My love affair with the McDonalds hamburger, and must I be ashamed of it?
“Aren’t you going to eat that thing?” my wife says.
We’re on I-80, eastbound, half way across Pennsylvania. It’s mid-afternoon. On the console between the two front seats in the car, in a paper bag, is a McDonald hamburger. It’s the third time we’ve made this trip by car to visit our son in New York. At 77 mph, with one stop for gas, construction slow-downs, and horrible Newark, we drive Detroit to Manhattan in ten hours.
On long Interstate trips like this, food is a problem. We leave around 7:00 a.m. Too early to stop for Arabic. It’s just as well. I would probably have kafta roll-up tahini dribbles up and down my shirt. One trip, the morning we left, we bought “summer sandwiches” from a purveyor of designer food in our area. Slices of fresh mozzarella on French bread; the “summer” ingredients were tomato and basil. By the time we got to the sandwiches that afternoon the bread was leathery and bite-resistant. Think jerky. Our recent do-it-yourself solution is chicken strips we grill the night before and roll up in romaine leaves the next day. It’s bite friendly; a little protein, a little summer; moderate-to-low dribble risk. This trip we didn’t think ahead.
We’re coming up on Clearfield, I turn to my wife and suggest next exit we stop for gas.
“Fine,” she says.
“Get out and stretch your legs,” I say. “Are you hungry?”
“Yes,” she says. “But I won’t eat.”
“I’m going to get one McDonald hamburger,” I announce. A few miles back I saw the sign, the arches, the golden italic M’s.
She frowns across the dash, shakes her head.
“It’s the perfect food,” I say.
“I read somewhere that adults who eat fast food are stuck in their adolescence.”
I like to make pinpoint visits to that confusing time of life. “I remember eating a McDonalds hamburger when I was a kid,” I say. “All in one bite. It was the summer I graduated from high school. I thought, Can I do it? The answer was, Yes! But it took a long time. You can get a whole hamburger in your mouth. The problem is what to do with it once it’s in there.”
“Because you can’t chew.”
“Your mouth is so full, chewing is out of the question. You just wait for it to, you know, soften. Your natural juices have that effect. It gradually gets a little mushy, starts to disintegrate. After a few minutes you can massage it inside your mouth.”
She says, “I don’t suppose there will be any good food at this exit.”
“It took about five minutes or so to eat it.”
She says, “Someplace that has fresh vegetables. Is that too much to ask?”
It’s definitely too much to ask. I take the exit, thinking first McDonalds, then gas.
I admit to her it’s gross. Your mouth full of a whole hamburger, it’s like a snake eating a mouse. I have the decency to keep this thought to myself.
There’s one girl taking orders. She has blades of brown hair swept to the right across her broad forehead, a bored look on her round face. At the end of every order, she hands over a receipt, announces the order number, and tells the customer to have an amazing day. In the olden days, she would then turn, grab your food, bag it, and you would be on your way. It was fast. In the new Macs there’s a fulfillment station, at the other end of the counter. Division of labor, I guess. Plus there’s all those healthy choices on the menu. They take time. I’m number 97, coffee and the standard issue hamburger, and I have to wait for someone’s Premium Southwest Salad with Crispy Chicken and Angus Mushroom & Swiss Snack Wrap to be fulfilled.
But then something wonderful happens.
While I stand there waiting, the fulfillment lady comes to the counter holding two ice cream cones. “Who wants a free ice cream cone?” she says brightly. I look around. Behind me a guy is holding his little girl. She lurches forward in his arms and reaches for the ice cream cones with both hands. In front of me, a couple women, I’m thinking early octogenarians, both with gray hair and sturdy legs, swing around and glance at me. They smile and nod at the little girl, encouraging her. I swear they smile and nod at me too, giving me permission.
“Yes!” I say.
Oh, God, yes. It’s vanilla. Sweet and creamy and delicious. I’ve licked it down halfway by the time I get my food and step outside.
“Free ice cream,” I say to my wife. She’s standing by her car door.
“That’s not ice cream,” she says.
“I know,” I say. “And it’s amazing.”
She points across the street, where there’s a Dutch Pantry. “I could have gone over there,” she says, “and got something to go.”
I tell her she still can. I have to pump gas. Down the road is a Mobil and an Arby’s. Beyond that, a Sunoco and a Snappy’s.
“Want to try the Snappy’s?” I say. “Make it Snappy?”
She rolls her eyes. She just can’t bring herself to eat bad food, which I understand, but there is such a thing as good bad food. I’ve gone the good bad route.
In a few minutes we’re back on I-80, doing 77 mph, and I’m remembering the summer after high school graduation. I told my father one night I was thinking about moving to New York. You mean City? he said, aghast. Yes, New York City. When he pointed out, didn’t I think I should go to college first, a major part of his plan for me over the past eighteen years, I told him I really thought I should give New York a try. I needed to find out. I played the guitar. I had written one song. My only other talents were that I was good at algebra and could eat a McDonalds hamburger in one bite. Did I know anyone New York? No. How was I planning on getting there? I didn’t know. Hitchhike, I guess? He saw the city, I’m sure, in black and white: filth, profanity, violence, and death—well, all black; while I saw it in a whitish blur, with me in it, growing my hair a little longer, playing the guitar, getting to work writing another song, in a process of self-discovery. Let’s think about it, my father said. A month later, my one-song co-writer friend Brian and I drove to Louisville in his blue VW, listening to Blind Faith on his 8-track tape deck. We were going to meet with a record producer Brian said he sort of knew down there. We checked into a Holiday Inn when we hit town. Brian, I discovered, had not thought about how we would contact this producer on a Saturday night. I don’t think he even had a phone number. I was actually kind of relieved. Later that night, at a party store near the hotel, we asked someone in the parking lot to buy us some beer. The trip wasn’t a total bust.
“Aren’t you going to eat that thing?” my wife says.
We’re starting to see signs for the Pokonos. I don’t know if I can bring myself to eat the hamburger. The ice cream has taken the edge off my appetite. But also, I don’t want to eat it in front of her, while she goes hungry. I feel kind of guilty. Maybe Dutch Pantry had fresh vegetables or vegetables that used to be fresh. We should have checked.
“Probably not,” I say.
“What are you going to do with it?”
I tell her I might give it to a homeless person when we get to New York. Yes, what I’ll do is drop my wife off at our son’s apartment, park the car down on LaFayette and Great Jones, then walk up Broadway to 11th Street. There might be someone down and out lying in the shadows along the way. Here you go, man. In Chicago once, my wife went into a Panera and bought a homeless person a sandwich. Panera. It seemed like overkill.
“What homeless person would want a cold McDonalds hamburger?” she says.
“If I were homeless, I would love one,” I say. “Absolutely.”
I know it’s childish, but it irks me that she has insulted my hamburger.
“It’s good,” I say, “even cold.”
We cruise in silence for a while, scanning FM, looking, without success, for Public Radio. At the Delaware Cut my appetite returns. I think, What the hell. I reach in the bag, unwrap the hamburger, and take a bite. It’s cold. It’s bad, I know it’s bad, but it’s so good. The soft, yeasty bun; the flat, fatty, beef-like patty; the sweet rejoinder of ketchup; two vivid dill pickle slices; and when I take a second bite, a spray of diced onions, like unpolished diamonds, that falls in my lap.
“We’ll have good food tonight, in New York,” my wife says.
“There are no guarantees,” I say. “We’ve had plenty of bad good food.”
I take another small bite. I could eat the rest of it all at once. For old time’s sake, I could stuff it. But I know now, it’s too good for that. Even this lowly burger, it’s good. Besides, I am an adult.