Supersize City

The McDonald's in Times Square is designed with a backstage-at-Broadway theme.Photo: Sylvia Plachy

Lee Dunham, who on March 23, 1973, opened the first McDonald’s on the island of Manhattan, at 215 West 125th Street, says he’s incredulous I’ve managed to live more than five decades on the planet without ever eating a Big Mac. Fries, shakes, fish fillets, even cheeseburgers, yes, but Big Macs, no.

“That’s un-American, isn’t it?” remarks the now 72-year-old Dunham, with wry suspicion. Dunham, who still works “those twelve-hour days” as the owner-operator of a dozen Mickey D’s in the tri-state area, retains “a soft spot” for his first venture, which he sold in 1991 and refers to as “a piece of New York history.” A former beat cop in Harlem’s 28th Precinct, Dunham had always wanted to open his own restaurant, preferably “a classy tablecloth place.” But after finding “not too many banks willing to lend a lot of money to a black guy in 1971,” Dunham began thinking of a franchise business. He tried several, including the then-popular Chicken Delight, without success before striking a deal with McDonald’s.

“I’m not sure why they were willing to open the first one in Harlem. I guess the rents downtown were too high,” says Dunham, reminiscing about when burgers cost 23 cents, fries went for 15 cents, and “there wasn’t even such a thing as a Quarter Pounder.” Despite two personal exhortatory visitations from Ray Kroc himself, a McD franchise wasn’t a sure thing back then, Dunham says. Harlem was on the edge. Junkies were hanging out all day “putting twenty sugars in their hot chocolate,” and Dunham had to hire moonlighting-cop buddies to keep rampaging gangs like the Savage Skulls and Brooklyn’s Bedford Avenue Stompers out of the joint.

But there was no stopping the McD’s Zeitgeist, which was to blow away New York burger chains like Wetson’s and consign White Castle’s funky square patties to the fast-food margins. “When I saw those limousines pulling up in front of the place with white kids from downtown, I knew I was in,” Dunham recalls. Being down the street from the Apollo Theater didn’t hurt. “I used to serve 2,200 customers a day … When James Brown was in town, it went to 3,200. James sold me a lot of hamburgers. They were round the block, rhinestones for days.”

The ultimate freeway experience has become a bona fide New York public space.

Now it is difficult to imagine a New York devoid of Golden Arches. In the wake of Dunham’s triumph, there are more McDonald’s franchises here than in any other city in the country, more than 250 of the suckers in the five boroughs, with 74 locations in Manhattan alone. Like some grease-surfing Cheever character, you can’t go three midtown blocks without half-drowning in a pool of McFlurries, and that’s just the top of it. Thanks in part to a Giuliani rezoning scheme that rescinded limits on chain stores, streets previously home to iconic New York small businesses now resemble exurban strip malls. At the intersection of Linden Boulevard and Pennsylvania Avenue in Brooklyn, for instance, the inner-city traveler encounters McD’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Popeye’s, a veritable cornucopia of corporate Frankenfood.

You might as well be Anywhere, USA. Except we are not anywhere, we are in New York, which is not supposed to be anywhere. What was wrong with just having a pizza parlor on every single block, a snarly, T-shirted dough-flinger hulking behind fingerprint-mottled counters—wasn’t that fast food enough? The notion of New York’s being home to more Ronald McDonald per square inch than anywhere else ranks as a grievous assault on cosmopolitan civic esteem.

This artery-hardening, reflux-inducing complaint is boldfaced in the current McD–bashing, Sundance award-winning film Super Size Me, in which New York–based writer–director–star–guinea pig Morgan Spurlock spends 30 straight days eating nothing but McDonald’s, from Big Macs to Egg McMuffins to yogurt parfaits and back again. Aimed at linking McD’s mad-scientist cuisine with expanding obesity rates (plenty of low-angle shots of huge, Wal-Mart-clad bottoms), the results of Spurlock’s experiment, from the filmmaker’s first parking-lot chunder to the microphotography of jellied protoplasm during a stomach-stapling operation, do not paint a pretty picture.

McDonald’s, a monolith as unblinking as the Bush White House, has not been amused. A statement from Hamburger U. extended “two thumbs down” to Super Size Me, saying Spurlock’s “is not about McDonald’s” but rather a personal decision to “act irresponsibly” as he “elected to eat 5,000 calories a day and deliberately limit his exercise as a gimmick.” The fast-food giant defends its concern for the national health by listing a number of new products in its “Real Life Choices” menu, including “an Adult Happy Meal with pedometer.”

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 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.

“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.”

Supersize City