Much of this, from Spurlock’s entertaining if snarky blubber-raking exercise (his girlfriend is a vegan chef, for chrissakes) to McDonald’s “who, us?” stonewalling, is pretty much beside the point. Even if it might be interesting to find out how much higher your cholesterol level would be after intaking 5,000 calories a day for a month at Le Cirque, you don’t exactly need a body-fat-caliper-wielding health professional to tell you fast food is bad for you. Like, duh! As made clear by courts that disallowed lawsuits filed by individuals who claimed too many Quarter Pounders caused them to become morbidly obese, McDonald’s scarfing is a matter of free choice, maniacal advertising pressure or not. I mean, so what if McDonald’s is the epitome of Western cultural demise, a Book of Revelations–like harbinger of the End? No one can tell a red-blooded American what to eat, no matter how glutinous his blood might be. This is how it is in our house, where my 14-year-old son, Billy, a known McNugget abuser, reacted as if being made to watch Super Size Me was an attack on his chosen lifestyle, as if someone had stepped on his new Jordans. “So what if it’s bad? I’m still eating it, ” he said.
Like it or not, Mickey D’s has become a fact of life in the city. Slow to arrive, the company now appears to regard New York as something of a vanguard market. Part of its recent health-oriented menu—its “premium salads,” with Paul Newman (isn’t he supposed to be a liberal?) dressing on top, and all-white-meat nuggets—were introduced in the five boroughs.
Indeed, by virtue of its sheer proliferation, McDonald’s, the ultimate freeway-exit experience, now qualifies as a bona fide New York public space. Almost everyone enters these Golden Arched portals eventually. For one thing, as the Mickey D’s flacks proclaim, “every one of our restaurants has a bathroom, and they are clean.” In a city where a tolerable public bathroom can be the holy grail, this is a near-irresistible lure. Plus, with the recent advent of free Wi-Fi at certain Manhattan outlets, McDonald’s has become an unlikely urban-profession pit-stop alternative to the equally ubiquitous Starbucks. Sure, both of them make you feel like you’re in the L. Ron Hubbard Memorial Cafeteria, with their highly scripted consumer interfaces. But watching sullen, underpaid Mickey D’s cashiers attempting to smile on demand (according to McD’s “Smile Game,” if they don’t, you get free small fries) is not all that more depressing than listening to sullen, underpaid Starbucks employees run through their “venti latte” call-and-response routine.
As with most occupying forces, McD’s has extended a stylistic hand aimed at winning local hearts and minds. They’re trying to fit into the neighborhood, so to speak. Case in point is the unit at 160 Broadway. Seeking to affect a stockbroker-appropriate environ, the place is done up with chic wood paneling and modernistic light fixtures. As an extra class dollop, a grand piano has been installed on a Plexiglas platform overlooking the dining room. On this particular day, however, the pianist had not shown up. “He’s missing,” said the afternoon manager, Junior. “He’s AWOL. I’m trying to get a replacement. It’s got to be the right person. We want to keep it upscale.” In keeping with this refinement movement, the restaurant’s sound system, rather than the usual McD staple of early-eighties power ballads (Pat Benatar’s “Love Is a Battlefield” is a favorite), was blasting a series of Gregorian chants. Pausing to listen to the McMedieval chorales as he emptied the trash cans, a worker named Andre said, blissfully, “This gospel music gets to me.”
Uptown, the massive three-tiered Mickey D’s next to Madame Tussaud’s on West 42nd Street likewise pushes the franchise envelope. Supposed to look like the “backstage of the Broadway house,” according to the afternoon manager, the place more resembles a gigantic industrial-style leather bar, harking back to a previous Forty Deuce incarnation. Still, it is difficult to imagine a more stirring setting to slather on the pounds. On the upper level, overlooking the tourist trudge past the New Victory Theater, are several long, boardroom-size, granite-topped tables. In fact, a number of McDonald’s managers had gathered up there, poring over a PowerPoint presentation and speaking in hushed tones about the demise of McD CEO James Cantalupo (who died, hours before he was to address a McDonald’s franchisee convention, at the age of 60, inspiring thousands of snide comments on Internet chat boards). Seated a few feet away and unable to restrain my deep ambivalence toward these eager-beaver purveyors of devalued food choices, I exercised my McTech Wi-Fi privileges, feverishly downloading corporate rock and roll and firing up the anti-McD’s Website McSpotlight.org. Here, one finds the testimony of Geoffrey Giuliano, a former Ronald McDonald clown who, after quitting, tearfully apologized for “brainwashing you youngsters into doing wrong” and “selling out to concerns who make millions by murdering animals.”
But what good was this carping? As a young WTO protester once told me in explanation of why he’d throw a brick through the window of a Starbucks before a Mickey D’s: “Well, you’ve got to eat somewhere.” This was why they lined up on 42nd Street, why the grim drive-thrus in the outer boroughs are backed up with people screaming into clown-mouth speakers, “No! Crispy chicken with NO mayo . . . moron,” and why someone like Morgan Spurlock will never lay a glove on McDonald’s.