Eds note: My girlfriend’s grandmother, Lydia LaFleur (86), is the first person who comes to mind when I think of a true New Yorker: cultured, whip-smart, and eternally curious, with a deep reservoir of stories about basement apartments back in the unsavory days of Times Square, when you had to throw water off the roof to scare away the prostitutes. A former employee of the New York City Public Library, she’s lived in the same apartment building in Morningside Heights for more than five decades, where she is actively involved in a community theater group (The Morningside Players), a book club, and a writer’s workshop. She often sends me her work from the latter—mostly short, poignant personal essays about her life as a senior citzen in New York. I asked her if I could share this one, titled “McDonald’s Aroma No. 5,” which made me think a little differently about the ubiquitous Golden Arches that we see around the city every day. She generously agreed; I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.—Chris Schonberger
To me, one of the most offensive odors is the smell of food from McDonald’s. The culprit is probably the oil that’s used for frying the potatoes. Truffle oil it isn’t. I know the difference because I recently had upscale popcorn doused with truffle oil at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in Lincoln Center.
As soon as passengers enter my subway car or the bus carrying a paper bag, I can always tell where they’re coming from by the pervasive McDonald’s aroma they bring with them. And yet I have to admit that, occasionally, I have been known to enter one of its stores for a container of coffee (excellent) and a hot fudge sundae (delicious and only $1.84), but seldomly for a hamburger, having once experienced a thin patty that tasted the same way I imagine cardboard would between a bun. Strangely, the cooking odor never bothers me while inside the restaurant—probably because then I’m part of it.
Last Saturday, I got a late start leaving the apartment and didn’t want to delay my outing by eating something. I needed to exchange some clothing at The Town Shop at 82nd Street and Broadway. On the bus midway I began to feel really hungry for something solid and remembered that right on the corner of 82nd Street was a McDonald’s. I thought, maybe if I were to order a cheeseburger the cheese would add some flavor to the concoction.
Strangely, the McDonald’s cooking odor never bothers me while inside the restaurant—probably because then I’m part of it.
When I arrived at the lingerie shop, it was after 6pm and already closed. Since it was dinner time, McDonald’s was teeming with people, mostly families. When it was my turn in line, a young man gave me a warm, welcoming smile. “A cheeseburger, please.” All around me were patrons carrying french fries. Why not? Besides, I recalled what the musician Dorothy Carter once told me: Several hours before a performance, eat potatoes, because they give you energy and make you feel grounded. “And an order of french fries, please,” I told the young man. “Yes, a small one.”
After I paid for it, I thought of drinking something. And what goes better with a cheeseburger than a Coke, thought I who never drinks Coke. “And a small Coke with no ice.” Somehow these two things seemed to belong together.
“How much more do I owe you?” I said.
“No, that’s alright,” said the cashier, once again flashing that wonderful smile which lit up his face. I probably reminded him of his grandmother, or great grandmother.
All this food and for only $3.25. What a bargain! I sat down at a two-seat table feeling very kindly disposed towards MacDonald’s and feeling happy because of the young man’s thoughtfulness and smile. He had even thought of putting four napkins and three packets of ketchup in the bag, exactly what I needed. And everything—the cheeseburger, the fries, and the Coke—tasted delicious. McDonald’s had no idea what a great poster boy it had in this young man.
I enjoyed watching the other customers. For years now, fast-food restaurants have been blamed for America’s growing obesity problem. And here was living proof. More than half of the women of varying ages were overweight. Sitting in front of me, however, was a really thin young woman. She was not eating anything and seemed quite impatient; a bottle of water rested on the table. She sat apart from family that were at an elongated table across the aisle, all engrossed in their food. I noted that they appeared more satisfied and happier than she did.
After this enjoyable meal, I stopped by Zabar’s where, among other foods, I bought a container of Autumn Vegetable Bisque that contained onions, carrots, sweet potatoes, turnips, parsnips, celery, eggplant, zucchini, green beans, and butternut squash. That should do as an antidote to all the nutrition-less food I had just eaten.
I got on a crowded bus at 79th Street with two large bags. A woman, probably in her late 70s, made room for me in the middle of the three seater facing the aisle at the front of the bus. As soon as I sat down and said thank you to her, she said, “There’s a bad smell here,” and with that she moved to the one empty seat nearby and continued to read her book.
All these years I had been been offended by other passengers emitting the unmistakeable McDonald’s aroma, and now here I was now doing the offending.
It dawned on me almost immediately; suddenly, I was aware of the taste of oily French fries and ketchup in my mouth. My clothes and hair must have reeked with the McDonald’s aroma. “I hope it wasn’t from me,” I spoke to her across the aisle.
“No, it’s probably me,” she said and went back to her book.
I felt self-conscious, conspicuous, and a bit amused by the ironic twist. All these years I had been been offended by other passengers emitting the unmistakeable McDonald’s aroma, and now here I was now doing the offending. Thank god nobody else moved away; but then again, there were no empty seats.
Later, I was able to move to a more comfortable seat facing the front and next to a kindly looking, grandmotherly sort who gave me foot room for my shopping bags; I so hoped I wouldn’t offend her too. Obviously not, because as we drove on, she became more and more worked up almost to a frenzy telling me how evil Obama was because of the drone strikes; she said she had voted for him the last time, but he had not done anything, and he had worked hand in hand with the banks; her nephew had lost his computer job two years ago and hasn’t worked since, and no matter what I said in Obama’s defense, she kept insisting he was a murderer.
Her last words as she got off the bus at 106th Street, were “evil, evil, evil” while I kept saying, “No, no, no.” But at least she hadn’t noticed the McDonald’s aroma.
I went home, brushed my teeth, and ate Zabar’s Autumn Vegetable Bisque, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as the McDonald’s meal I had earlier. Will I ever return to a McDonald’s? Maybe as soon as this coming Saturday, and I hope that charming young man with the warm smile waits on me again. However, this time I’ll bypass the french fries and ketchup and settle for a hot-fudge sundae instead.