America's Most Critical Journal (since 1999)
Fast Food Satori
So I pulled into a McDonald's. I walked into the white-lit restaurant, nearly slipping on wet red tile. I entered the line, and saw from the Ronald McDonald clock (which pointed with white-gloved gangling arms) that it was four o'clock. The beginnings of a rush were queued up before the registers. I stood in line behind a crown-bald, spectacled businessmen, who ordered a chef salad with two dressings. I finally got to order, and a pretty young girl with a tight striped uniform told me it'd just take a minute, so I took a dutiful step to the side while she scurried somewhere. I always enjoyed looking over the steel rampart food storage bins to see the "cooks" and other untouchables. Most of them wore a cynically-glum grin, as if all the orders coming in were some colossal joke that they had little to do with. Occasionally I'd see some upstart, busily efficient, working around his associates to snappily wrap a special burger, and announce its birth with a well-drilled monotone business voice.
I rested my hands on the sponge-streaked stainless steel counter, noting that the assistant manager was wearing a headset to help handle the drive-thru orders as if she were the radio man in an infantry unit. I felt myself a model of patience, watching both trucker dudes who had been behind me take away their sacked goodies and remarking me with a faint air of We Got Fast Food condescension. Though travelling and in a hurry myself, I just turned and smiled at the napkin dispenser, taking a few too many napkins--more to pass the time than out of need. My little cashier friend no longer seemed to know me or even see me, and I looked at Ronald on the clock to see that it was 4:07. I took in the crew at a glance: face-down burger flippers gloriously indifferent, stiff slacked cashiers turning robotically to fill drinks with a single button-touch, and the captain, immersed in orders that seemed pressing enough to be coming from Mrs. Kroc's mansion.
I stood, watching the last of the batch of fries scooped away to reveal a salty sediment on the bin. I felt a pang of impatience, but sighed anthropologically, damn well ready to wait and see how long I would be set out to dry before the tiny female hand would proffer my hot bag of joy.
A crowd was eddying in, and with seemingly supersensory antennae, the crew swiftly pulluluated, as if they were a team of stopgaps plugging the dike for the onrushing flood. I began to get a little hopeless, and looked directly at what was my cashier, as if, foolish man, that would get her attention. She missed me completely, stopped, and said "Can I take your order?" intonating to her current customer that it would be great if he could hurry the hell up about it. After she took his money, she turned so quickly that I couldn't indulge my impulse to touch her doll's arm and give her a pathetic, pleading expression.
Watching the buzz of the mob in line, or in rows, rather, that stacked horizontally like a tottering toyblock structure, and the blur of blue-legged workers, I suddenly felt absolutely detached from the scene--so apart that I was sure I wasn't even there. I tried to look at anyone on the other side of the counter, hoping they would notice me. Futile. Had I died or something? Was I experiencing a Buddhist enlightenment? Now? In McDonald's? I thought it was possible. I felt the blood rush to my head. It would befit the Universal Irony if my Enlightenment came in a McDonand’s. For all its frenzy, the white-lit scene froze. My chest caged hot breath. I turned and looked and saw Ronald's arm pointing to 10 on the clock. Time. How reassuring.
I said aloud, in a cracked voice, to no one in particular, "Excuse me: I've been waiting here for ten minutes." I realized I may have been shouting. The back of my cashier, pouring coffee, turned, her face starting, as if I were that uncle she'd heard so much about. She looked at me, and said "what?"--as if to say "that's nice to know, dear fellow, but I can only respond to statements in command form, not mere description, and, after all, I've been here for three hours." For a second I lost my balance.
"What? Oh, I'm sorry sir, what did you have?"
"Quarter pounder with cheese, large fries, large coke."
As she gathered my food, reality snapped into place, especially as I turned to look at the impatient people behind me. The palpable sense of hurry affirmed our common humanity. I was handed my purchase curtly enough to squash my secret hope for a free chocolate shake for my trouble.