Tuesday, October 4, 2016

I Was Traumatized At A McDonald's In 1974

Like many tail-end baby boomers, McDonald's was a part of my childhood.  Starting in the late 1960's, my mother would take me to the McDonald's at Coney Island Avenue and Avenue U in Brooklyn once or twice a month.  That was frequent enough to satisfy my Johnson/Nixon-era fast-food cravings but infrequent enough so that it was something fun and exciting to look forward to.  I would always order a Big Mac, fries and a Coke or a shake (alas, the Quarter Pounder wouldn't be introduced nationwide for another few years). And after I finished, I'd go back to the counter and order a Filet-O-Fish as a digestif.  I doubt that I could eat that much today (not that I would even want to).
By the time I was 12 or 13, I was going to McDonald's on my own. The McDonald's on Kings Highway and East 16th Street (near the B/Q subway stop) was a regular lunch destination for me and my friends in junior high school.  In 1974, when I was in 8th grade, McDonald's began a promotion: Every time you bought a Big Mac, you were given a game card.  When you pulled off the perforated strip (this was before scratch-off technology was invented), it revealed one of the seven ingredients that made up the Big Mac: Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, and a sesame seed bun.

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(For some reason, McDonald's did not make a game card for the eighth Big Mac ingredient, ammonium hydroxide, which was added to their beef to create the concoction known as "pink slime".)
This is great, I thought.  By trading the cards with my friends, I'll get so many free Big Macs that I won't have to pay for one until 1980. But of course, there was a catch.  Like all games of this nature, one of the ingredient cards was severely short printed.  In this case, the culprit was special sauce.  After a few weeks, my friends and I had amassed a cache of two all-beef patties, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions and sesame seed buns.  But there was nary a special sauce to be found.  We heard occasional rumors of special sauce cards popping up in Canarsie or Bay Ridge, but those were never confirmed.

(There was a similar promotion around this time by Good Humor. When you finished eating an ice cream, the newly-uncovered upper portion of the stick would reveal one of the letters of GOOD HUMOR. When you had all the sticks to spell out the full name, you could redeem them for a free ice cream.  Since you needed three O's, that letter was triple-printed, but one of the letters–I think it was the U–was short-printed.  After weeks–perhaps even months–of U-less frustration, I appealed to Benny, the long-time Good Humor vendor for my neighborhood.  He must have taken pity on me because the next time I saw him, he clandestinely slipped me a U stick which he had in his pocket.  Benny was great.  He had a Good Humor cart, rather than a truck, which he pushed up and down the streets of Brooklyn for 8 or 10 hours a day.  I like to imagine that he joined Good Humor right out of the army in 1945 and had kept the same route for decades, but of course I didn't really know anything about him.  I do know that he must have had the strongest legs in Brooklyn, as sometimes a street's incline made his task seem almost Sisyphean.  [The photo below isn't actually Benny, but that's the exact style of push-cart he used.])
But my frustration with my inability to procure a special sauce card couldn't be solved with an appeal to a McDonald's employee.  For one thing, I didn't know any of the McDonald's workers.  And even if I did–and even if they had access to a secret supply of special sauce cards–I doubt any of them would have cared enough to give me one. I resigned myself to growing old without ever getting any free Big Macs.  And all my dreams of the great things I was planning to buy with the money I'd be saving on Big Macs–like a G.I. Joe with Kung Fu grip–were fading fast.

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But then one day...it just happened.  I pulled off the perforated strip, and there it was.  Special sauce.  I was elated.  Ecstatic. Euphoric.  It may not have been on par with Charlie Bucket getting a golden ticket to Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, but at the time it sure felt that way.

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I was so excited that while still at the counter, I yelled to my friends who were seated about 15 feet away, "HEY GUYS!! I GOT A SPECIAL SAUCE CARD!!"  But even before they could react, an older high school kid who had been loitering nearby walked over, grabbed my wrist with what felt like a Kung Fu grip, snatched the special sauce card out of my hand, and casually strolled out of the building.  I was devastated.  Heartbroken.  Inconsolable.  I don't remember if my friends laughed, but they probably did.  I would have laughed if I had seen it happen to one of them.

After "the incident," I couldn't bring myself to go back to McDonald's for quite a while.  I spent some time eating at Burger King, but it really wasn't the same.  A Whopper was okay, but it was no Big Mac. I mean, who puts mayo on a burger?  I know their jingle said, "Have it your way" and "Special orders don't upset us," but still...mayo? Really?  (Burger King's jingle was pretty catchy, but I made up my own words.  Instead of "Hold the pickle, hold the lettuce/Special orders don't upset us," I used to sing "Hold the pickle, hold the lettuce/I have a tomato fetish.")  

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In retrospect, eating alone at Burger King made me feel like George Costanza (in the Seinfeld episode "The Pool Guy") eating at Reggie's–the bizarro diner–after Susan became friends with Elaine and he couldn't go back to Monk's–the gang's regular diner–because his worlds had collided.

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Eventually, I began eating at McDonald's again, but when I entered high school, there wasn't a McDonald's close enough to get to and back from in the 45-minute lunch period.  So instead we went out for pizza or ate in the school cafeteria ("Tuna, turkey or spiced ham?" was the cafeteria lady's mantra.  Scream it loudly and shrilly a couple of dozen times and you'll have some idea what a lunch period in my high school was like.).  By the time I got to college, McDonald's had lost most of its allure.  One of the guys who lived in my dorm freshman year worked in the town's local McDonald's (having worked at a McDonald's in his home town, he fancied himself as something of a burger expert), and sometimes he would bring back food when his shift was over at midnight.  One night, the food he brought back made everyone sick, so that pretty much put the kibosh on any desire I had for a Big Mac or Filet-O-Fish.  I haven't eaten at a McDonald's in years, but whenever I pass one, I always go in and grab a fistful of napkins (rather than take them one-by-one from the bottom of the dispenser, I like to open the dispenser and grab a four-inch stack).  Their napkins are pretty good–they still use large trifold napkins long after places like Starbucks and Whole Foods switched to smaller bifold napkins.  But recently, a few of the McDonald's near me removed their napkin dispensers from the plastics-and-paper area, requiring customers (and non-customers) to go to the counter and request them.  So I guess they showed me. 

These days, when I get a craving for fast food (which is about twice a year), I go to Wendy's.  I first ate at a Wendy's in suburban Ohio in 1982, while driving cross-country with a couple of friends.  I was impressed with the cleanliness, the pleasant service, and especially the taste of the food.  Their burgers were much better than those at McDonald's or Burger King.  I made a mental note to never eat at those places again, and to instead go only to Wendy's.  Well, New York City isn't suburban Ohio, so you can blow a big kiss goodbye to the cleanliness and pleasant service.  But the food is still better than McDonald's or Burger King.  And they still use trifold napkins, which are available in bulk right in the dining area, with no need to go to the counter and beg for napkins like Oliver Twist asking for more food.

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Wendy's also had a memorable commercial, but instead of a catchy jingle, they had a clever tag line.

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The closest Wendy's to me is on East 14th Street between University Place and Fifth Avenue, and there's always an interesting mix of people there.  Depending on the time of day, you might find after-work business people in suits, skateboard punks and runaways from nearby Union Square, families of foreign tourists looking for a cheap meal, drug addicts nodding off into their Frostys, and, of course, homeless people.  I try not to eat too much red meat, so I skip the burgers and order a spicy chicken sandwich (no sauce), fries (no salt) and a Diet Coke (no ice).  But even Wendy's smallest size soda is way too much liquid for me, so I take it with me when I leave and try to finish it on the way home, although I never can.  They should really have an extra-small size of soda.

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And whenever the Wendy's server hands me my food, I instinctively look around to see if there's anyone loitering nearby who looks like they might want to grab something out of my hand.  In fast food restaurants, old habits die hard.