I met Brooke Takhar on the Internet, which is pretty much how adults are supposed make friends now that it’s the future. (Please don’t correct me on this probably misguided assumption.)
Brooke was a contender in Vancouver’s Top Mom Blogger competition last year, and I wanted her to win because she is the coolest. It turns out, we like (and dislike) most of the same things. After we bonded over Eater’s Life in Chains series (and this post in particular), we decided to bring a little of that magic home, to our own blogs, where we’re posting our own stories of chain restaurants and what they mean to us. Brooke is here today, and when I figure out how to end mine, it’ll be on her site later this week.
While you read this, I’ll be talking myself out of a trip through the Drive-Thru. Enjoy.
Life in Chains: The Golden Days
Like many kids of divorce in the 80s, on a late Saturday afternoon you would find me and my brother seated across from our Dad in a warm corner of a McDonald’s.
Shoeless, whooping monkeys who had two parents watching them flip off the slide and get their heels stuck in the rope ladder.
The seats were hardened plastic; if we were lucky they swiveled. My Filet-O-Fish was always the perfect combination of crunchy, squishy and tangy. Every time I gently unwrapped it from its damp and crinkled paper casing, I marveled at how it looked exactly like it did on the menu.
In between bites and slurps and sly sharp elbows to ribs, we dutifully answered questions about our week. Shoved five or six ketchup-drowned fries into our mouths while mournfully staring at the kids having the time of their lives in the indoor playground. Shoeless, whooping monkeys who had two parents watching them flip off the slide and get their heels stuck in the rope ladder.
The last 2/3 of our orange sodas always ended up in the dark brown trash bin by the exit. You had to really shove the mouth of it open to deposit your garbage before it snapped shut. I would do it quickly – fearful that my hand would get caught and the rotting corpse of Ronald McDonald’s mother, her red wig greasy and matted, her teeth individual rotting pickles, would grab me and pull me down into the deep.
Back in my Dad’s car, the upholstery was old but efficient at muffling and holding fetid fish farts. We would sit there quietly and let the car warm up, the yellow arches sharp, then smearing under the windshield wipers.
One summer afternoon, as we reached for the warmed door handles of the car, I froze and felt fear dart down my spine into my shoes. My retainer, the device in charge of keeping my newly straightened teeth properly in place, wasn’t nestled into my jaw. I had taken it out before I ate my fish sandwich, carefully wrapped it into one of their thin white napkins, and then, somehow, forgot about it. It had been whisked into the garbage with all our other balled up messes and now – oh God, Mom was going to kill me. My teeth were already looking around at each other, eyes wide, jostling their little pearly shoulders, confused at their new-found freedom.
Wearing the McDonald’s brand rubber gloves, my Dad spent what felt like hours picking through the guts of one of those dark brown garbage vessels. We watched. When the retainer was finally triumphantly found, I breathed again, snatched it from his hands and popped it right into my mouth with a satisfying “click.”
I hated all of it with a stalwart teenage passion.
When I was 16, we moved to a new town 45 minutes away from my high school. Businesses were tired and slumped side by side in long brown rows. Hills lead to more hills. Everyone was old. There was one Chinese food place where the owners looked both perpetually unhappy and surprised to be there.
Once a year, with great fanfare, a rodeo came. Neighbours dug out stiff leather boots and cowboy hats, cracked beer cans and celebrated.
I hated all of it with a stalwart teenage passion.
There was a McDonald’s on the main drag that you could hit on your way in to or (blessedly) out of town.
My first car, that I maneuvered through that drive-thru often, was my Grandpa’s old brown Honda Civic. I only needed two other seats for my two best friends. We were bonded tightly – rigid in our love of punk rock music, Value Village men’s section ensembles and our tight shaved haircuts, one week green, one week yellow.
One afternoon, as we left the parking lot, a car and its driver did something I perceived as rude. Middle fingers were held aloft as we accelerated away. Two short blocks later, my friend riding shotgun told me quietly, “they’re following us.”
We may have looked tough and brave and strong, but all three of started to cry as we wound our way around and through and back and sideways and around the town again, trying to lose our tail. It was a Scooby Doo car chase, the same landmarks flying past us. I couldn’t go home! They would know where I lived! Did I have enough gas to keep this up? We had a bag of Bugles between us – would we starve before too long?
They eventually got bored and squealed away. We laughed with a bit of that cry-ache in the back of our throats and sped to my house. Told my bored brother about it then watched Red Hot Chili Peppers videos, passing the Bugles back and forth until we were just left with salty, stinging fingers. When it was dusk, we piled into the car again to go to 7-11 for a Bugles re-up.
(Remember how casually and easily you ate garbage in high school? I think I ate fries and Cool Ranch Doritos for lunch for a year and somehow didn’t die of sodium poisoning.)
We pushed through the jangling Exit door of 7-Eleven and our bladders seized. My car was blocked in, by the same car that had terrorized us earlier. We silently climbed inside, locked the doors, avoided eye contact and sat there shaking, whispering, the loudest sound being the snap of the Bugles bag being opened. What did these girls want?
They didn’t approach us; they just sat in their car, laughing, snapping gum and watching my surely crazy eyes in the rear-view mirror. I was scared and tired and wild, watching the doors of 7-Eleven for a miracle or a solution. A very cute boy, someone I would have normally walked by, scanned then logged in my mental masturbation journal, stepped out with a sweating Slurpee.
I jumped out of the car with heretofore unknown bravery and pleaded with him.
“Please, help us.”
Words were exchanged, their car was moved, and we followed him like the Pied Piper down a very long, very dark road to a flat open field with a bonfire. My friends and I sat mute on a log, surrounded by a party that seemed like a really good time, but we knew nobody, had no tongues and no alcohol. A half-dead barn cat wove an infinity circle through our legs until we all mutually agreed to leave, slowly picking our way through the uneven grass back to my still ticking car.
After high school I decided to become a vegetarian. I don’t remember why. I liked animals but wasn’t feverish about their well-being. I knew nothing of nutrition so I still remained a loyal McDonald’s customer. I would either pick out the meat or eventually just order all the sandwiches with a pause then an emphatic “with NO meat.”
If you swing open the door to a McDonald’s in Nebraska or Vancouver or Timbuktu, the smell will always be the same.
Because if you eat a cheeseburger with no meat patty, or a Filet-O-Fish with no fried fish wedge, they still taste pretty good. I imagined the hair-netted kids in the assembly-line kitchen merrily juggling the unwanted meat, hacky-sacking it right into the garbage.
My meat-free convictions died the day I walked into my Grandma’s suite and the smell of her slow cooker beef stew punched me in the face. I grabbed a fork and bowl and sat down to a steaming portion of tender carrots, sweet slippery onion, and brown-sauced beef chunks. Twice.
When I was 18, my stomach hurt all the time. There was a fat drunken hummingbird stumbling around in my stomach all the time and I apologized for feeling terrible all the time. I found out right after Christmas I had celiac disease. No wheat or gluten allowed in my life, ever again.
I tried for two weeks to eat better, read labels, and not dramatically mourn chewy bagels, buttered pasta and fluffy white confetti’d angel food cakes.
Then, I got bitter. I got sad, and I got stupid. In my head, food was the enemy. Every day for lunch and dinner, I only ate microwave peaches-and-cream corn with cold glops of salsa swirled into wedges of day-old white rice prised out of the rice cooker.
One night I picked up my car keys and slid out of the quiet house, heart pumping so loud I’m sure the neighbourhood could hear it as I took familiar turns and pulled into the arrowed McDonald’s drive thru lane. Hello, friend.
I ordered a Big Mac and a Filet-o-Fish and parked. I unwrapped and ate them so quickly, with robot-like precision, staring at nothing. Every bite was so hot, so crispy, so familiar and so mournfully delicious but I couldn’t enjoy a single swallow. I threw out the crushed paper bag and drove home, my stomach and head throbbing, a lump in my throat, and tartar sauce in my crotch.
If you swing open the door to a McDonald’s in Nebraska or Vancouver or Timbuktu, the smell will always be the same. That slightly sweet, slightly yeasty smell of fried comfort. When I pick up my daughter from a day with her Grandma, I can smell it in her hair, wafting off her tiny sweater-clad shoulders.
Like an army of children before her, the day a Happy Meal was slid in front of her was the day she knew she was truly alive. That first decision of whether to dunk a boot-shaped Chicken McNugget into sweet-and-sour sauce, ketchup or McChicken sauce is a litmus test. (For the record, the only correct answer is a 50/50 ratio of McChicken and sweet-and-sour.)
She calls it “Old McDonald’s.” I probably taught her that in a moment of silliness, forgetting that when you tell a toddler something once it becomes Biblical Fact.
The only safe menu item for me now is McDonald’s French fries; I eat them maybe twice a year. I’ve eaten a lot of food over these long adult years, some of it glorious, but their fries are still delicious in my mouth. They are too salty which is a large part of their charm. Their shape is perfect; they are manufactured for us to not think when we eat them.
I usually have to share them with a greedy four-year-old. She has her own off-kilter fry pile in front of her, surrounded with tiny plugs of ketchup and a gender-appropriate toy, but of course Mama’s are much better. Most times we eat inside, where it’s cooler, the floor is always being swiped with a grey mop and clots of old men huddle together with coffee, watching sports I don’t recognize on muted TV screens.
I leave our tray on the table when we’re done. I still don’t trust their garbage cans.
When we push out into the night, we hold hands, grains of salt still wedged under our nails. She hoots about absolutely nothing, like all kids do, dried ketchup caught in her smile. I pause and scan the parking lot, then start again; the glow and hum of the golden arches shows me the way back to the car which will take us home.
Brooke Takhar is a Vancouver-based storyteller and Mama of one goon. When she isn’t Netflix parenting or running short distances, she blogs as missteenussr and is a contributor to Blunt Moms and Scary Mommy. You can follow her on Twitter or go make out with her on Facebook.