I call my parents habitually most weekends, but that Sunday I avoided telling them more than usual. I merely said I was having brunch with a friend from school. What I left off as I moved Matrix-like through Manhattan Valley was that Jean and I were meeting of all places at McDonald’s.
Why were we eating at the Golden Arches and not some posh place Downtown? Two words: Student loans. Also, I have a underutilized fascination with fast food. My parents would be deeply ashamed of the trash animal I’ve become since leaving home, so I told them nothing.
My folks made a point of shielding my brothers and I from the high fat content chains of our childhoods. Ever-present giants like Burger King, Wendy’s, and Taco Bell were simply not allowed. As were the scarcer Arby’s, Roy Rogers, and Hardee’s. (although I have been to an In-N-Out, the sluttiest sounding of the country’s eateries, given it’s the only thing to do in California besides go to the beach.) Only on the annual road trips to visit family several states over did our minivan ever bank around the “drive-thru” and we ordered burgers wrapped sacrosanct in their own paper. I now appreciate the “treat” quality instilled in these meals. The rarity made the moments I sat eating a hot fudge sundae in a booth with the vinyl cracking under my butt special in a way that only becomes more illusive with age.
I missed the opportunity to continue the tradition (or to ruin it with overexposure) during my undergraduate years where there were only white collar bistros and Italian restaurants. That’s what you get for going to college in the posh part of town— a significant lack of unhealthy options, or at least affordable ones. Plus, I was on the meal plan. My move to New York City and enrollment in graduate school meant I would have access to what I always wanted: the verboten foods.
I was also still far away from home so I didn’t have anyone policing my eating habits, which manifested rather predictably in my dirty seagull scavenging tendencies. How bad has it gotten? A classmate caught me last spring producing a fistful of Starburst jelly beans (read: breakfast) from my backpack. He laughed out of…I don’t know, fear? I have accepted I will never be a meal prepper. I eat post-apocalyptically like there’s no tomorrow, only a yesterday (evident by how stale these chips are).
Somewhere in the midst this steady relinquishing of the three square meals I was raised to have, I started to stray into the true unknown: fast food. At first it was just a drunk one night stand full-tilt mistake. A McChicken at 2AM and greasy fingertips paired with deep stomach churning regret the next morning. Who was I becoming? Who was I kidding? I owed it to myself to do it with a little self respect. Or at least discretion.
So I messaged Jean a little more than a sentence after a few beers somewhere close to closing. She, I knew, was an enthusiast and Drunk Zoe wanted a licensed guide into the world of greasy, cheap, forbidden foods. Jean lived close to a McDonald’s, ate there, and even studied at one of their tables. I felt comfortable letting someone who will one day have to admit that she drafted a bestseller to the din of crackling fat and communal toilets be my shepherd. She had breathed the sweet bready air, small talked with the customers holding their receipts like gambling tickets, and used with relish the free WiFi. Jean and I had also once sat on the curb opposite eating hash browns after splitting an Uber back Uptown. If anyone was equipped to show me what the fuss was, it was Jean.
I followed a line that almost reached the door of the Broadway McDonald’s that sat between 104th and 105th St. I walked toward to the tall stack of athletic wear that is Jean after practice. An accumulation of medical tape held the right temple of her glasses to the lens and I fought the urge to mutter, “repairo.” She held a series of plastic bags, one I assumed contained cleats. Turns out it was champagne for the orange juice Jean would order with my meal. It was brunch after all. We did have standards.
Barely glancing up at the menu boards, Jean expertly asked the cashier for a chicken and a breakfast sandwich then instructed me to scope out a table by the back. Between the bathroom and a man talking to the TV, I grabbed us a two-person booth. The larger tables were predominantly occupied by older couples carefully drinking coffee. How could Jean study in this mild havoc? Penn Station has at least reason to its endless writhing. McDonald’s was loud just because. I guess kind of like reading on the subway, it’s easier than it looks. I quickly acclimate to the fervor and we sat down for a little ketchup time.
Our task was expansive: two sandwiches, two drinks, two sides, and a stylish tray to carry it, all coming out to about $18. At my usual brunch spots, that gets you like a single serving of joe, refills not included. We didn’t order any but, Jean swears by McDonald’s coffee. It’s cheap, hot, and pairs nicely with writing.
The champagne was opened as subtly as one can manage with a pop cork. I’m advised to eat my egg sandwich, which was deemed the more “McDonald’s” of the two and thus given to me instead of the chicken, in tandem with the harsh brown. This was valuable advise. I’d had exactly two hash browns in my lifetime and both were with Jean. There’s something delightful about pairing cheap eats, insisting on how one elevates the other, and honestly meaning it. And being right. As far as I was concerned, every bite of egg from that moment on must be followed with fried potato or else be accepted as fundamentally wrong. As I took calculated bites, I could feel a full monologue coming on– I was becoming the kind of person that not only eats at McDonald’s, but also believes that there’s a right way to eat at McDonald’s.
I stopped stuffing my face long enough to survey my sandwich. The egg was industrial scramble folded into a oddly satisfying square. The biscuit was so saturated with butter that it left a thin oil slick on my fingers. The fries– even I know how good those are. Jean’s chicken looked like it was actually cut out of an animal (not that I have a problem with meat that’s been pushing through one of those Play-doh shape-makers.) And everything went great with champagne. Who wouldn’t love this? It has a menu and charm not unlike a diner and it’s just about as all-access as one can get. You can order McDonald’s at pretty much any time; the one Jean and I were in never closes.
McDonald’s are some of the last true twenty-four hour spaces. They’re a place to eat, collect, do almost anything regardless of the situation or time of day. On the Sunday Jean and I had stumbled in, it was raining. As we work up a healthy buzz, Jean and I brokedown the microcosm that the weather had created in our local McDonald’s. Families, octogenarians, a child with a tricycle. Also, every full-bladdered person in the entire borough. There was an impressive stream of people in and out of the two bathrooms, the sight of which reminded me of all the time I’d found myself cross-legged and desperate, but fortunate enough to come upon a McDonald’s in the knick of time.
The thing about McDonald’s is it’s consistent, it’s everywhere, it’s cheap. And I mean cheap. About a month after our adventure, I bought breakfast on the way to a protest for $2.18. Another time, I grabbed “dinner” for less than a subway ticket. Was it healthy? God no. But this isn’t a documentary about the decay of America. At McDonald’s, the coffee is always hot, the fryer is always on, and your only out of luck if you want ice cream because the machine is probably broken. If we are in a universe of only good and bad things, McDonald’s is a necessary evil. It’s the enlarged heart with clogged arteries of this and other cities and it’s earned a small place in mine.
Zoe Marquedant is a Skittle in a world of M&Ms.