December 28th, 2015
Big Mac Attack
A long time ago, in the fall after the summer when people first left footprints on the moon, I was hungry. Really hungry. The kind of hunger you’d feel if someone told you that you couldn’t eat for two weeks which, in fact, someone had.
That someone was a surgeon and though there were many things that the almost-seven-year-old me was none-too-pleased about, it was the hunger that was most constant. I wasn’t being starved, mind you. I was being fed some sort of liquid nutrition that went straight into the bloodstream. But you try telling your stomach that everything’s being taken care of in some other way and see how graciously it responds.
It didn’t help that the experience was excruciatingly boring. In between alarming medical interludes — like hoping that I didn’t end up like the kid in the room across, who looked as though he’d been cut neatly in two and then stitched back together with a very large needle — there was mostly endless nothing and the equally endless gnawing just below the ribcage.
So it was that I was bored into leafing through a magazine with little promise of being interesting, what with it being from before the moon landing. But within the pages of that battered magazine — “Life” magazine, with its larger than life format — I found a treasure, also larger than life.
It was a full-page ad, the colors harsh and garish in the way color printing was then, made more so by the oppressive pure black background. It was an enormous photograph of an enormous hamburger and I just stared at it, I don’t know how long. It was mountainous, looming, and I savored the photograph, taking in every detail, from the way the trimmings peeks out between the patties, to the gleam of the sauce, to the sesame seeds studding the top of the bun. I imagined that hamburger, bite by bite, so much so that I could eventually taste everything about it.
Now, you may be wondering, just what kind of hamburger gets a full page ad in a national magazine? It was — I shudder to recall — an ad for McDonald’s Big Mac and the reason that it was running in “Life” magazine was that it was still a new thing back then. Hard to believe, I know, when McDonald’s questionable contribution to American cuisine has become an inescapable part of the cultural furniture. But it was, and it was was an early salvo in the battle to attract customers by supersizing everything, customers eventually included.
That seemed to be the appeal to me, those days in the hospital. Here, in that big, rather over-styled hamburger — which bore no resemblance to the real thing — was something commensurate with my capacity for hunger. I stared at it for an hour or so and then pulled the page carefully out of the magazine. I had a plan.
The foot of my bed had a raised metal rail, just big enough. With a bit of tape, I could affix the page down there and be able to see it my every waking hour. I needed help, though. The surgeon had seen to it that I wasn’t bending or folding in any way, so I needed someone to get the page down there for me.
I don’t remember who I asked. But I do remember the response, quietly startled and a little taken aback. Was it not, I was gently asked, perhaps not such a good idea? To have a constant reminder of the thing I could’t have? Not a shade of doubt existed in my mind. It was not merely a good idea, it was the best possible idea. So I got my way. The ugly black torn page, framing that wretched bit of industrial food in its wretchedly tacky advert, sat there at the foot of my bed. Day or night, all I had to do was open my eyes and there it was.
When, finally, the day of my release came, the page was carefully taken down and taken with me, out into the cool, bright daylight. I know I kept it, a relic of my sojourn in the land of the not-quite-living. After leaving the hospital, and healing more and getting clearance from the doctors, I went, in the weeks before Christmas, and got that hamburger I had so desperately wanted.
At least, I think I did.
Because I have not the faintest scintilla of memory of that ever happening. I know that it did; my family saw to it at the first opportunity. But the experience didn’t leave so much as a ripple. It may that that I’d invested too fully, imbued the idea of that hamburger with all my hopes and the exquisitely detailed imagining of what it would be, and what it would mean, when it finally came. Of course, no hamburger was ever going to live up to that, much less the hamburger that I actually got.
But, looking back, I don’t think that’s what really happened. I think that by the time I sat down for my meal that didn’t really look all that much like the picture, that I had already gotten what I wanted. The image of the hamburger at the foot of my bed wasn’t maddening because I didn’t want a hamburger. What I wanted instead was a navigation aid, and in that ad I found it, a kind of big, greasy, largely inedible lighthouse that marked the distant shore I’d been washed away from. Invisible and incomprehensible currents might buffet me to and fro, but as long as I could hold that mark in sight, I knew I had not gone too far, and that I would eventually swim back to the shore of the land of the living where, I knew, there were many good things to eat.