Friday, May 2, 2014

Heart of Gold

Every six months or so, I submit to an inexplicable craving and eat at McDonald’s. This is my story.

The first sniff of the air inside a McDonald’s makes my taste buds horny. They wet themselves in anticipation while I stand in line waiting with feigned patience and love for my fellow man. Time slows to a belly crawl as the permanently baffled octogenarians in front of me order Whoppers for which they hope to pay with Burger King coupons. At last I approach the counter. I already know which meal I want, but I look past the cashier and up at the menu board anyway, scanning it with narrowed eyes and furrowed brow, as if it were written in an ancient language that I have never seen before but must de-code before being fed.

The ordering process is always the same; I include everything the pimple-faced cashier-in-training needs to know (meal number, size, to stay or go), and they proceed to ask me every question that I have already answered. Once they figure out enter my order into the new age push-button register, I hand over my money (always in cash so as to avoid a paper trail), ignoring the thought that a parking lot drug transaction would probably feel less shameful. It would certainly be faster and less complicated.

Moments later I carry my tray of “food” over to the soda and condiment station, taking a perverse pleasure in resisting the urge to claw a couple of fries into my half-open mouth.  At the aptly named soda fountain, I am torn between one particular beverage and everything else on offer. Diet-Coke and I share a sordid history. I love her like a hooker with a heart of gold that I might have in the past paid to do nothing more than hold me close and listen as I listed my fears, grief, hopes, joys, and regrets. The relationship wasn’t all that good for me, but she listened in the moment, and she was cheaper than a therapist.

After a moment of guilt-ridden memories, I sigh softly before filling my cup with more orange soda than any one person should consume in a week. I fumble with the wrong size lids before finding the right, then stab a straw through the hole, and push in all the little buttons that indicate cola, diet, root beer, or other. I then pump a half-quart of ketchup into a platoon of little white paper cups, grab a handful of pepper packets, and stock up for the impending global napkin shortage.

After choosing a table an acceptable distance away from the doors, trash bins, bathrooms, and homeless people, a table that is relatively free of soda spills, food crumbs, and unidentifiable stains, I am ready to consume.

Well, not quite yet. I have to break open the pile of pepper packets and sprinkle them one by one over my ketchup garden.

Now I am ready to consume.

A handful of french fries to start. If they are hot, the guilt burns away like flash paper. Cold, and a tickle of regret creeps up my spine, bowing my shoulders as if I want to hide. If the carton is full of soggy bits and the nasty burnt dregs, I take them back to the counter and ask for fresh fries. I paid for tasty poison, and that is what I want.

 I pull back the lid to the Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese. I still remember the first time I ate a Quarter Pounder. I was 15, working part-time at the westbound McDonald’s on I-95 in Madison, Connecticut. One night while going on break, I ordered two Cheeseburgers, a small fry, and a chocolate shake from the same beautiful cashier that earlier in the month had followed me into the walk-in freezer and showed me her freshly sun-tanned breasts.

My focus at work had blurred since that paradoxical moment of hot and cold. It had taken me three weeks to muster the function of speech in her presence, and after placing my order that night, she just stood at the register with her lips pressed together in apparent disapproval.  I waited beside her, wishing she didn’t smell of coconut oil and sunshine.  

“You should just order a Quarter-Pounder with Cheese, it’s just a bigger Cheeseburger,” she said at last.

The information was unsolicited, much like her display in the freezer had been.

“What’s on it?” I managed to ask, my voice just a measure above a squeak.

“The same stuff, only the onions are bigger,” she answered, with emphasis on the word bigger.

I stood staring at her with open-hanging mouth for the second time that month.

“Just try it; I promise you’ll love it,” she said, and with that she entered my order into the register.

Her unsolicited advice had not gone unappreciated. I ate that Quarter Pounder with Cheese (in spite of those pesky sesame seeds) and never looked back. At some point I had somehow graduated to the Double QP, and I like to think it was by accident, because no one should ever knowingly choose to ramp up their consumption of something so hazardous to the heart.

My DQPwC never looks quite like the one in the print ads or commercials, which portray a happy, handsome, healthy guy eating McDonald’s food without actually taking a bite (or falling into a shame spiral). No, my DQPwC always looks more like something a three-fingered, career-depressed, mother’s basement-dweller in his late thirties threw together while blindfolded. Still, I have hope that each new one will taste good all the way through to the final bite in spite of its initial appearance. I discard the bigger chunks of onion and a pickle or two, then assemble the pile into something that looks like it will fit between my teeth. After wiping the grease, mustard, and ketchup from my hands, I pick up the DQPwC and take a bite.

It is probably written in fine print (or perhaps invisible ink) somewhere on the menu board that only the first bite of a McDonald’s burger is guaranteed to be free of self-loathing. Believing this, I always make the first bite a big one, full of that famous flavor known to billions every day. I follow this up with some fries dipped in peppered ketchup, a sip of orange soda, and the thought that I should quit while I’m ahead.

But I don’t.

Bite, savor, swallow, repeat…

Halfway through the meal, that scent, the one that caused a flood of saliva not ten minutes earlier, becomes an odor. It is important to note that a scent is something you notice casually, and if it’s good you seek out its source, while an odor is something unavoidable that ten-year-old boys make without trying, and then dare each other to experience up close over and over amid fits of laughter as you run the other way. The odor of a McDonald’s meal is a mix of grease, rot, and gluttony; it sticks to your skin like a scarlet letter, and no amount of soap or hand sanitizer can wash it away.

Bite, odor, guilt, repeat…

The odor gives me pause, but I soldier through; I’ve got a small beach bucket of fries to finish off, and I can’t let that last quarter-of-a-quarter-of-a-pound of meatish material go to waste. I punch through the disgust barrier and manage to feed the remaining bites into my mouth under the protest of my offended nostrils. The last few fries are never the biggest, and are in fact the smallest, coldest, and least desirable. I snatch them up like a baby eating Cheerios for the first time, eager to finally control his own food intake.

A quick disposal of the evidence in the nearest trash bin, and I burst through the doors and out into the daylight like an indicted mob boss leaving a courthouse to face an army of flashbulbs and microphones. I head for my car and try not to squeal the tires as I leave the parking lot.

And then the remorse absolute sets in.

A meal at McDonald’s is always followed by the same bloated regret that a pregnant teenager in her third trimester must feel when riding the school bus. I want to run home and take an Ace Ventura shower of shame, curled up into a ball of doughy flesh, the hot water blending with my tears as I mourn the loss of my innocence. I chew mint gum to fight the rotting of my breath, and a bottle of Tums becomes my constant companion for the next several hours as I try in vain to pop the bubble of fetid gas rising within me and putting pressure on my ribs. Eventually the bubble stops rising and starts to descend. This is not a good thing, however, because the gas seeks the path of least resistance. I banish myself from public places, and pray that my family will forgive the invisible cloud of greenhouse gases that surrounds me. There is no relief but time, so I settle into my regret and wait for the slow process of digestion and expulsion to take place.

At some point within eight hours after eating at McDonald’s I can be found on the treadmill, punishing myself for my indulgence. I imagine the great drops of sweat that seep from my pores and soak my shirt to be not a byproduct of my exercise, but rather a direct result of my poor choice of lunch, a siphoning of poisonous fat from my body. I watch the calorie counter climb, and the moment it hits 800, I feel an immediate easing of guilt. I slow to a walk and mentally pat myself on the back for my new found self-control and determination, until a voice inside reminds me that had I not eaten at McDonald’s but burned that 800 calories anyway, I would be ahead for the day.

I have never checked the chart, but a DQPwC meal has to measure at least 1,000 calories, and more than that, it is made of artery-clogging junk that my body is better off without.

And so I vow to never again pass beneath the golden arches of remorse; bad gas may eventually burn through an engine, but I wouldn't I knowingly put it in my car.

Unless I’m on a road trip; McDonald’s is delicious on a road trip!


  1. I was riding in the car with my wife and sister and read this out loud to them. We were all hysterically laughing, tears streaming, and empathizing a lot! I love your way of writing, the way you paint a picture, bringing us right along with you! Damn good!

  2. Thanks Kerri, I am so happy to have added fits of laughter to your day!