BY MELISSent ZUMWALt
Cheeseburger Happy Meal, 1988
My pliant nine-year-old hands squeeze open the rainbow-colored Happy Meal box. There, atop a pile of glistening French fries and a cheeseburger swaddled in a paper wrapper, is my newest acquisition: Red Fraggle in a radish car. She is the next installment in the current four-part series of McDonald’s Happy Meal toys. I intend to collect all four. Muppet characters are my favorite and looking at Red makes me smile.
As my body spins from side to side in the anchored metal chair, I place Red, safely sheathed in her clear plastic pouch, an arm’s distance away from my meal. She will need to wait for now. Mom does not allow playing and eating at the same time.
Normally, Mom cooks all our meals from scratch—things like pot roast and pinto bean stew and stuffed green peppers. She hates eating out and she hates McDonald’s the most. But more than just preferring the taste of home-cooked food, Mom also says it’s cheaper. That she can buy a bag of russet potatoes and a pound of ground beef for less than these two little meals, and every dollar we save counts. Recently, she’s only conceded to taking me here on Wednesday nights because my older brother, Chris, must participate in court-mandated AA meetings at this particular time; and the sessions occur in a nondescript suburb, nearly an hour’s drive away from our rural Oregon home. After she drops him off, McDonald’s is really the only place we can go wait for him to finish.
It’s been three weeks by now, and my routine is sacrosanct. I begin each meal by eating all the French fries. Dousing them in extra salt, then dipping each one individually in ketchup. It’s the highlight of the week. This heady mix of fat and salt becomes the taste I associate with joy. The feeling of oversaturation in my stomach becomes the feeling of comfort, safety. Over time, my body learns that, if I can fill it full enough, my anxieties will dissipate, at least for a little while.
When I get to eat McDonald’s, Chris’ AA meetings become good for me—so unlike visiting him in juvenile detention centers or rehab units. Those places are ones I’ve been deemed too young to enter, though I’m certainly old enough for my imagination to run rampant with fear. When will my brother come back home? I’ve been stuck wondering, alone in the car, Barbie dolls hanging limp at my fingers, or the letters from books blurring together as my mind pressed on, whether or not I wished it: What goes on beyond the gated walls and barred windows of those places? What will become of my brother after all this? What will become of our family?
Big Breakfast, 1996
Still dutiful at seventeen years old, I pick up the plastic tray loaded with two McDonald’s Big Breakfasts (scrambled eggs, sausage patty, hash browns and biscuit) and follow behind my mom. In the underbelly of San Francisco, this particular McDonald’s is located right on Market Street where the SOMA neighborhood meets up with Tenderloin. The area fills me with the same sense of dread I felt waiting outside the correctional facilities that caged my brother all those years ago. Except here, the fallout from a troubled life is clearly on display: streets lined with prostitutes, drug dealers in action and so many others too down on their luck to afford anywhere else.
Apparently, we can’t afford much better, either, because we’re staying just a block away from the Mickey D’s. When we’d checked into our room at the Flamingo Motor Inn the day before, the man at the front desk had warned us, jerking his head to the left, “Just don’t walk one block over that way.” I worried he was laughing at me, leery-eyed as he’d been: seeing right through my façade. For however much I try to appear worldly, clearly, I’m a country girl who has never experienced urban blight. Another woman at the desk agreed, “I was cornered over there last week by a group of guys,” she’d told us, her gaze steady. “They robbed me at knifepoint.”
As excited as I am to be in San Francisco for my regional audition for NYU’s dance program, I’m suddenly grateful that it won’t take long—thinking that even these couple days might be too much. The Flamingo’s ad had laughably promised “value and charm,” but those weren’t things we could afford—not like so many other young dancers I knew who would be auditioning for several schools. For me, though, this is it. Which is already a big ask of my parents: to attend an out-of-state college audition, requiring airfare and hotel expense. Mom scraped the money together to allow me to attend one such audition. And since Chris ended up dropping out of high school, negotiating this college admissions process has been an inscrutable first for us. Now, we’d found ourselves so far from home, any familiar sight was a blessing; even my mother nodded without resistance when we’d seen those Golden Arches from our motel this morning.
After ordering, looking for a place to sit away from all that filth and chaos outside, we steer ourselves through the mass of bodies. Back by the front entrance, there are two empty seats adjacent to one another at a bar that overlooks the street. Grabbing these spots, we freeze. Mom and I appear to be the only customers who purchased actual food items. All the other patrons grip Styrofoam coffee cups, sipping only on occasion. Horribly, they blend together in one undulating throng of humanity, a faceless, genderless, sea of brown overcoats, metal carts, tattered sneakers and fingerless gloves. All I can do is try to make my energy small, to minimize my presence, in this place where I am an outlier.
When Mom removes the lid from her Big Breakfast platter, a waft of steam escapes, infused with the smell of meat and grease, drawing the attention of those around us at the bar. Mom turns to face her meal head-on, hunkers over it, and throws a pointed whisper in my direction, “Hurry up and eat.”
Biting into the creamy biscuit, I let myself savor the taste before shoving forkfuls of tepid eggs and rubbery sausage past my lips, barely allowing time to swallow before inserting the next mouthful. My body flushes warm with equal parts discomfort and gratitude.
But I also know the other girls at today’s audition will not have crammed down a Big Breakfast with the local indigent population before demonstrating their pirouettes and grand jetés. Those girls will have spent the night at hotels around Union Square or Fisherman’s Wharf: places where tourists stay, unafraid. I imagine they will wake up this morning and pull their silken blonde hair into ponytails, and their parents will ensure that they eat oatmeal and fruit or yogurt to start their big audition day. What, I often wonder, would it feel like to be a girl like that?
Egg McMuffin, 1997
Just a year later, I slide onto the hard, plastic bench seat across from my parents. Mom reaches over the table, dispensing a few napkins to me. Dad is already unwrapping his Egg McMuffin. It’s Thanksgiving weekend, and coming home from college for a visit is shamefully easy, traveling briefly from the nearby state university, not NYU.
“Wouldn’t it be fun,” Mom had suggested that morning, “for the three of us to go out to breakfast together?” And I’d felt myself nod. My dreams may have been dashed after that failed audition, though there were, I supposed, still some comforts left.
But not even those come without a cost. “Mr. and Mrs. Zumwalt?” Before I’ve had a chance to start in on my own breakfast sandwich, a police officer in uniform approaches our table, hovering over us. “I saw Chris drive up to your house just now,” he presses without pause, “and you’re going to need to return home immediately to let me in after him.” When he finally does take a breath, the next thing he says is heart-stopping: “There’s a warrant out for his arrest.”
What? I stare, immobile, at my McMuffin. This makes no sense. Chris wasn’t at the house when we’d left, and he never drives.
My mom grips her cup of coffee, dismissing the cop. “He’s not there. We’d know.”
“Ma’am,” the cop’s voice is curt, assured. “I saw him drive by. He’s hiding out at your house, and you’re going to need to let me in.”
But Mom refuses to be bullied. Although she’s never loved McDonald’s food—has only ever eaten here to humor me—she’s fixated now on her breakfast sandwich like it’s ambrosia. “No,” she counters, “you didn’t see Chris. Someone else must have been driving that car.”
Her eyes are steel; and my dad, sitting by, contributes what he can: “Officer, we haven’t seen Chris since yesterday.”
“Just follow me back to your house now,” the cop demands, “and we’ll see.” His tone drips with intimidation as he heads out the door.
“Goddamn that guy,” Mom mutters after he leaves. “We’ll go once we finish eating.”
“Do you know,” my voice low to evade the prying ears of the patrons at the neighboring tables, “what it is Chris did?”
“Nothing,” Mom scoffs, “They picked him up because he was out drunk and messing around. I’m sure he had some pot with him. And then they saw he had a record. All his friends are on parole too. And you know Chris, he keeps ignoring the court dates and he can’t pay the fines. You ignore all that stuff and the cops keep escalating it. It becomes ‘evasion of the law’.” She shakes her head; because of these repeated interactions, because of the years of accumulated stress, because of the waste.
I don’t know who the police are meant to protect, but it certainly never felt like that service was meant for my family. The way police cars had brazenly pulled into our driveway in the past; the way I’d heard them speak to my parents and harass my brother, testifying against him as if they knew he was already guilty of something, like we were a band of miscreants, deserving of whatever punishment they doled out. I guess we are the people the police protect others from, others who have something to lose.
Watching this cop antagonize my parents in a McDonald’s catapults me into an out-of-body experience. Deepening the existing fissure in my psyche, the growing chasm I’ve been straddling since leaving home for school. That of a first-generation college student between the cushy life at school—where people play games and read books and dream about the future—and the hard-edged life at home—where everyone runs ragged, gasping for air, on a hamster wheel that never progresses. I begin chewing my Egg McMuffin with haste, trying to assuage this aching dichotomy, tasting nothing, trying only to reach that sense of fullness.
“Don’t rush,” Mom instructs me, “Chris isn’t at the house. It’s not going to make one bit of difference when we get back there.” She takes a long, slow sip of her coffee, “That asshole can just wait.”
Quarter Pounder with Cheese Meal, 2020
On this particular Sunday afternoon in December, my husband guides our truck into the narrow drive-thru lane at McDonald’s, rolling down his window and preparing to order. Our bodies brim with restless energy, our minds cagey.
At nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic, nine months into our state’s shutdown—which has been one of the more restrictive in the nation—indoor dining is prohibited and the restaurant does not allow us to go inside even to place our order. A chilled rain falls with steady insistence; it’s no day for eating out in a park or on a picnic bench. Passing through the drive-thru, then sitting in the parking lot, having lunch in our truck, is one of the few things we can still do to get out of the house.
Working from home all week, I comb through Excel spreadsheets, service contracts, and job descriptions: tasks that grow bloated with monotony. Sustaining a career as a professional dancer never happened for me. And although administration is not glamorous work, at least during this time of economic devastation, I maintain steady employment, work safely from home, and am able to support my husband and widowed mother.
Often, though, I worry, sometimes daily, how these times affect my estranged brother. He would have most certainly lost his job as a server at the start of the pandemic, and I’m concerned about his ability to navigate the labyrinthine maze of unemployment benefits, and his ability to afford food and shelter himself. But since he cut off contact with my mom and me, I have no means of reaching him, of helping him.
As the truck inches forward, there’s a hooded man standing off to the side of the garishly lit menu board. His hands are shoved deep in his pockets and his head is bowed in an attempt to keep the dripping rain off his face. “He’s going to ask for money,” I mention, almost without meaning to, as I motion in the fellow’s direction.
“Sorry,” my husband tells the man, pulling up to the staticky intercom box, where he requests my Quarter Pounder and his Big Mac. Minutes pass as we wait in the line-up of cars to receive the caloric rush that will provide us with momentary relief from our trials.
Pulling up to the drive-thru window, my husband retrieves a hefty brown paper sack from a masked employee and gives me the change, a few bills and some coins, then maneuvers to a stop in one of the parking spaces. My open hand reaches into the bag to grab a couple of French fries that have strayed from their signature red cartons, tossing them into my mouth. Salt clings to my fingertips.
This year has been hard, but then again, life has always been hard.
Gesturing to the bills in my palm, I ask my husband, “Is that man still standing by the drive-thru? I’d like to give him this.”