Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Christopher's Confessional - "Fast Food"

I know it's totally unacceptable to say anything positive about McDonald's these days. But the best birthday parties when I was a tyke were at McDonald's; nothing else even came close. Sorry Showbiz Pizza, sorry Chucky Cheese, sorry Malibu Grand Prix (does anyone remember that place?).

I'm not talking about my own birthday parties (though I did have one at McDonald's). I'm specifically talking about all the other kids' birthday parties I attended. Dozens in my childhood. And each one better than the last.

Why? The reasons are threefold.

1. McDonald's Chicken McNugget Happy Meal. I don't know what the happy meals are like today, but this thing was legalized kiddie crack in my day. I still don't know what the nuggets are made of and it doesn't matter anymore because I don't eat at McDonald's. But I can tell you for sure that if my kid ever eats one he/she will be hooked like I was. And as addictive as the nuggets were, the fries were ten times more habit-forming. Then there was the coveted toy surprise inside (which meant that at every McDonald's birthday party I got a toy of my own). This is how McDonald's really pulled ahead of the pack in our minds. "Showbiz and Chucky Cheese have pizza and video games, but at McDonald's we get a toy even when it isn't our birthday," was how our little brains reasoned. And as a kid, didn't it kind of suck watching the lucky birthday jerk get a bunch of toys that weren't yours? Not at McDonald's.

2. The Balls. Other places had ball pits, but not like McDonald's. McDonald's had a slide going into the ball pit. I remember that this was crucial. A ball pit just wasn't as fun if you couldn't crash into it at high speed. Plus, we would take our toys with us and drop them down the slide into the ball pit. This was also crucial. Dropping the new happy meal toy down the slide into the ball pit at a McDonald's birthday party was one of the most exhilarating things a five-year-old could do in the American suburbs of my youth.

3. The Fantasy World. Chucky Cheese is a friendly rat, but he's still just a big honking rat (not cool). The animatronic band at Showbiz Pizza scared the crap out of me (especially the hulking gorilla keyboard player). And Malibu didn't have any fantasy characters at all. The characters that every kid was wild for were Grimace, the Hamburglar and good old Ronald. Every once in a while some weird kid would claim that Mayor McCheese was his favorite, but nobody would believe him. Nobody really cared about Mayor McCheese and we all knew it. The fat purple thing, the criminal and their pale ringleader were the ones that we all loved. We looked forward to seeing them on TV commercials and we especially looked forward to seeing them on the delicious McDonald's birthday sheet cake. And right next to the ball pit stood life-sized fiberglass statues of the big three themselves, which we would have climbed on all day if our parents would have let us.

I haven't eaten at McDonald's in years. When I became too old to care about the toy prize and the ball pit it was over for me. I know adults who still eat there, but the only reason I would go back would be to recapture a piece of those vivid, colorful, happy birthday parties. I certainly don't like the food anymore and I don't like what decades of bad food like McDonald's have done to the health of Americans I care for.

But there was a time in my life when nothing was more exciting than the simple pleasure of a happy meal with friends.

Pow-pow, another confession confessed. This is getting easier!


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