For years I lived almost next door to a McDonald's, and I never went in. I believed Einstein when he said the best thing we can do for the planet is to become vegetarian--that and keep your mouth closed if you invent something like technology for the atomic bomb, paving the way for mass destruction. But twenty-nine cents for a meal? Come on--as an underpaid freelance writer and novelist, how could I pass it up? Saving money is the same as saving time, creating another hour free to work on non-paying fiction.
Of course, with food we all have to work around some fleeting fear of being poisoned, with good reason. Old food, undercooked food, Salmonella, chemicals When I was a kid in Michigan, the Montsanto corporation released PBB into the food chain, some kind of pesticide mistaken for fertilizer. Instead of throwing out the poisoned grain, they chose to "dilute" it, spreading chemicals through every animal. At the same time, there was a mercury scare for fish in the Great Lakes. Then there was arsenic in a cream pitcher in the Michigan State University Student Union lounge where I'd wait for my mom to finish yoga, one of the first instances I heard of product tampering.
But a 29-cent hamburger? A 60-cent meal! Who can afford to worry?
It was a regional thing, this McDonald's special, designed to lure the Northwest resisters--and I was exactly their target demographic. A Goodwill shopper, health-conscious, drinking soy milkshakes. They reached me. I entered into a relationship with McDonald's.
I was two back in line, holding my 60 cents, the day the man ahead of me called to a woman working behind the counter. He said, "How's the kid?"
The woman slid her arm down the side of the counter, leaning over. She said, "A shit and a pain in the ass, like his mother."
The man laughed, but then said again, "Really, how is he?"
This woman looked young, but tired. Her red hair was thick, sticking out awkwardly from under her uniform hat. She rubbed her eyes with one hand and said, "Which kid?"
When we had the warning about mercury in the fish, I'd break open my school lunch fish sandwich. If I saw the silver lines of something that was only fish but to me was mercury, I'd throw my lunch away.
The man said, "The kid with the tumor."
She said, "Had it removed. It wasn't anything, but doctors say it'll probably come back. They said they've never seen one in a kid out here, in the West. It's some East Coast kind of tumor."
With the arsenic in the cream pitcher, the woman we knew who drank it was a Southern woman who picked her nose with her little finger. She lived, but only after time in the hospital.
Then the man said, "How's the cat?"
The woman behind the counter started filling paper slips with fries. She said, "Which one--with the runny eyes? With the cyst?"
But I couldn't give up. I couldn't get out of line. I had my budget, my two quarters and a dime!
She said, "He's looking pretty cute, not so runny now."
And I said, "Two hamburgers, please." I took my food outside, away from the acne and potbellies, the smoker's skin--the humanity. I sat on the curb. The burgers were hot and simple and steaming. They had pickles, mustard, and catsup. There were tiny little onions cut like confetti. I had another thirty cents. I wanted to go back in.