It all started when I fainted in line at McDonald’s. Unable to decide between the Combo I (Big Mac, medium fries, medium Coke) and the Combo 3 (McDlt, the rest the same) I noticed that the lighted menu was spinning menacingly at my head, which, dizzy, lost its balance and fell like a ball to the floor. The last thing my eyes saw was the metallic visage of Ray A. Kroc, his benevolent smile watching over me and over a reliable world, into whose arms I could collapse without fear.
I didn’t wake where I fell, I must have been pushed aside to not block circulation. A diligent employee weilding a thick wad of napkins was cleaning the remnants of lettuce and mayonnaise off my face and clothes. I recognized the combined flavors of the Porteño Meal and the Combo 2, which I never would have ordered, and was comforted by the knowledge that at least I hadn’t fallen without taking someone with me. Grateful, I clutched for a second the arm of my savior, whose face was smiling down on me from the portrait on the wall, beaming over the caption “Employee of the Month.” A number of times, from my usual table, I had contemplated his imperturbable efficiency, his haughty adult forehead sticking out over the sweaty mugs of the indistinguishable underpaid adolescents, like a captain on the deck of a boat braving the storm—the storm of midday clients, waves, avalanches, whirlpools of clients swooping over the tills that could hardly bear their battering, inspiring with his simple presence the serenity necessary to stay afloat. And even though all personal contact between employees and customers was forbidden—except anonymous friendship, sickly-sweet like the mayonnaise and the Big Mac pickles that they were supposed to dispense to all customers equally—and even though doing so defied a ban that might have cost him, if not his post, then at least his honor as Employee of the Month (held for the last three consecutive months) and therefore his chance (higher every month) to become Employee of the Year, he always took the time to return my glance with a brief, fleeting smile that was almost as conspiratorial as a wink. Anyone can forge an acquantanship with a waiter at a traditional restaurant, but to get to know an employee at McDonald’s, and what’s more, to be recognized by him, is something of which only a few, I believe, can boast. His smile gave me all that I needed, all that I had come looking for; it assured me that while he was there all would continue operating as usual, that the unpredictable world pressing its face up against the storefront glass might make faces and roar, but here inside we were on deck, protected—in short, saved. I can’t, he struck me as saying, pay attention to what goes on out there—the phrase containing all the vague terror surely felt by the first seafarers to near the horizon of a flat world—but once you’ve crossed under the golden arches nothing bad can happen to you. It was enough to sit with my Big Mac and my Coca-Cola and my French fries at my usual table and receive the benediction of his smile—only then could I begin—for the world, forever hostile to any human feeling and indifferent to any entreaty, to be annulled, cancelled out, as if by a spell that only I, upon stepping through those doors, was able to break; the doors of McDonald’s, like those of an embassy in a war-torn country, open to any refugee who manages to enter and does not want to leave.
They offered—not him, he had to return to his post, but one of the newly anonymous employees, as indistinguishable as one McChicken from another—to escort me to a table and finish taking my order, but I told them that I preferred to sit on the toy island, which was where I usually felt safest. On it, notably, was a life-size Ronald McDonald sitting on a bench, cradling a child-shaped cavity; but, a shrewd little girl had beaten me to it, settling into the gold and orange clown’s lap as if she were preparing to spend the rest of her childhood there, lifting up her face every once in a while toward that of her friend in order to make sure he was still smiling. That kid, I would’ve liked to yell at her mother who was sitting at a nearby table only occasionally glancing in her direction—as if nothing bad could happen between one glance and the next, as if only one second of distraction wouldn’t be enough for the clown to bear sharpened fangs from behind that crimson grin—she’s occupying a place that isn’t hers, a place where she doesn’t belong.
Why bring your kids here? Does it seem like a place to come with kids? Taking advantage of one of the mother’s distracted moments—they were as predictable and well-timed as green lights at a traffic stop—and aided by the slipperiness of the statue’s legs, I rudely thrust her aside and, ignoring her bawling, settled myself as best I could in her place. It wasn’t easy, as much as I contorted myself in search of a snug position, my adult body hung over everywhere and spilled from Ronald’s arms in such a way that instead of feeling like a baby being rocked I felt like Christ in a circus version of the Pietà and decided to get down. Besides, the mother of the displaced child had gone to complain to one of those bulldogs in short-sleeves that patrol the walkways, and as I knew that in such an entaglement even the intervention of the Employee of the Month wouldn’t be able to save me, I decided to slip off into some nook where I’d be able to pass time unnoticed.
It wasn’t the first time I’d had an incident at McDonald’s. Only a week or two before, no more, upon discovering that my usual table against the window was occupied by a youngish blond with the features of a dyed brunette, I let one of my hands release the outer edge of my tray so that it came down like a drawbridge, perfectly staged so my large coke spilled all over the table and flooded the contents of her tray. Under the pretext of an excursion to the nearest dispenser in search of napkins, I placed my dry, empty tray beside her wet one and disappeared en route to the tills. The Employee of the Month, who’d seen everything, gave me a complicit smile as if to say, “I know what you’re up to, and I don’t disapprove.” Arguing that the tray had slipped because it wasn’t properly dried—due to the Protestant origin of the company, the managers, even in Catholic countries, respond Pavlovianly to individual guilt—I obtained a replica of my first order and headed back to the table where I slid my second tray over my first tray in such a way that only an expert eye could have detected them both and suspected anything. Luckily, before the tragedy occurred, the young office girl hadn’t opened her vacuum-sealed box and her Chef Salad had weathered the Coca-Cola storm well. The anonymous and eternally visor-clad robots had cleaned the floor so that it shined as if I had never been there at all.
“Do you feel better?” The girl asked me when I sat down. I was not mistaken, my ruse had shot right to the center of her maternal instinct. I could initiate erotic rapprochement with total impunity.
“What is your favorite hamburger?” I asked her, playfully.
“I never have hamburgers,” she replied. “I’m an ovolactovegetarian.”
“Then why’d you come to McDonald’s?” I exclaimed with a hint of alarm.
“To save you.”
“To save me from what!” I yelled, sitting up as if possessed. “What makes you think I need to be saved! And what are you doing at my table! Who told you you could sit in that seat at this table!”
Turned out she was an evangelist and that, camouflaged by her salad with egg and cheese, she’d infiltrated the chain to hand out pamphlets. What she’d done with me she was doing to everyone; within seconds I had passed from the order of the unique and individual to the order of the promiscuous and undifferentiated, and when she left for good I put my head in my arms and sobbed inconsolably. I wanted to yell at myself, I wanted to yell at all the blind and deaf diners in the neighboring booths: What are we looking for here? Why do we come? Are we escaping from one intolerable sadness only to make that sadness worse?
Because this is the truth that I am setting out to publicly confess here (the bleached-blond evangelist was right: I did need to be saved): I was a McDonald’s addict. Every time the hour to eat came around I’d walk the streets perspiring nervously, telling myself no, today I am going to a normal restaurant, where a waiter in a dress shirt and black bow-tie will come to the table to serve me, I’ll valiantly confront an unpredictable menu, I’ll wait minutes that feel like days for my order to arrive, an order that includes waiting for any unexpected thing, an order whose correspondence with identical orders in different restaurants will be no more than just by name, and at this point the anguish would be so bad that my eyes would scan over the treetops in search of those golden arches like the pilgrims of yore scanned the horizon for the first speck of the cathedral spire. And still before going in I could pass the door one, two, three times before I dared enter, later, pushing my way forward in line with an impatience bordering on frenzy, mentally insulting all the doubting or deliberating adolescents and the employees, those slow people, sometimes not being able to even wait for a table before taking that first bite into the bland, gummy dough, experiencing for a second the intense pleasure of a satisfied abstinence that even before swallowing I’d traded in for disappointment and relief. Yes, I’m not ashamed to confess it: my conduct was sticky and addictive like the sweet pickle flavor and the mayonnaise and the sesame Big Mac bun. Having barely sunk in your teeth and already, before even starting to chew, your mind will be asking how could it be that you’ve walked twenty blocks or even two specifically to eat this, you’ll rationalize—speed and thrift (even though a choripán is cheaper and quicker)—and then leave the last bite in the recyclable cardboard box swearing that this is the last time, really, the last time, but tomorrow at midday or at most a bit after, again the strange inexplicable desire to stop impatiently in line, the search for exact change to help you get it faster, the grabbing of the thick, pipe-like straw and the fluffy napkins, each in their respective dispensers, which you palm for yourself all without stopping for even a second before confronting, tray in hand, the adventure of finding a table. It was a hunger like no other, a weakness that made me despise myself and hate its object, like the thirst for Coke that, when it grabs you, not even the purest water nor the coldest beer can sate; an atavistic molecular memory, perhaps, from the time when the formula included cocaine and that all the billions of bottles bottled in the world since then preserve in their bubbly blood like a branded unconscious collective.
Not even a family man heading out into the night after a meet-up with a lady-boy—having called home to let everyone know he’d be late from the office—is let down by the dissatisfied satiety of his compulsive guilty pleasure with as much shame as I was when, night after night, I pushed open the doors of McDonald’s and stepped back onto the pavement to lose myself again among normal people. And that was on the better days, when I wasn’t overcome by a craving to rake the deepest crevices of the Happy Meal box. The Happy Meal, supposedly reserved for children—and yet there are no edicts on the walls and no one asks for papers to verify age. But that’s the custom, a custom with universal consensus across the length and width of the curious planet encircled by those golden arches, beyond national law or even ethnic or religious idiosyncrasy. How could I, then, satisfy my unhealthy craving for a Happy Meal? How could such a thing be justified? Especially since the contents (a kid-sized hamburger, a kid-sized fries, a sad little Coke) come with the addition of a character from the latest Disney movie—which children have seen and ask their parents for with the monotonous desperation only kids dare express without shame. For months until recently there had been the Lion King, a little lion cub who loses his father in a wildebeest stampede for which he feels in some way responsible, and as I’d managed to get hold of them all, my fever had finally abated. But now the Hunchback of Notre Dame had arrived, and I was especially eager to possess the votive image of that mythic oaf so that he, with his crippled happiness and smile doctored by medieval dentistry, could provide sanctuary to a portion of my hunchbacked and deformed soul.
I had my system, it’s true, developed across the fevered nights of insomnia in which I imagined opening a Pandora’s Happy Meal from which everything would escape—even sleep. Every time, I took the plunge and ordered a Happy Meal, glancing over my shoulder for potentially mocking adolescents who’d joined the line behind me and toward the seating area to show everyone that I was aware of my children there, that I wasn’t going to take my eyes off them; possessed as I was by a triumphant histrionics I’d even make a few imperative gestures with my eyes and mouth, gestures not unnoticed by the young cashier (a tautology, there are no old cashiers at McDonald’s) who, laughing, would ask me, “And for you, Sir?’’, and I would know that she, too, had been fooled; I had fooled them all, really, except, I suppose, the Employee of the Month, who, from his far off register (I hadn’t wanted to test our tacit friendship by going directly to his station) let slip his usual smile in response to the winning agility of my ruse. With my Happy Meal held firmly in one hand and in the other balancing the Porteño meal, which was the cheapest thing I could order ‘for myself’ without arousing suspicion and the easiest thing to sneak in the trash when the janitors were distracted, I finally arrived at my usual table and prepared to open my Happy Meal, trembling with uncertainty. It was Quasimodo, finally. Practically rabid, I attacked the pale hamburger, chocked myself on Coke bubbles. This is the problem, I muttered under my breath, with happiness: it’s only produced by the expected, and when it arrives after so much anticipation the anxiety of not knowing what to do with it prevents you from actual enjoyment. If they offered an Unhappy Meal, then yes, things might look up: he who anticipates unhappiness is never disappointed. Like I always did, along with my left-overs and half-finished food pieces, I chucked the doll into one of the shapeless bins, not wanting it to be left out in view of the unattended children who’d begun swarming the place.
Yesterday, or maybe it was the day before—in here the days are as similar as the tables—I heard a couple of adolescents talking behind me. A curly-haired, tattooed kid was saying to a short-haired girl with a ring in her nose, ‘I don’t give a shit what he does, like Nietzsche says, what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger’ and it was all I could do to keep myself from turning around and giving a Rasta braid on the twerp’s weasel head a tug. What do you know about life? Just because they haven’t tossed you in the grave yet you think you’re not headed there? They’re pushing you and you feel you’re at your strongest as your claws dig into the pit’s edge? Looking the other way only means you’ll fall on your ass! Or, do you think that the boxer who in the end always wins doesn’t know how to put off that last punch, the one that takes us all out, only for the pleasure of seeing us fall at his feet and grovel on our knees, so that while the referee counts the months and the years, he can laugh his ass off, pointing to you, laughing at all the “strength” you’re acquiring? I’d liked to have stood on the table and yelled at everyone: You don’t see it? You don’t see it? You think you’re safe because you’re not capable of imagining a life less fortunate than this one? The dark underside of all this that here inside is divided up and ordered—each thing in its own polished steel chute: the Big Mac, the Quarter Pounder with Cheese, the McDlt, the McChicken; each in a cardboard box bearing its name, never the surprise of opening the McChicken box to find a Quarter Pounder with Cheese inside, for example; the sodas in three sizes, small, medium and large, the same as clothing, and people; the same as the French fries, every one the same shape and size, as if cut not just with the same machine but from the same potato; the soft serve ice cream with pre-programmed spirals; the salads eternally fresh and healthy in their sarcophagi of transparent celluloid. All this, as I was saying, forms the reassuring side, if you will, the daytime side of this life. But outside the doors, in the indistinct dark, lurks an intestinal and frightening reality, forsaken by Kroc. Out there, in deep, thick plastic bags that could accommodate a corpse, the chewed apple pie mixes with the wilted salad, the French fries spill from their red carton, limp in the open mouths of lidless large sodas, soaking themselves in the muck of black fizz; the fluids of melted soft serve usurp the place of the mayonnaise between the three layers of bun, between the walls of a Styrofoam cup coated with dregs of coffee, the inconceivable meeting of the half-chewed McChicken with the bitten and abandoned McMuffin takes place. At the hour at which the armies of the night come alive, the bright McDonald’s closes its front doors and another McDonald’s, nocturnal and sinister like the polyethylene at the bottom of a plastic bag, opens near the rear. In this McDonald’s of darkness, threadbare and downtrodden creatures crowd in, grabbing the knotted trash bags as soon as an employee deposits them insolently on the sidewalk; they announce their orders with grunts and recognize them by touch, their tables are a ledge or a step or the curb outside, their unpredictable combos depend on whatever their groping hands can find. And in this parallel reality, in this reverse shadow world, you move away with elation, holding up, so that no-one can snatch it, the unlikely treasure of an intact McChicken, one of those that Kroc mandates be thrown out if not consumed ten minutes after being prepared, one that, preserved undisturbed in its box, is a memory to be hoarded for less fortunate nights, that, as soon as it’s safe, you open under weak streetlight and give thanks to Kroc for finding. That could be you. It’s not so difficult to know this other McDonald’s, all it takes is a soft serve twist of fate, a not-even-daring pirouette, an unsuspected foot Nietzsche has slipped in your way in order to make you stronger.
“Are you going to order something else, Sir?”
The employee had come up behind me, surreptitiously, his question in my ear was startling.
“This is my table! You’re not going to take it from me!” I responded, clinging to the Formica edge like a surfer to his board as he’s dragged out to sea.
The employee returned to the tills, answering the inquisitive glance of the latest night manager with just a shrug. The place was almost entirely empty, the employees seemed sweaty and scruffy and were doing whatever they pleased, neglecting to offer things, as they were obliged to do during the day, things that no one had even asked for (Would you like that combo Supersized? Would you like to add an ice cream to your order?). Only the Employee of the Month, with his imperturbable smile, was permanently fresh and unbowed, as if his shift had just begun; it wasn’t for nothing that he’d maintained his reign, unbeaten for three consecutive months. The annual crown was practically his. Without a word of apology, a janitor passed his detergent-drenched mop under my table, forcing me to lift my feet; another had rudely taken away my tray, without asking me this time, and already the most terrible moment of the night was on its way, that moment when I would be obliged once again to confront the promiscuous darkness that begins beyond the glass doors and the golden arches that flank them. And then it happened—that thing which for many nights, without even realizing, I had feared and longed. The Employee of the Month wiped his hands clean on his spotless apron, unbuttoned it and placed it on his closed till, exited the cash register area and came to sit at my table. We watched each other in silence for a few seconds, him smiling amicably, me terrified. Naturally, it was he who began.
“You know that all types of people come here. A McDonald’s location open all hours of the night is like a lighthouse in a storm, an oasis in the desert, a temple of faith in a land of infidels. We try to give to all what they need: food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, warmth to the freezing, a clean, well-lighted place for all who fear returning to an empty home. And all that we ask in return is a small contribution, so small it’s nearly symbolic. And in exchange we accept everyone, without distinction: rich and poor, dirty and clean, happy and miserable, alone and not, and everyone we deal with we treat the same, without regard for occasional haughtiness, unjustified complaints, the scandals which threaten to unsettle our beautiful calm, excessive demands, lack of courtesy, ingratitude. Many people come without knowing even what they seek, and they blame us for not granting it. There are also those who come looking for something specific and instead of finding it, lose it. Without looking any further, here on the sidewalk. A child escaped from the toy island. No one knows how. It’s something that in theory shouldn’t happen. We suspect that she never was on the toy island to begin with, but the father insists—to the point of bringing charges against us for negligence. Ha! As if this were the US! He was sitting at this very table, and from here he saw everything.”
I nodded and with my fingers shaking slipped a cigarette from the pack. As I struggled to hold it between my lips, he snatched it from my mouth before I could even light it.
“This is a no-smoking table. It’s not often that motorcycles climb onto sidewalks, it’s a mellow neighborhood, it’s safe; but sometimes unexpected things happen, especially when it comes to young people. Young people that climb the sidewalks on their motorcycles, that the police fail to detain within a reasonible radius, minors that before long will be set free and will soon jump on other motorcycles, climbing onto other sidewalks. But the girl’s father wants to take us to court. Us. He’s taking his shot. He wants his piece. Sure, the young don’t have money, they’re insolvent. That’s why he looks to us, abusing the compassion of Kroc. We, who were the first to help him when he was kneeling on the sidewalk, screaming, pulling out tufts of beard. Later he shaved, and thought that way we wouldn’t recognize him. He should have shaved his eyes, though. Let’s see if he can erase what they’ve seen.”
In a flash of embarrassment, I covered my chin and my naked cheeks with my hands as if I were covering my exposed genitals.
“As I was telling you, Sir, people of all types come here, and they always find our doors open. But everything has its limit. Those that have already lost everything don’t have the right to anything. Look around: in our restaurant there is only room for happy faces. I’m going to tell you the truth: we are tired of your pain. Take it somewhere else. In a few minutes we’re going to close our doors. We would appreciate if you exited them, and didn’t come back.”