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A Poem for McDonald's

It's hard to be independent.



I get a message on my machine from this woman collecting poems for McDonald's. She got my name from a friend. The tape is staticky and I have to play it back twice to figure out the friend's name. I call back. The woman's voice is throaty, laughy. She's a poet who's collecting poems for McDonald's, and she knows it sounds funny. But McDonald's is big on the arts, she tells me. The company has a big art collection, she says. An artist friend told her about it originally. And the CEO of McDonald's, she says, is a poet. He worked his way up from the mail room to the top, she says.

So it appears that for the CEO's 30-year anniversary this woman has been hired to put together a book of poems as a present for him. A friend of hers who buys art for McDonald's got her the job, so now she's looking for poems. About 6200, she says. Is that the number of McDonald's franchises, I ask her, 6200? There's some confusion. Sixty to a hundred, she says. Between 60 and 100 poems. They're to be about the American dream, hope, McDonald's, nostalgia, memories of eating at McDonald's as a kid, and food.

I don't write about hope. I say: I haven't eaten red meat since 1978, but on the other hand I have stock in McDonald's. Which is an interesting contradiction. Could I write about that?

Anything that doesn't directly attack McDonald's, she says. She tells me she's writing what she wants to--memories about eating at McDonald's.

I have no recollections of eating at McDonald's. Maybe I got a milk shake once on a highway oasis in the middle of the night. Once I stood in a McDonald's parking lot on Cape Cod because that was the drop-off point for car pools to an antiwar protest in Boston. Or maybe it was Burger King. When I was growing up in Houston my mother cooked for us nearly every night--chicken every Friday, Mexican food midweek, and the other nights London broil, hamburgers, steak, lamb chops, salmon patties. Just about the only franchises we went to were Kentucky Fried Chicken and a local place, Broiler Burger, for Saturday lunch, after synagogue. If we went to KFC we'd take the food home and eat it in the utility room. We couldn't bring it in the kitchen because it wasn't kosher. Some Sunday nights we'd go as a family to Cellar Door, which is now gone, I hear, but had a few locations in town then. You'd get plastic baskets of barbecued-beef sandwiches and fries. Years later, in college, I heard it said that the most beautiful word in the English language, as pure sound sound, was "cellar door." I could never disassociate it from the sandwiches and Sunday and the brown plastic baskets. (Or were they red? The memory merging in my mind with other plastic baskets from myriad other informal meals?)

Or poems about popular culture, she says, poems that mention McDonald's as the cultural landscape.

I don't write about the cultural landscape.

OK, I'll try, I say.

It pays $50, she says. McDonald's is very good on the arts.

I was thinking of a conversation I had with somebody about the McDonald's in Prague, I say.

That's good, she says. McDonald's is international.

She says I can tell friends, too, if they're real poets.

We hang up. I think for a moment about the term "McPoem," which comes up in criticisms of university writing programs. The argument is that writing workshops are too big and widespread, that they encourage the easy, the familiar, the mass-produced; and the ubiquitous symbol of all that is--obvious.

But that line of thinking doesn't lead to a poem for McDonald's.

So I try to write a poem about the conversation I had with my friend Tony about the McDonald's in Prague. Tony is a German and film professor at Berkeley, but our conversation took place in the student cafeteria of the Freie Universitat Berlin in mid-1992. I'd been in then-Czechoslovakia a few weeks before and was telling Tony about the commentary I'd read in Prognosis, I think (yes, that's the name of an English-language paper in Prague), arguing that McDonald's is the apotheosis of socialism, because it provides sustenance equally for all the people. (At the time, I didn't realize that the glitziness of the new McDonald's in Prague made it hard for the average person to eat there.) He agreed. That's in the poem, and it continues--moving logically, I swear--to describe martyrs in the 1960s in Czechoslovakia and Vietnam who immolated themselves for a cause. It ends with Walter Benjamin, the German-Jewish philosopher and writer, who killed himself in despair and ill health after he tried to escape from France into Spain in 1940. At the foot of the Pyrenees, the Spanish border guards told him his papers weren't in order and prepared to send him back to France. "How happy he would have been to see the golden arches of unoccupied Spain" is one line, and I'm not exactly sure how I mean it or if I like it. At one point I have the less ambiguous "corporate capitalism with a clown face," a takeoff on Alexander Dubcek's line about socialism with a human face during the Prague Spring of 1968, before the Soviet tanks barreled in.

I can't tell if my poem is real or some parody of political deepness. I read a bit of it over the phone to my friend Dan. We discuss whether Spain was neutral during the war. It was, he said, that's one of the ironies of the war. Can you think of any major bombings in Spain that took place during World War II? he asked. Franco and Hitler had an agreement; the Luftwaffe was used to bomb areas Franco had targeted in the Spanish Civil War.

"Luftwaffe," unfortunately, has a lovely sound. More beautiful, even, than "cellar door."

Dan, a starving poet with a slim book of poems, says he wouldn't write for McDonald's. Write the poem, he says, and send it elsewhere.

On the phone my friend Jennifer asks, Was McDonald's the one under attack for overgrazing cows in Latin America?

I don't know, I say.

Or was that Burger King? she asks.

I meet my friend Sharon for lunch at Coffee Chicago--a local small enterprise with several branches. (You could probably have' said that about McDonald's once.) Sharon's surprised I have any stock at all.

At home I make arrangements to sell my stock in McDonald's--when it makes sense (i.e., when I'll be sure to make a profit).

I talk to my friend Dina, another poet. She says that it's not worth it to write such a poem for just $50. What if it were $5,000? I ask. A million?

At Sharon's house the next night, her husband Barry says, Go for it. It's McDonald's, it's bucks. He tells about a mutual friend, a fiction writer, who used to be flown around the country to critique the short stories of some CEO of a soft-drink firm. He was paid a lot.

You know that Sara Lee is a sponsor of the HotHouse, I tell him. I only noticed it when I was reading the very fine print on a flier. It's hard to be independent--HotHouse's original sponsor, Guild Books, died a long and painful and independent death. Perhaps a mass-produced hamburger or cheesecake lurks behind every alternative venture.

Then I tell Barry about the restrictions on the poems for McDonald's: the themes are hope, childhood at McDonald's, and so on. Well, then, he says.

Were sitting on the couch with their six-year-old twin boys, watching 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea on video and leafing through magazines and children's books. Can you read this name? I ask one of the boys, pointing to his father's name in Onthebus, a literary magazine. He can read the name. We look at the hyperrealistic painting on the front cover. The shadows are garish, but it becomes apparent that the painting is of a family sitting around a kitchen table, filming a commercial for corn flakes. You can see camera lenses on the edges of the picture and someone putting makeup on the woman's face.

The boy recognizes the cereal box. They're eating Kellogg's Corn Flakes, he says. It's there, down to the tricolor rooster.

I turn to the back cover of the magazine. Again, it's a family, a garish, shadowy send-up of the American family, food around the coffee table, faces lit by a TV. They're eating McDonald's, says the boy. No, I say, how can you tell? By the boxes, he says. And, sure enough, he's right, and if you look closely, you can even see a golden M on the little red container of french fries.

Inside the magazine, the twins' father's poem is about being a poet in the schools. He describes the, office with the ubiquitous cute poster of the puppy in the basket, and the difficulty of having the school kids write about something real, something wrenching, unique, and true.

He got paid nothing for the poem in Onthebus.

The next morning I come over for pancakes, and the conversation continues.

Did you go to the McDonald's in Prague? Barry asks. Did you eat there?

It was barely a year and a half ago, but I don't remember. I do remember we left a message for someone there and the waitress was very nice, I say.

Maybe I got a milk shake. I remember shades of deep, deep green. The place was elegant--mosaics, a fin de siecle feel to it.

I show Barry and Sharon my poem for McDonald's.

It's nifty, says Barry, but not consistent.

He and Sharon run Another Chicago Magazine, a literary journal with a circulation of about 1,000. They've published my work before. I ask Barry, who makes the poetry decisions, If I revised the poem and you liked it, how much would you pay?

The most, he says, is $10. Our grants are way down, he says.

They got half their usual amount from the Illinois Arts Council. They're waiting to hear from the National Endowment for the Arts.

And meanwhile, both Barry and Sharon have childhood memories to share.

Tuesday nights, says Sharon, were McDonald's nights. She grew up near Cleveland.

Hamburgers were 19 cents, says Barry, who grew up in Minneapolis.

Fifteen cents, says Sharon, who's a bit older.

I feel left out.

But I remember thin patties that we watched cook on the Broiler Burger grill Saturday afternoons in the mid-1960s, and the toasted buns and thin disks of pickles and the wonderful new outdoor shopping center that the restaurant was in, Westbury Square--red brick, set up like a turn-of-the-century town. The old-fashioned lettering on the windows, the old-time street lamps, the nostalgic candle and ice cream and import shops, all seemed perfectly real. The Juicy Fruit in the vending machine at Broiler Burger was only five cents a pack. How could anything bad have ever happened in the days when gum was only five cents a pack?

Postscript: The poems were collected, printed, and presented to the CEO in late fall. They were, I am told, about the themes mentioned to me as well as about the man himself. I did not send in my poem, though I'm thinking of revising it--but with no mention of McDonald's.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Lisa Datum.

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