I was gchatting with my friend Nora today about my lack of blogging ideas. I want to be a blogger. I want to have a small but respectable virtual following. I want to write interesting things that people besides my mother read. But I often find that I have no idea what to write about. When I was living abroad it was so easy. Everything was new, everything was interesting; everything was inspiring. But now I’m back in my home town in the same house I’ve lived in since I was two and I sometimes find that inspiration is lacking. So I’ve resorted to taking countless pictures of my dog sleeping in cute positions and posting them on Facebook (I know this needs to stop. I really, really don’t want to be this kind of person. There has to be more to life than this). But the fact is, my town is tidy. I haven’t had any indecent proposals, crazy grandma comments, more crazy grandma comments, crazy homeless men comparing me to an obese barbie, Rasputin-like tailors, or crazy catcalls. If you think U.S construction workers are over the top, I strongly discourage you from walking by a group of construction workers in Colombia. Unless, that is, you enjoy groups of sweaty middle-aged men giving you a live, second-by-second analysis of your butt. The U.S is a more subdued kind of place, at least when compared to Latin America.
Anyway, my friend Nora suggested I write a travel guide about Centreville, my hometown. At first I thought she was joking. Centreville is a medium-sized suburb with a bunch of houses, strip malls and cars. At first glance it doesn’t seem like a particularly interesting or impressive place…but the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. I’ve seen this town change from farmland to suburb to immigrant enclave in the last twenty years and I feel like I know it pretty well. So over the course of the next few weeks, I’m going to dedicate my blog to exploring Centreville. I hope that by the time this mini-series is done, you’ll feel that Centreville is the most amazing place in the world and you just have to come and see it for yourself. As a way to kick this mini-series off, I’m re-posting an old entry about my favorite Centreville McDonald’s. Enjoy below!
When I think of my town, I sometimes mentally divide it into two sections: The residential side and the commercial side. To be non-politically correct, the residential side is mostly white and the commercial side is home to a lot of newly arrived immigrants and lower-income folks. Please understand that when I say lower-income I don’t mean Law and Order New York projects-style poverty…I just mean more apartment and townhouse living, slightly better access to public buses and a little more in the way of sidewalk connectivity to shops and stores.
At first glance, you might not notice the difference between the two sides. There are plenty of colonial-style two-story houses, nice lawns and young families on both sides; but take a closer look and you’ll see the subtle differences. For example, on the residential side, people walk for exercise or to take the dog around the block. On the commercial side, you’ll actually see people walking with a purpose. You see moms walking to the library with their kids, guys getting around on bike and folks carrying groceries to their homes. This is where most of the action is (if you can call anything that happens in this town “action”). Here, you’ll find the library, ethnic supermarkets, large concentrations of Koreans, Hispanics, Arabs, Pakistanis African-Americans and working class whites. Day laborers hang out by the library and newly arrived immigrants study at the local Methodist Church. In this section of town you can buy Kimchi or bocadillos and pretty much get along OK as long as you speak Korean, Spanish, Arab or Pakistani.
In this ethnic enclave of outlying suburbia, there exists the greatest McDonald’s that ever was. Yes, I know McDonald’s has a bad reputation among the more health conscious (which I strive to be but am not) but this McDonald’s is so wonderful it deserves to be written about. It’s the kind of McDonald’s where old folks hang out all morning long, catching up with fellows senior citizens over a Big Breakfast, orange juice and USA Today. This is not a New York Times or Wall Street Journal kind of joint, to be sure. In fact, it’s the kind of place where someone might even talk to you for no reason at all but to be social, a very strange thing indeed in suburbia. Local teenage truants hang out here late morning, blankly staring at each other over iced lattes and affordable cappuccinos. Construction workers and truck drivers from counties to the southwest and southeast come in for a late night coffee and randomly meet up with old friends. It’s not so rare to see a middle-aged guy with a mullet and Harley Davidson shirt sitting five feet away from two teenage Korean boys working on a school project, an Indian couple trying to quiet a sobbing toddler or a soccer team filling up on Big Macs and French fries after the game. Teenagers hang out in the parking lot, the drive through is ten cars deep at 10 at night and people actually seem to meet here to talk to each other. This place is loud and vibrant and so American in its own particular way, even though more than half the patrons seem to be from somewhere else.
I used to spend every Tuesday and Thursday morning at the McDonald’s of my dreams and I found something about the constant drone of tangled languages, multilingual ads and friendlier than average staff to be very comforting and pleasant. My Morning McDonald’s experience has made me wonder about the whole idea of sense of place. I actually took an English class called Sense of Place, and while I can fully feel and understand its definition, I think it’s almost impossible to articulate – or rather, pinpoint – the exact moment when eating a meal becomes experiencing a meal. For some reason, I’ve always felt that these kinds of spots are more easily found on either side of the spectrum: Densely populated centers or the countryside. The Fiddlin’ Pig in Asheville (Sunday BBQ brunch to the sweet sounds of bluegrass) and the New York Delhi near the Rockefeller Center where I had lunch several years ago come to mind as places I remember being in rather than just going to. I guess the difference is that I can remember what it felt like to be in those places; the memory conjures up a feeling; an overwhelming sense of nostalgia; a specific something.
Or maybe, I’ve had one parfait too much and am devoting way too much time to philosophizing.