I found myself meeting a client in a fast food restaurant on Friday. I don’t often go to these places and I’ll admit to having something of a self-righteous attitude about it, but I’m not sure my smugness is all that misguided. Spending time in a fast food restaurant is eye-opening.
I had plenty of time to wait for a client who showed 20 minutes late. A lot of what you see you see quickly. The space simply doesn’t feel or smell fresh, a layer of sticky film covered everything, and litter was scattered randomly about the restaurant.
But I also noted who was in the restaurant. No one appeared happy, no one appeared healthy. At one table a man sat alone, skinny and grey-skinned; he used a breathing apparatus attached to an oxygen canister. At another table a couple who might have been maybe 30 silently ate from trays covered with burgers, fries, and a little cups of ketchup; both of these people were hugely out of shape. An old couple sat at another table, again silent, fiddling with empty wrappers just killing time, not interacting at all. She was a little plump, he was like the grey man across the room, skinny, dry, and attached to an oxygen canister.
Not many people actually walk into the restaurant. Most of the business took place at the drive-thru window. I watched this, too. Not much to see here. Just a steady conveyor of paper sacks passing out a small window to waiting cars queued up several cars deep, a perpetually regenerating line of customers. I did notice that the woman in charge regularly sifted through the sandwiches, some only a minute old, and tossed them into a trash barrel behind the counter. I’m not sure what accounted for the waste, but some rule of efficiency in cahoots with health regulations certainly justifies it.
It occurred to me that the people in the restaurant might not have any place to go, anything else to do. None looked healthy or even modestly well-off. I started to think about when I was a kid and being excited about going to a fast food restaurant. It would have been hard to get excited about this. And yet when I was a kid I recall part of the fun was seeing neighbors and friends who were happy to be out enjoying a treat. Maybe I have a stupid nostalgia for it, but I think the commercials at the time more or less captured the experience accurately. Today’s commercials showing hip, gorgeous young people in skinny pants and clear skin thriving on fast food is only a lie.
I looked again at the old men, worn out and sick, dressed poorly and quietly letting time pass in a fast food restaurant and I started to question what it means to live in an affluent society. What happened?