops, and placed them directly in front of the door where they make a very effective obstacle.  The employee is on his way to the rear of the store in search of replacement trash bags.  Although I'm having the time of my life, I do need to get back to work.  I glance around to ensure that nobody's watching and then just drop my tray onto the counter above the trash bin, carefully step around the trash bags blocking the exit, and head out into the parking lot, another delicious, nutritious meal accompanied by high quality entertainment.  Not bad for five bucks, huh?  Maybe tomorrow the kid at Burger King will drop something on the floor for me.