Sundberg: McDonald’s overlooked communities

McDonald’s is the rock for American society. It is not a local community center run with government funds which boast a wide array of programs and events for little or no cost. It is not the public library with free books, DVDs, CDs and even video games to borrow. No, it is our local McDonald’s; each and every single one of the 14,157 restaurants in the United States have a unique community that defines the American experience.

I would have never come to this idea on my own. Whenever I used to walk into a Mcdonald’s, I would only see the generic uniformity in the decor, food and experience of the fast food chain. I only saw it as a place to satisfy my hunger in exchange for a reasonable price. It was a large corporation without a face.

That was the case until I saw Chris Arnade’s article and photos in The Guardian about his documentation of the vibrant communities that are alive in McDonald’s lobbies across the nation. His exploration of the groups of retirees meeting every morning for coffee, the numerous different Bible studies and the portrait of a couple stopping into their local McDonald’s on their wedding day were all beautiful in simply their description.

These people blend into the background. They are quiet and easy to miss. This part of America congregates at McDonald’s thanks to their low prices and open arms. McDonald’s welcomes respectful customers to stay as long as they want, where they can read, laugh and share the joys and pains of life for hours on end. Some even have live music for their loyal regulars. Along with its generous table policy, the low price for a coffee in the morning, unlike many pricey and chic cafes,  does not discriminate against many people in the United States who live on a tighter budget. For many people, especially retirees, a morning cup of coffee with other regulars in the lobby is their only community where they can talk about the smallest whims of their imagination to the heavier parts of life. McDonald’s perfect formula of affordability, location and welcomeness creates the lowest common denominator for all people to come and congregate.

It has been easy for me to dismiss and forget, but part of my own life has been shaped by this American institution. When I was in preschool, my mom tells me that some evenings we would walk over to the McDonald’s on Scholls Ferry Road for a late afternoon snack, so that she could rest after a long day at work by not having to prepare another meal and let me run around in the extravagant PlayPlace.

During middle school and high school, I remember going to the McDonald’s on Boones Ferry road to eat with friends after school, or after a late Friday night football game because no other places to eat would be open, and it was easy to stretch a $5 bill at McDonald’s. It was the almost universally palatable choice for a group of high school kids. You may not love the typical hamburger, but the large and diverse menu had something for everyone.

I now feel a shared experience with the people at McDonald’s. The kids I see running around in the PlayPlace or the group of teenagers are no longer fixtures in a set but living, breathing and dynamic people who I also was at one point. We all do not have much in common; however, our shared presence in the lobby of McDonald’s speaks volumes about what we as Americans have in common.

When I was back at my parents’ house over winter break I went to the McDonalds on Pacific Highway in King City, Oregon. King City is a community of “55 years and better” neighborhoods, and the city boasts a library and golf course catered to their retirees. I strolled in on a Thursday morning and I found a small group of older gentlemen having a quiet and subtle conversation over a cup of coffee. These were folks who do not care too much for anything “fancy” or “special.” They understand what is important: the people who you are with, and supporting those you care about through the short journey of life.

In that moment I could see myself in their booth—talking, laughing, reminiscing in the lobby of the restaurant that is welcome to all people.

I have grown up and will continue to grow with the patrons of McDonald’s who are the heart and soul of this nation. It is hard to find a place more beautiful and pure.


Mateo Sundberg

Mateo Sundberg

Mateo is the Print Managing Editor of the Daily Emerald.