Ten Thousand Singing Tomorrows
By the time it has been raised up for slaughter, bound to be ground into patties of animal protein and fat slipped between white bread buns, a single beef cow will drink enough water to float a battleship. That was the statistic that did it for me, and it was always stated in those terms, "enough water to float a battleship." It always raised so may questions - are they talking draft, the depth of the keel, the archimedean displacement, where does this freshwater battleship weigh anchor, Lake Michigan? Admittedly, the phrase had a visual power to it. I would imagine a tub constructed of massive polycarbonate slabs, trussed into place on a dry lake bed, high in the Mojave Desert. In this tub floated the USS Iowa, its decks lined with white uniformed sailors, standing at parade rest in the hard desert sun. Running from the base of this tremendous tank was a garden hose, capped on the end with a rubber nipple. Suckling on the nipple is the daintiest of calves, with broad doe eyes, a bovine Bambi. When the Sisyphean task of draining the tank was done, when she was all bloated and tender, the little cutie was off to the abattoir.
In some sense, I knew this was crap. It was taking a truth, which was bad enough in its unvarnished state, and setting it on fire. But it worked for a time, I stopped eating meat. Remove the rhetoric, like Archimedes determining the density of the king's crown, and you were left with the truth. Cattle ranching was draining the Ogallala Aquifer out in prairie country, water deposited by the last Ice Age, water that was as irreplaceable as oil. A pound of beef took five pounds of grain to raise up. The grain was raised with petroleum based fertilizers, the cattle were kept alive with bulk petroleum based antibiotics. The entire enterprise floated on an invaluable reservoir of oil and water. There I stood on that imagined lake bed, trapped between the landlocked battleship, the sinking of Great Plains into the earth, the far off plumes of burning oil wells, and the distant grinding of the approaching glaciers. I guess the glaciers should really have been receding, but the tableaux developed its own logic. The image was a mental Rosary I could count when temptation struck. With the fate of the human species' biological viability hanging in the balance, with this formidable arsenal of imagery hanging over me like the sword of Damocles, I stayed vegetarian for all of four months. When I fell from that privileged state and surrendered my moral high ground to the salaciousness of the flesh, I fell hard. If you are going to sin, you're in a state of sin, so why not go for it? It was a physical force inside me, a kind of corporeal calculus that knew I could have a burger, just walk out and get one. There was no war or famine, I wasn't trapped in a remote backcountry. The collapse of American agribusiness due to ecologic calamity was a remote mindgame, something that was in all likelihood real, yet had the cold feeling of an academic exercise. The compulsion I was feeling at this moment was all NOW. I was on a college campus in the middle of an American city. The burgers, dripping with beef and dairy fat, were there for the taking.
I could walk right out of my dorm to Hillsborough Street, and take my pick of fine burger establishments. I could even eat in the McDonalds there - a neon and mirrors monstrosity installed in a converted XXX movie theater that dated from State's days as an all-male technical institute. Yes, let's push this - don't go to some mom and pop place. Let's be really bad and go to MCDONALDS.
But why not go further? Walking is so European, so un-American. I wanted to drive to McDonalds. Far away, into the suburbs. I needed someone with a car, someone with an intimate knowledge of the North Raleigh Sprawl. I needed a local son. Enter the Buckmaster.
Also Known As Buck, The Buckmaster General, and The Commander for his inexplicable urge to wear a white turtleneck with a blue blazer, Buck had a car, an equally inexplicable faded red Mustang: 2.3L engine instead of the boss 5.0, automatic transmission instead of stick, with a tachometer as the cherry on top. Asked to explain the presence of a tach on car with an automatic transmission, Buck would answer, "It's a performance feature that the knowledgeable driver insists on." Buck was a native son, the pure product of the suburbs of the New South.
Buck's open dorm room door was an invitation - please remove me from my 10th draft on Sino-Soviet Relations along the Mongolian border. I darkened his doorway, and he looked up from his shitbox 286.
"Buck, I want to go to McDonalds."
"But I thought..."
"I know, I've been vegetarian for a while now. I want to go to McDonalds."
"We can head out to the one on Western."
"No Buck, I want to go out, way out. I want to drive to McDonalds. I want to go to the edge, Buck, the edge."
"Perfect! I know the place!"
The perversity of the request didn't seem to phase him. A minmax kind of guy, you might have thought Buck would have recoiled at the notion of the unnecessary. But my intuition that he had an unnatural and nonrational relationship with his car proved correct. He was a driver in search of a passenger.
There were roads, buildings, trees. There was darkness and light. We moved north. We moved west. There were surface roads, the curvilinear sweep and posthumanist scale of interchanges. There were freeways. There was country road, trees, experimental farms, subdevelopments. There were shopping malls I'd never known the existence of, quick change car lube shops, propane dealerships, furniture warehouses, pharmaceutical plants and artificial lakes. More trees, more darkness, an urgent care center, train tracks, a menacing aerial snake of blacked-out Apache helicopter gunships flying at treetop level. There was the hyperbolic monolith of a nuclear cooling tower, pumping a column of manmade cumulous cloud into the night sky. There was a pig farm, a power cut, a wasteland of broken trees and abandoned heavy equipment. There was a gated housing development with a fake Scottish name in blue neon, sodium vapor lights, a gas station, and then we were there.
It was a McDonalds. The standard layout. Playland, drive-though, dining area, Golden Arches and landscaping, skirted by a parking area. Situation normal - America at the end of the 20th century. This was more than 200 years of material prosperity in a prefabricated box. We could have been anywhere. This was America. You could smell the beef tallow.
We climbed out of the car into the night air. The first thing we heard was the laughter of children in the playland, running the tubeways in the giant habitrail tunnel installation. So it's follow the script and walk in through the glass double doors.
This is when it first occurs to me that things are not following McDonald's Visit Customer Script #1. Standing behind the customer service counter, what was so warmly referred to as the "Front Line" in my Hardee's days, was a strapping young lad with a healthy fro of curly black hair in a heavy rubber apron and black neoprene gloves. He had on a kitchen uniform and a McDonalds visor cap. This was not the uniform of someone who worked the frontline of a corporate service outlet. This was the uniform of someone who hosed out the dumpster in back.
"Good Evening, Brothers! Welcome to Freedonalds!" With his arms thrown wide in salutation, he had a booming baritone voice that filled up the place and a broad smile. In fact, all the kids who were working had smiles on their faces. At 20 years old, it looked likely that Buck and I were the oldest people in the joint. There were some kids laughing at eating at one of the tables, from a huge mound of French fries that was heaped on one of the serving trays.
"Welcome to Freedonalds! What can we get for you this evening?" It was the little black gal in a soft cap running the register. Her smooth French-roast dark skin glowed with life, and she sold the line with a million candlepower smile.
"Hi! I'd like a Big Mac meal with a Dr. Pepper."
"Is that all you want?" asked Baritone Apron.
"Well, I guess..."
"But this is Freedonalds! It's free. You're free, I'm free, she's free! It's freedom, it really is!"
"It really is! This is freedom!" piped in Smiling Softhat.
"FREEDONALDS! Tell it, sister!" It was the two kids running the grill back in the kitchen.
"I'd... I'd like a dozen Big Macs!" The words just bubbled up out of me. I looked across to the ready rack. Every slot was filled - every sandwich and burger that the fine food scientists and gustatory engineers of the McDonalds corporation developed for the fast food public's pleasure was there, waiting and wanted.
"Is that all, Brother?" Baritone snapped open one of the grocery bag sized To-Go bags.
"Fill the Bag! Fill it!"
Buck was kind of vibrating. He had been momentarily struck dumb. I turned to him.
"What do you want, Buck?"
"I'd like... I'd like... I'd like two bags of cheeseburgers! Like those bags!"
Baritone threw his arms wide again. It was clearly a gesture that he loved making. It opened the chest, broadened the heart, filled the lungs, and commanded the room with love.
"Come on brother's and sisters! Drop more fries, work that grill and stoke that fire! We've got an order to fill!"
"Can I get you guys some sundaes?" It was Smiling Softhat "How about a dozen?"
"Jesus! I... that would be the best."
Someone cut on a radio, and Styx's "Rocking the Paradise" blared out. The kids in the kitchen doubletimed to the square-assed sound of 80's art rock. They filled four bags with burgers, hot cubic masses of beef, cheese, and bread. I broke a sweat just holding them. They handed over two bags of fries - the theater of individual containers had been dispensed with, the fries were just mounded in loose - hot, lubricious, and salted. It felt like 20 pounds of potatoes in there. There was a flat of super sized sodas - Coke, Dr. Pepper, McD's Orange Drink. Then there were the sundaes - Hot fudge, Strawberry, Caramel. It was a goddamned miracle.
I laughed. I smiled. I didn't know what was happening or why. Don't question it. Trapped inside a lattice of computerized timeclocks, plastic lamination, three ringed binders, and polyester uniforms, a revolt was underway. Forget the battleship for now, and the glaciers. Hug the bags tight and laugh. Now is burger is now.
We ran back to the Buckmobile. There would be a celebration when we got back to the dorm, we would share it, because to do anything else would be wrong. And still, after the surprise caloric potlatch, I would eat Big Macs cold for the next week. I would carry them in my pocket to class. To this day, when I feel like I've lost my faith in humanity, in my fellow Americans, this is the image I conjure. It is as dear to me as the Constitution and "America the Beautiful."
As we pushed the glass double doors open, back to the parking lot, back to the world, Baritone threw his arms wide and called out a farewell. It went out through the doors, and across the parking lot, over the cars and the power cuts and the housing developments, racing out under the dome of the night sky.
"Just remember, Brothers! Remember! Freedonalds lives in your heart! It's always been there! It lives in your heart!"
Part 1 Part 2 Part 3
the viablity The myth Ten
of a of Thousand
third regeneration Singing
party through Tomorrows
candidate violence ...