It’s a cool summer evening in Scotland because, as far as I’ve been able to tell on this trip, a ten-day educational tour, every evening in Scotland is at least cool if not cold. Tonight happens to be our last night and as we’re waiting in Edinburgh for a train that will never come (a story for another time), I decide I’m peckish. In great Scottish tradition, I elect to eat out of the deep fryer. No, not fish from a local restaurant or a battered Mars Bar from whatever type of dive sells those things (seriously where do you get them? I only saw images on posters), but glorious french fries from the McDonald’s up the street.
The humor of buying food from a place called McDonald’s in the country where they invented the prefix Mac is rather lost on me at this time. In my defense, while it’s been a fun (and tiring) journey, what I really want right now isn’t a new culinary experience but a little taste of home. For a fifteen year-old small-town American boy (I’m a 29yr old American now, albeit slightly bigger town), the taste of home comes in the form of deep fried potato.
As I stand in line, a weird feeling passes over me.
After spending nine days not knowing what to do, finally I’ve returned to a place where I definitely know what to do. I may not know the proper way to eat Haggis (with your fingers, right?), but I do know how to order McDonald’s. Further, as the line grows shorter and my reunion with reliable potato product draws nearer, I begin to wonder if there’s a discount for me because I’m American. Hilarious as it is, there’s the undeniable fact that if America hadn’t made McDonald’s popular, the rest of the world would never have had the chance to really increase their calorie intake. Perhaps our greatest accomplishment as a country isn’t peace in the Middle East, but the Big Mac.
Few things symbolize hope and despair in equal measure like our golden arches. Let’s bask in their glow for a moment, shall we?
Okay, enough basking, we’re at the counter and it’s time to order. Guess what? There’s no discount for Americans and no discount for Tuck, which isn’t a surprise, but if you thought for a moment that there might be some kind of special treatment, I don’t blame you. Despite the entitled arrogance of the assumption, it still irks me that I can’t flash my United States passport and get free French fries. What was the point of inventing McDonald’s if not to provide American travelers a bite from home when they need it most? Or at least this traveler. Don’t they know who I am?
For those of you wondering at home or on the bus, this kerfuffle was never about the money. I had plenty of squid in my pocket as they say, but- well, actually they don’t say squid. They say quid, but I say squid because using the slang “quid” for British money makes me think of squids. Calling a coin a “pound” is also ridiculous because it does not weigh a pound. It weighs about 9.5 grams, or at least the new coins will. Coins!
As you can tell, navigating the exotic parts of travel can be totes confusing, all the more reason to need an available source of standardized comfort food.
Speaking of standardization, I’m confident there exists people who genuinely never liked fast food. I assume these are the same people who swear they don’t sprinkle in the shower, but we all have to live our lies, don’t we? What I find fascinating and romantic about the standardization of fast food is that when I eat a chicken nugget in one place, more than likely someone somewhere else is also eating a chicken nugget. Thanks to the magic of uniform processing, both our chicken nuggets will taste precisely the same, as if we were eating two separate and discrete chicken nuggets but also the same chicken nugget. When I’m elected president, you better believe nuggets will be a part of every peace talk.
Sign the treaty. Shake the hand. Eat the nugget. #tuck2016
Getting back to the point of preferential treatment, in my humbler hours, I will admit expecting a multinational corporation to treat me like a regular at every franchise I grace with my presence may be pushing it a little. Even so, the allure of being treated as a regular is often enough motivation to justify frequent visits to a favorite eatery or creamery. Regulars are the cool crowd. Other customers can only look on in abject envy as you, the regular, banter with the workers while ordering the “usual” with a confident smirk. Frequently, a non-regular schmuck might ask you a question like “what’s good here?” or “do you know your fly is unzipped?” but you don’t have to acknowledge them, you’re a regular, and your fly is always unzipped. If you out there in reader land, or reader sea, are not a regular somewhere, you’re not really living. And probably doing a lot of home cooking too.
However, being a regular has a dark side. Weltschmerz.
Like nearly every German word, the word weltschmerz has no direct English translation. It roughly means the pain felt when the world does not live up to one’s imagined or idealized standards. Often this feeling is associated with the fear that the world will not get better. When it comes to being a regular at a restaurant going downhill, weltschmerz is the only way I can think to describe the experience.
Near my apartment, there’s a teriyaki joint where I used to be a regular. The same guy always rung up my order, Chicken Teriyaki #1, and he bantered gamely with me despite my soft, hard to hear voice. That fact alone kept me coming back, but the food was also very good. Unfortunately, after a few visits earlier this year, I’ve noticed a decline in the quality of chicken. Gone are the days of succulent slices of prime breast meat. Nowadays it seems like there’s the same amount of fat and charred edges as there are morsels of tender meat. With Southern California’s bountiful supply of teriyaki joints, there’s less and less of a culinary reason to frequent this particular one.
The Guy Who Always Works There is quick to catch on to my absence. “Where have you been?” He asks, with a concerning look. “I haven’t seen you in forever.”
It’s been a week or two, but perhaps in his world that qualifies as forever. I make a lousy excuse like “I’ve been traveling for work” and we move on with our transaction, him ringing up a Chicken Teriyaki #1 and me silently praying that this time it’s at least decent. Sadly, my prayers go unanswered and eventually I stop going. The weltschmerz has grown too great.
Like we all learn at an early age, there is no going back to the breast meat.
Months have passed since I last visited my old teriyaki joint and though I tempt myself with the thought “maybe they fixed the problem”, I have not returned. Sure, the fear of spending six dollars, six American dollars, on mediocre chicken is ever present, but the greater terror is facing the Guy Who Always Takes My Order and having to see the disappointment on his face when I lie through my teeth about why I haven’t been there.
For example, a lie like “I wrote a poem about trains and then I sent it to the Vice President who super liked it on Facebook and then we took a train trip around America reading the poem to all the travelers and then we spent a month in Wyoming just to say we did and then–” or you know, the usual excuse.
Instead of suffering at the old teriyaki joint, I drive past towards a beacon of hope located a half-mile away. There, ready for me from 11am, because they don’t serve the normal menu during breakfast, to 11pm, because that’s when the dining room closes and I can’t do the drive-thru on my own due to my soft voice, are the golden arches of my McDonald’s. The one where I’m a regular. The McDonald’s where they know my name.
Just because I’ve lived here in Southern California for six years now, doesn’t mean I don’t still feel like I’m a foreigner from time to time. Homesickness isn’t an acute affliction for me, but a gentle ache, a longing for the home that no longer exists. I mean, the town of Huntington still exists, and I believe my parents continue to live there, but what it used to be for me is now gone. Rather, I’m the one who is gone, no longer a regular.
We used to talk in high school about how we would leave our small town and never look back. There’s nothing here for us was a common refrain sung in the language of defiant statements and naive dreams. But for some of us, that’s become a truth. A hard truth to reckon with when I step outside of my apartment. Across the street, two palm trees live. To me, most days they mean hope. Most days.
At my McDonald’s, when the motherly shift-manager sees me, her stern face softens. She says, “Hi, honey.” And I realize yet again I’m not here for the damn fries.