McDonald's Rainbow: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly a short story. by lisa spicka

Generally anyone who knows me would acknowledge that I am not prone to fast-food consumption. In fact, most of you who know me probably at some point have been coerced into a brief "discussion" of the cons of fast-food life. However, I must admit that I am not innocent of hypocrisy, and on roughly a quarterly basis, I get a hankering for McDonald's chicken nuggets. In addition to pseudo-nutrition, my sporadic visits to McDonald's provide me with great contemplative fodder as I examine the different aspects of everyday humanity joined together under the shameless I-can't-help-but-look-at-it car accident fatherliness of Ronald McDonald. A recent trip to Mickey-D's spanned the entire spectrum.

The "drive-thru" (has anybody else noticed this spelling bastardization has swept the nation?) was booming as I pulled my humble '87 Volkswagon Jetta (god grant him peace) into the lot and walked into the scantily filled dining room. As I approached the front counter, third in line, I couldn't help but notice the arch of bright red foil letters spelling out "We're Loving It!" on their bulletin board. A closer look informed me that this particular McDonald's had been recognized for service excellence by their secret shoppers in April, May, AND June, which secured them an additional signed certificate for the entire Second Quarter of 2003.

I scanned the staff. This was no ordinary staff. This was a hustling, bustling, team-talking ("Fries up!" "Thanks, fries, can you get me two large orders to-go please?!"), on-top-of-it crew comprised of the expected Lincoln mix of White, Hispanic, and Native American populations. I wondered if the success of this crew was due in part to the fact that many of the staff members were in their mid-30s. Contemplating the state of the economy, I watched one of the managers as he attended the people in line. Efficiently making change and whipping out those beverage cups, he was the epitome of multi-tasking perfection. His brow gleamed with subdued excitement as he single-handedly wrangled the waiting line down from five people to two. But a rush of people stopped by that fateful noon hour, and he yelled "It's filling up! Let's be ready people!" Timers sounded, ketchup bottles squirted, and fry holders filled up in a flurry of activity. To top it all off, the busy manager even gave me a genuine and proud smile as he informed me that, indeed, the little "M" (representing the golden arches) shown on the top of the new McGriddle in a picture is imprinted on the real-life equivalent.

Tray in hand, I strolled over to the condiment counter. I located my desired accessories and helped a gentlemen locate the beverage lids. He gave me a polite thanks and went on his way. Before I knew it, a lady came up confused about the straw location, laughing nervously. Handing her the straw, I assured her that the condiment section was a completely blinding menagerie of products and her confusion understandable. She gave me a great smile and thank you and proceeded to her seat.

I thought about these brief yet fulfilling interactions and wondered if they only take place in friendly Nebraska, where there aren't so many people that you want to ignore all of them. Or was it just that McDonald's family magic providing that friendly spark, especially fueled by the staff's incendiary performance of which these people had not been denied? I took a seat in a short two-person booth by the door and had these thoughts reinforced as every single person who walked out the door looked at me and smiled, nodded, or even said "have a nice day!"

In the mean time, I had continued eating my lunch, thinking "this isn't so bad!" I ate a nugget and dipped it in some hot mustard sauce. I chewed down on the delectable morsel..."firm squish." That's what my teeth told me. I worked my tongue around this affronting morsel and maneuvered it out of my mouth. Plop. Onto my plastic McDonald's tray tumbled a piece of cartilage. I thought the beauty of fast-food is that it's got so many unusable parts put into it that they mash it all up real good so you won't know it!?! But no, here I have sitting in front of my eyes, clear as day, exactly one cleanly cleaved half of that little nub that's at the end of a drumstick. Come on, you know what I'm talking about.

Then Ray sauntered up.

Now I had previously noticed Ray at the fateful condiment counter. I think it was the way his face anticipated my wandering gaze and tried to catch my eye as I looked in his general direction that set off some distant alarms in my head. As it was, I politely looked away from this man and only offered a half-smile, down at the floor near him. I hoped it would be interpreted as a shallowly polite acknowledgement of his existence, no more, no less. My penchant for second chances and the practice of non-judgment, however, resulted in me giving him one quick glance as he approached the door and my booth.

He seized my flitting gaze as he offered a smile that stretched across his face like moss on a farm pond. A big, full smile -- as full a smile, at least, as can be had when looking at a weathered man with all four front teeth missing from his upper jaw. I scanned his cowboy boots, worn jeans, and button-up plaid short-sleeve shirt. His stained baseball cap depicted a cowboy on horseback lassoing a calf.

"Well hey there!" The eyes had zeroed in; his body language turned towards me.

"Have a good day," I gave him a half smile and looked back down at my food.

"Well now what are you up to!" he breathed as he quickly settled himself down opposite me in my short two-person booth.

I exchanged a few pleasantries with this man. Have you ever talked with someone to whom your instant reaction is like "Who is this? Is it possible that our lives parallel in any manner? Has he ever pro-created?" Our conversation essentially consisted of me finding out about the evolution of his farm operation to a trucking operation (because we all know farming's going to the dogs and it ain't no joke), the types of cargo it hauls around the country (he has two refrigerated trucks), and the geographic area covered by this mobile prowess. At this point I find out that he trucks all the way down to Laredo, way down on the border of Mexico with Texas. Now we're getting somewhere. This appeals to my Latina sensibilities. Is it possible that this man is really a diamond in the rough? Was my desire to moderately ignore this person's existence falsely fanned?

He mentions cumbersome customs and export paperwork; I mention that I've worked with international shipments in the past. Now I couldn't help but throw that last part in there; it was one of the few comments he allowed me to enter sideways in this discussion. Unfortunately about three sentences later he starts mentioning "Yeah, I'll have to hire someone just to help with the paperwork pretty soon so's I can keep up with my other work!" About this time I thought that I was done with my gristle-laden nuggets and the subtle advances of this man.

I got up to leave and threw away my trash, mumbling that it was good to talk to him (damn Nebraska politeness!), but that I'd best be going. "Well shoot," he said, shyly looking away from me to his truck highlighted against the black tar of McDonald's parking lot, "I was thinking that we could even get together sometime to talk about it more..."

And then it got ugly.

"No, I'm actually going to move in a couple weeks," I lied.

"Where to?"

"Out West."

"Well shit. What you want to move there for? Just a bunch of niggers out there!" I spun away from him, walking to my car. I yelled over my shoulder that I didn't think it would bother me seeing as how some of my friends are black. He was sure that I would have a different opinion if I stayed out there for a significant amount of time.

You know, sometimes you get to a point where you just don't want to even justify comments by responding. I had expressed my opinion on the subject. Besides injecting a little slice of my own worldview, what could influence an opinion in the brief time span spent in a parking lot under the golden arches?

Pride. Kindness. Disgust. Seduction. Bigotry. Just another day at McDonald's.