Justin R. Erenkrantz Where do you want to go today?

Requiem for a Heavyweight

As I enter the swinging doors and take off my sunglasses, I look around and see the fundamental basis for modern society: a fast food restaurant. Fast food restaurants have emerged from a curious novelty in to something that is the foundation for today´s American family. They represent everything that is good and bad with this country. They are the zenith of efficiency, yet the nadir of human companionship. We can order mass produced foods here for a minimal price and effort. We relay our order and moments later our bland food appears on a tray ready for our consumption. We are reduced to a mere number and sometimes we do not even get that distinction. Every corner of society is drawn to the fast food restaurants at one time or another. The only exception is the very rich who import foreign nationals to cook their meals - they use the same amount of energy the rest of us do at the local fast food restaurant - absolutely none. At the fast food restaurant, everything is action and reaction. Actual brain waves are not required to eat or work at a fast food joint.

I work my way through the crowd and stand in the back of the endless line. I take a look up at the big board and ponder what I want for lunch. One of the biggest advancements in recent fast food history is the advent of the value meal. In case you have been living in a baggie for the last two years, a value meal is the combination of a burger (or whatever the "main" course is), a side item (french fries), and a drink. Supposedly, they give the customer an easy way to order their favorite meal. I think it has more to do with making sure that the workers have less to mess up. Another benefit of these "value meals" is to generate more revenue for the company. Now they can charge fifty cents more for the same combination and no one will even notice. Who is going to actually stand there with a calculator and figure out how much these value meals really save them? If someone was actually crazy enough to do it, everyone would give him the evil eye. The other patrons would pass judgement on him and think of him as another Ebenezer Scrooge. If he´s that miserly, he should be home counting his money, not figuring out how much he is going to save by ordering all of the items separately. Oh, the price we pay for convenience.

After my momentous decision is complete, I take a quick look at the line to see who else is waiting to place his order with the nameless devil. I see a mother and father with their little kids screaming and yelling about how they want that brand new kids´ meal toy. I catch a glimpse of the impatient man in the dark business suit stealing a lustful glance at his expensive Rolex watch. He must have a big meeting soon and wants to catch a bite to eat before the future of the world is decided. I see the construction workers taking a well-deserved break from the monotony of building that newest temple to the gods. I witness the dejected baseball team file into the restaurant with their heads down. Judging from their looks, they feel that they should have won this one. One player stands out since he has his head up and has a giant smile as he walks into the establishment. Glancing at the workers, the last thing they possess is a smile welcoming this excited child.

All of the workers look exactly the same with their company-issued shirts and hats. The company attire is complemented by the worker´s bogus smiles. In fact, I remember an advertising campaign that guaranteed a smile from each and every employee. The employees did not realize that this ad implied that their smiles should be genuine. Yet, I must give the crew credit for trying to keep their hopes up while working in this paragon of capitalism. Most of the crew members would gladly tell their boss to take their minimum wage job and shove it. However, for some unknown (or known) reason, they can not go through with it. I guess it is because they have no better place to work. Some of the employees are actually people who have retired from long hard years in the "real" world and are just looking for a job that will keep them busy for twenty hours out of the week. The one common bond between all of the employees is that this is not where they want to spend the rest of their lives. The young people want to move on, and the old people yearn for something better than a job making Happy Meals for young tykes.

Once the grumpy cashier processes your order, it enters a big assembly line where any thing can and usually does go wrong. Murphy´s Law is proven every single day in fast food restaurants. The impatient businessman orders a Whopper without mayonnaise - a quite simple order for most restaurants. The businessman is not amused when he goes back to his office and opens his Whopper and sees only a little bun, an even smaller patty, and gobs of mayonnaise. The little kid orders large fries and ends up with an order of small onion rings. It is up to his parents to explain to little Johnny that the big bad guys at McDonald´s screwed up his order. Johnny is too small to understand the machinations of big society, so he starts to cry and whine for his coveted french fries. The parents are stuck with a whimpering kid and a useless order of onion rings.

It appears that today fate is smiling upon me. I actually receive what I ordered. I simply smile and thank the cashier and head towards the drink machine to fill up my big cup with the nectar of the gods (a.k.a. Coca-Cola). Getting from the cashier to the drink machine can be quite an obstacle course. I have to dodge the screaming kids playing with their brand new toys. One out-of-control kid and his characteristic obliviousness can knock me over and send my treasured meal to the ground. I have seen this doom befall several people. The only empathy the workers can offer is a sly smile. They offer these tortured souls a spot at the back of the line and a quick "Oops." I have the feeling that some of these accidents occur more from human intervention than simple luck. I would not put it past some of the workers to do anything to break the boredom of their shift.

I finally reach the drink machine and fill my cup to three-quarters so I do not to spill it on my way to my seat. Turning slowly around to face the booths and tables, I see that most of the booths are taken. I sit down at a nearby chair and deliberately eat my double cheeseburger and fries. I take pity on the people who treasure these foods as a delicacy. I feel that I should take a bat and hit them across the head for even suggesting that lame idea. In my opinion, the only purpose of these restaurants is to give respite from cooking a big meal or throwing a Red Baron pizza into the microwave. In this respect, fast food restaurants do earn their keep. But, to hold them to any higher standard is an atrocity.

As a society that also holds television in high regard, fast food restaurants deluge us with inane advertisements preaching the quality of their foods. In a recent advertisement for McDonald´s, a boxer is depicted getting creamed in the ring and his manager makes him pretend that his opponent stole his Big Mac when he was six years old. The boxer becomes so enraged that in the next round he knocks out his opponent in one punch. Yeah, right, like that is ever going to happen. However, McDonald´s is not alone in running advertisements that insult our intelligence. Hardee´s also runs an advertisement that portrays a priest sitting down to eat one of their Boss burgers. All of a sudden, a ray of light comes down upon the burger and the burger is miraculously pulled towards the heavens. However, the priest is not willing to give up his lunch without a fight. Since he is a devout man, the priest decides to let the "big guy" have the burger. But, the burger is soooo big, the "big guy" can´t even finish it off, and it is returned to the astonished priest. I would love to be on the ad agency team that came up with that idea. It´s like taking candy from a baby - they thought about it for what, ten seconds? But, originality is not something for which the fast food market strives. It is a market dictated by leaders and followers.

Where would be without the ubiquitous drive-thru lane? It is even more of a help for the beleaguered Everyman than the anything-but-value meal. From the convenience of your own car, you can order your meal, drive a few feet and your meal is ready! But, the price you pay for this added luxury is the even greater possibility that your order will be messed up. Most people are willing to gamble on the drive-thru just so they do not have to turn their engines off and walk a few feet to interact with a human being (albeit very unhelpful, but a human nonetheless). You surrender your money to the drive-thru cashier, who makes the regular cashiers look downright cheerful. He is talking on his little walkie-talkie to the next drive-thru patron, pouring a cold drink, and yelling for your money. Then, he sticks a bag full of food out the window - whether or not it is your food is not his problem. It is merely an order and that is all he cares about. In spite of that, we still willingly flock to drive-thru lanes to place our insignificant orders.

Fast food restaurants are even more of a staple abroad than they are here in the United States. It is a nationwide event when a new McDonald´s or Kentucky Fried Chicken opens up. They treat it as an icon of freedom. For some unknown reason, foreigners want desperately to be like Americans. They want to wear the same clothes that we do, go to the same stores, and most importantly, eat the same food. Their fervor for wanting to be like us justifies paying three-hundred percent markup on the food. Trust me, a Big Mac is not worth $100 in Japan. I don´t care if they make it with sushi. There is no way that I could justify that price. The old adage about fools and their money is clearly proven.

Some people have told me that the farther out in the country they go, the better the fast food is. When I first heard this, I snickered. But, when I was out on some entirely forgettable trip, I went to a McDonald´s out in the middle of nowhere. I must say that it was the best McDonald´s I had ever visited. I could not and can not explain this aberration. I guess it may have something to do with the fact that there is no other place to work, so all of the best and brightest decide to go to work at their local fast food restaurant. I presume that this may be how good the fast food restaurants were twenty years ago. If all of the fast food restaurants were that good back then, I can easily imagine why they became so popular. They easily gave any long-standing hamburger joints a run for their money. But, as the novelty of the fast food restaurants died down, the enticement for the highly skilled workers slowly dissipated.

My parents fondly remember the times their parents took them to Mickey D´s for supper. It was a big event and was, quite possibly, the highlight of their week. Nowadays, fast food restaurants have lost their originality, and have subsequently blended in with mainstream society. Nobody even thinks twice about going to Burger King, Arby´s, or Wendy´s. They are always there when we need them. If Mom does not want to cook tonight, she can say, "Ok, hop in the car, we´re going to McDonald´s." No one treats it as an adventure anymore. As I leave the restaurant to resume my dizzying life, I let out a little sigh to mark the days gone by.

Last Modified Friday, 20-Aug-2010 02:50:18 EDT These pages were made by Justin R. Erenkrantz unless otherwise stated. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. These pages will look best in an XHTML 1.0 compliant browser.

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