“I can’t afford to eat nowhere else,” says a Hillcrest High junior who gives his name as Psyche (that’s what his tattoo reads, even if his mother calls him Raymond). Like many Hillcrest students, Psyche often stops in at the Parsons Boulevard McD’s after school. It is the same all over the city, from Hillside Avenue near Jamaica High, over to Broadway by Martin Luther King, out to Brooklyn in Fort Hamilton, even downtown, a block from Stuyvesant: The mid-afternoon provides the voyeur access to the most recent hip-hop flavas and other teen obsessions, many of them involving the hormonal, despite Super Size Me’s contention that Big Macs induce a certain flaccidity of the erogenous zones. For Psyche and his crew, all of them African-American, McDonald’s offers refuge. If ten of them walked into the diner down the road, people would get uptight, he says. It would be a hassle. “But here, no one says anything. We’re always here, you know.”
This is this sort of democratic dilemma that screeds like Super Size Me fail to grasp. Crappy as the food is, as crummy as the McJobs they offer might be, for many, Mickey D’s offers singular opportunity on a decidedly unlevel playing field. “Man, you know I feel sorry for a lot of the kids I’ve hired over the years,” says Lee Dunham. “That’s because, what does every mother and father say? ‘If you don’t do your homework, you’re gonna end up working in McDonald’s’ . . . If you work here, you’re supposed to be stupid. I must have heard it a hundred times, when someone messes up. ‘No wonder you’re working here.’ It’s just not fair. This isn’t an easy job, dealing with everyone who comes in here.”
“This is the only job I could find,” says Carla, a shy twentyish woman behind the counter of the McD’s on Brooklyn’s Hamilton Avenue. Carla is from Ecuador, which fits in fine, since almost everyone working at the place, including Ali, the manager, was born on a different continent. Nestled under the rusting trestle of the BQE at the mouth of the Battery Tunnel, incongruously decorated with Elvis photos, the Hamilton Avenue McD franchise, while clean as a whistle, is hard to beat as a tableau of modernist alienation. Edward Hopper could drive the interstates south of Tulsa, watch those 100-foot-high signs shuddering in the prairie wind and not find a more desolate-feeling burger joint than this. When the truckers line up at the 24-hour drive-thru, the place has the aspect of a fuel stop on an off-world colony.
But Carla is making the best of it. Told the scenario of Super Size Me, she rolls her eyes. “Every meal, every day, here? That’s kind of nuts,” says Carla, who eats here at least once a day. It is a job perk: free food. “Saves me a lot of money,” says the employee, who usually goes for the fish sandwich, or sometimes a Big Mac.
Another day, another who-knows-how-many billion down the hatch. The next morning, I stopped over at the McD’s on Fifth Avenue and 9th Street in Brooklyn, the closest franchise to my house. Our McDonald’s, the kids used to call it. It was a good place to have a really cheap birthday party, owing to the Ronald McDonald–ized playroom, which featured a sandbox-size pit filled with hundreds of saliva-slicked plastic balls, which parents and babysitters had to wade through when things got rowdy. Recently the playroom was removed, leaving a vacant, fluorescent-lit room with a cracked linoleum-tile floor. No matter, this being Sunday morning, the place was packed with families just out of church.
One distinguished gentleman in a gray suit was eating a Deluxe Breakfast with hotcakes and extra hash browns. Identifying himself as the deacon of a local evangelical church, he said he often brought his grandchildren, two young girls in sweet pink dresses, to Mickey D’s after Sunday service. Maybe the food wasn’t so great or so good for you, the deacon allowed, “but the kids, it makes them happy. Can’t do much about that.”