I don’t understand how to order at the counter of my neighborhood McDonald’s. I’m not proud of this, but it’s not really my fault. Some people think they’re better than McDonald’s. I only feel that way to the extent that I grew up eating juicy Quarter Pounders with fries cooked in beef tallow, and then in the early ’90s they started using vegetable oil for the fries and cooking the burgers to an E. coli–safe gray rubberiness, and the meals started seeming like uncanny, slightly grosser and healthier replicas of themselves, so I stopped going. Maybe that makes me worse than McDonald’s.
My younger son is a McDonald’s fan, though—osmotically, as a second-grader, the same way he’s an UnderArmour fan and a Fortnite fan. He loves it the way the TV commercials taught us all we were supposed to love it, as a special treat. When the dinner plans are falling apart and I raise the question of what we should do, he optimistically pipes up, We could get McDonald’s. Usually he is voted down but sometimes he can salvage a split decision, McDonald’s for the younger generation and something else, the halal cart outside McDonald’s maybe, for the adults.
This time his brother and mother were at some friends’ place across town, leaving the two of us to solve dinner. He came up with the whole plan: something for me from the poke place a few doors down from McDonald’s, and then for him McDonald’s—a Quarter Pounder, probably. He’d been thinking about Quarter Pounders. Somehow he’d steered a conversation a few days before to how my friends and I used to order Quarter Pounders with only cheese, nothing else, so they’d be right off the griddle.
I was good at ordering at McDonald’s back then. Now, whenever I get up to the register, I feel like an idiot. The overhead menu boards used to have a menu on them—a list of all the different food you could buy, with prices. You’d look it over on your way up front and make up your mind, and when you got there, you’d read it off to the counter person.
That’s all been replaced with video screens, with promotional splash images and only a fraction of the possible food choice. The assumption is that you already know the entire menu and only need to be reminded of the highlights. What are the different numbers of McNuggets you can get? How much is a Quarter Pounder With Cheese? If you don’t already know, then you’re—I’m—stuck holding up the line, eyes darting around for information where there’s no information to read.
The human register-operators want nothing to do with someone like me. I had gotten my poke bowl—the No. 5, please don’t ask about options, that’s why I’m ordering the pre-configured menu item—and now we were in the McDonald’s, peering up at the not-really-menu screens through the not-quite-there space between a big pillar and the people stepping up to order what they knew they wanted. There was something called a “Smokehouse”?
And then I noticed the row of touchscreen kiosks. Self-service checkouts are the enemy; they exist for two bad reasons: to take a job away from someone else, and to give that job to me, without paying me. But between the anti-human technology and the prospect of playing a mutually unwanted game of Guess the Menu with the counter clerk, I had to go with the robots.
The child watched me toggle around through the menu. I found the Quarter Pounder and started customizing it. There was a bacon option. Add bacon, he said. I added bacon. Add more bacon, he said. Double bacon. Reduce the pickle. Or not. Nobody would be blocked from ordering if we changed our minds.
We added fries and chicken tenders. Tenders? Or McNuggets? Tenders. Which sauce? A hellishly open-ended question in person, unless you just give up and say “Barbecue.” In the machine-space, we could get two BBQs and take a flier on the “Signature Sauce” besides. I paid with the credit card, got the pickup receipt, and moved over to wait. Someone else had ordered a soda and the clerk handed across an empty plastic cup, thumping hollowly on the counter, another job outsourced to the customer. The movie theater does this too, with slushies; I saw them hand out cups to a whole birthday party’s worth of children; eventually someone must have had the staff job of mopping up the sticky blue puddle from the floor in front of the slush machine.
We ate at home. He studied the printing on the bag on the table. What’s a Big Mac? he asked me. Sometimes the children ask questions they already know the answers to, because they want to hear the things again. But when I pressed him, he said he really didn’t know. How—? What had I done? How did my child not—? I explained the whole thing, Two allbeefpatties specialsauce lettucecheese picklesonions onasesameseed bun, how we all grew up knowing this, on the TV commercials.
My child barely watches TV, I thought. Was that true? I thought about how strange it used to be if a kid turned out not to watch TV, how it was too weird and rarefied to even be good or bad, it was as if you’d been told they were a nun or something. Then I remembered that the reason my child barely watches TV is because he’s too busy mainlining straight brain poison from YouTube—watching video game playthroughs, or music videos about video games, or adults shooting each other with Nerf guns in between monologues about the Nerf guns they shoot each other with, or clips isolating the action scenes from movies that are too violent for him to go watch.
He had ordered too much food, but only by a margin of one and a half chicken tenders. He gave me a bite of the burger. It didn’t taste like the bad memories or the good ones. The Signature Sauce was great, he said.