At dusk, men on three wheeled bikes with bike bells as big as cowbells ring their bells as they pedal down the bike lane of Songjiang’s main street. Someone told me they ring the bells to remind the residents to turn off the propane valves that go to their cook stoves. The bikes are basically oversized tricycles with a place behind the seat to put things such as discarded lumber, mangled traffic cones, old bicycle, scooter, and car tires. At night the women ride their scooters in their pajamas and slippers.
An All Days is across from the school. I go there nightly to get items such as M&Ms, muffins, milk, dried green tea. Sure, it is like a 7/11 with no mustard or cheese products. They have Pepsi, Sprite, Coke but not Dr. Pepper. At the counter, corn on the cob and chicken on a stick stews in a crockpot. There is no slushy machine, no soda fountain so no big gulp. The only place that I have found ice is KFC and McDonalds. At home, I make my own ice trays with plastic disposable muffin packages.
McDonalds, I finally broke down and went after a year’s moratorium on the quarter pounder with cheese. When I was 16 years old, I could eat - actually I did eat - 4 quarter pounders in one night of cruising McDonalds which is what we used to do at that age in our Datsun B210s, Dodge Darts and the family station wagons – 1960s Chevrolets seemed to be the most popular. If a song like ‘Boogie Nights’ by Heatwave came on the radio, of course we would turn it up. This was when most of us teenagers only had AM radios in our cars. Cassette players were expensive; something that we would save up for and would stop working shortly after we saved up for them.
There is a McDonalds in downtown Songjiang. Mentioning how it differs from American McDonalds would be really no easier than describing how China differs from America. Today, as I was walking in a market of cheap Chinese goods the smell reminded me of Kress and Ben Franklin from my childhood. Sometimes, it’s as if the forces that created modern China stepped into a dimension which held 1970s America and they recreated it and modernized it a bit and it is the China of today.
As I said, I have not had a McDonalds’ cheeseburger in over a year. The last time I had McDonalds, I was drunk. Anthony picked up a bag of cheeseburgers at the McDonalds on 14th and brought them to Steve’s and Paige’s apartment. I ate two of the cheeseburgers and did not enjoy them. After that, I decided if McDonalds went from being one of my favorite places to eat (25 years or so ago) to a place which I found to be disgusting and just tasteless - in that my hamburger (billionth sold) failed to have a taste, I would no longer eat there. Of course, I could get all politically correct about it but I would rather not. (Because at this moment as I am eating M&Ms which are probably put into the packages by underage gypsy boys who work 17 hours a day for 3 kuai, I know parts of my life are probably inadvertently not politically correct.) So more than anything, I stopped going to McDonalds because the quality slid down down down in the last twenty years or so. Or maybe my tastes have become more discretionary. After all, I do not eat chicken foot soup, or pigeon.
Flashback to the afternoon of the McDonalds’ cheeseburgular: I am at my table waiting for my cheeseburger which I had to order by the picture. The clerk, however, does know some English. She asks me if I would like a ‘middle’ coke. I tell her yes. I give her the money, she gives me my coke. I start sipping on my coke. She told me there would be a short wait for my food which is a good sign. That must mean it will be hot.
I am starting to get that adolescent food excitement. The sort of excitement I would get when my mother and I would go to Murphy’s Steakhouse or Furrs’ Cafeteria. She would ask me about my day as we would wait for our food at Murphy’s or as we would start eating our food at Furr’s. Furr’s would always be a bit of a letdown once I took the first bite of the roast beef or the ground sirloin with mushroom au jus. I would always hope for cold English pea salad instead of one at room temperature
Murphy’s however could never go wrong with their hot hamburgers - I always try to make it there when I am in Bartlesville. The Murphy’s Hot Hamburger – maybe one of my favorite things in the world - is a piece of toast, a beef patty, brown gravy over that, French fries on top of the gravy and then a healthy dollop of Heinz Catsup over the whole thing, washed down with a coke of course. I almost feel guilty saying how much I love it. I love sushi too but I really love the Murphy’s hot hamburgers.
In another dimension, I would be a Bartlesville townie with a mini-van and a 401k. In the dimension in which I reside, I am sitting in a McDonalds in downtown Songjiang, a district of Shanghai. Of course, I am the only Westerner in the place. Customers who are leaving to go into the attached jewelry store stop and look over my shoulder - in a comically obtrusive Carol Burnett skit manner – to see what I am writing. Personal space does not exist here. As usual, I am an oddity in the world’s most famous American eatery.
My cheeseburger which I was hoping was a quarter pounder but is in fact a small cheeseburger, comes with the order of medium fries. Part of me hopes that I will take a bite and want to gag because it is so bad. Do I love being a masochist? I take the bite and I am surprised, very surprised. I want to sing. I want to sing the praises of McDonalds. I want to kiss the Grimace and Mayor McCheese. I am willing to blow Ronald. I debate getting another one. I do not. I debate eating McDonalds once a day. I will not. The French fries are hot and perfect. The cheeseburger is just as I remember the McDonalds cheeseburgers of my youth.
As I am eating, a thought comes over me, a dark thought, a thought I am somewhat afraid to think but I must think. I have not had McDonalds in a year. Now, we are united like old pals taking off right where we left off when I still loved this squanderer of the earth, this behemoth which I believe paved the way for the other behemoths like Wal-Mart and Home Depot . I am telling myself, ‘okay, I can eat McDonalds once a week. I am in China.’
Yes, that sounds fair but will my other long lost friend come to call. Will he come knocking like a trickster? I have seen him around town. I look his way but then I quickly look away. I do not want to flirt with this. I have come too far. I do not want to slide back down to where I was. Or even to a worse place, a place where dimly lit smoke filled Chinese speakeasys decorate my daytime.
At All Days, I see all of the Chinese beer sitting as singles in the cooler. On hot days, I love a Tsing Tao. But I know I cannot. I must not. I will not. Getting re-hooked on McDonalds does not automatically mean it will lead to harder things. In the kitchen, I make myself a nice cup of green tea.