McDonald’s as America: A Conversation with Chris Arnade




WHILE PUNDITS on both coasts were shaking their heads and shrugging in disbelief, Chris Arnade was traveling to cities like Gary, Indiana, and Youngstown, Ohio, to talk to the people Trump called the United States’s “forgotten men and women.” A former trader, Arnade swapped his life on Wall Street to traverse the country in his minivan as a citizen-documentarian of the disparity between what he calls “front-row America” and “back-row America.” His work is focused primarily on the back row, the marginalized people left behind by the managerial class, which continues to succeed. 

Arnade is not a traditional journalist. He writes about addiction and poverty, among other things, and photographs the people he meets. His politics go beyond cable news paradigms; he identifies as socialist, and while he criticizes draconian Republican policies, he also lambasts the left for being elitist and stuck in a bubble. His work has not escaped controversy: it has been called exploitative, unprofessional, and manipulative. But Arnade does what very few other writers or media outlets have; rather than keep the back row at arm’s length, he attempts to understand why it exists in the first place. Instead of reducing his subjects to anthropological curiosities, Arnade treats them as people, as fellow citizens and friends.

Like any traveler, Arnade needs a base of operations when he arrives in a new neighborhood or city; most often, that base is McDonald’s. Beneath the golden arches, Arnade finds respite, cheap sustenance, and many people willing to tell their stories. In a recent tweet, Arnade wrote: “Everything you want to know about America can be learned in a McDonald’s.”

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SAM JAFFE GOLDSTEIN: Have you always used McDonald’s as a first point of entry into a community?

CHRIS ARNADE: No. Ten years ago I had what I now call the “front-row” view of McDonald’s: that it’s a less-than-stellar franchise, with less-than-stellar food. I didn’t think about it much or care about it much. If I had an opinion of it, it was your standard left-wing opinion that it’s not valuable.

It became a point of reference when I started doing this project on addiction and poverty. I found myself in McDonald’s a lot because of the friends I made: people who were homeless, addicts. Eventually I found myself going not only because they were there, but for the same reasons that they went. It was a place I could sit and get a moment of respite. I could charge my computer and my phone, use the wi-fi, use the bathrooms, and the food and coffee were cheap and good. And I started noticing how strong the community in each McDonald’s was.

But I fought the tendency to write about McDonald’s, because it seemed like a cheap way to do it; too easy, as it were. I was asking people to meet me in the parking lot or at their homes, so I wouldn’t have to photograph them in the McDonald’s where we met. Finally, I asked myself: “Why am I fighting the realization that McDonald’s is really the community center in some places?”

Another part of the reason I held back from doing the McDonald’s story initially is because the setting photographically is not very interesting. But that’s the reality and I need to reflect it as such.

I wrote a piece for the Guardian saying McDonald’s are community centers. I had intended to write that piece for a year and a half, but I never got around to doing it. I just thought that everybody knew it — it had become such a part of my life. Of all the articles that I have written it is probably the one that resonated the most, and got me the most feedback.

Do you ever go to other public or semi-public spaces?

I jokingly say that I go to four places: McDonald’s, churches, junior colleges, and bars. I also spend a lot of time just walking. My modus operandi is to park my car and just walk around town with no real direction. Where I end up taking breaks during those walks are McDonald’s, because they’re there. I use them for the reason other people use them: they are ubiquitous, clean, and safe.

I continue to find that the stories and information I get out of my breaks at McDonald’s are stronger than what I learn from walking around. The people I meet in McDonald’s are more representative of the community and they fit the demographic that I’m focused on.

So much on-the-ground political reporting happens in bars and diners. How does reporting from McDonald’s compare?

To be blunt, I think the spaces where most reporters go are often not reflective of the broader community. They are where people who are of higher cultural and economic status go, and community leaders go. Now, those aren’t bad places to go; those are reasonable voices.

When I went to the GOP convention, I never set foot inside the convention or the neighborhood around it. I spent my week and a half in Cleveland bouncing between four McDonald’s. Two of them in a very poor African-American community, one in a wealthy neighborhood, and one in a white working-class neighborhood. In some sense it provided me with a balanced perspective of the differences in those communities. If I had gone down to the convention, spent time on the convention floor and around the convention, I would have seen people who wanted to be seen.

People focus so much on what happens in DC and on the inside-baseball part of politics, but politics is a sport where the fan decides who wins. The fans are the average guys hanging out in McDonald’s, at Walmart, at KFC, at Kroger. We tend to look at those spaces as the banal realities of life, but that’s life. Most of lower-income life plays out in those banal circumstances.

Why is it McDonald’s over KFC or Wendy’s?

It’s mostly the cheap coffee. Some of it is the ubiquity, and that McDonald’s has accepted that this is going on. With the exception of a few notable McDonald’s, they encourage it. But for a lot of people, it’s that they like the coffee. I think it’s a lot better than people recognize.

In Appalachia it also happens in Hardee’s, partly because people like the morning biscuits, and partly because Hardee’s is a pretty big franchise there. In towns with a McDonald’s, a Hardee’s, and a Dairy Queen, people will flip between the three. It can get political, there can be little turf battles.

In general with McDonald’s, they have been doing this for a long time. Someone in the corporation clearly gets it and encourages it, to the degree that it does not take away from the rest of their business.

One thinks of McDonald’s as this impersonal homogenous franchise. How do such unique communities form in and around them?

I love that paradox. I always say that if you blindfolded me and put me in a McDonald’s, it would take me five minutes to tell you what community I’m in. I don’t want to be dismissive of McDonald’s, but if you give people a landscape of banal franchises, they will find meaning and make community in them. I have seen some amazing things in McDonald’s.

In the north side of Milwaukee, the traditionally black neighborhood, there’s a McDonald’s that is a hangout for older men and women. Starting around 11 o’clock they take over the front, and two guys come in and DJ a blues show. Most of the elderly black in Milwaukee have roots in Mississippi, so this wonderful traditional blues music is blasted throughout the McDonald’s. If you want one of the best blues shows in the United States, go to the McDonald’s on North Avenue in Milwaukee and sit down and listen to the CDs that these guys burn. They made that McDonald’s their own, complete with music. It’s wonderful, and again, reflective of the community, which is African-American and has roots in Mississippi. I’ve seen other McDonald’s where people have Bible studies, where there are dominoes games played … It has effectively been turned into a public space.

Has there ever really been a true “public space” in the United States, given segregation along race and class lines?

I would say that’s true. I don’t want to oversell the diversity that happens in a McDonald’s; they are reflective of their neighborhoods. So in black neighborhoods they are primarily black, and in white neighborhoods they are primarily white, and in rich neighborhoods they are primarily rich, and all the problems that come with that are reflected in the McDonald’s. A McDonald’s in a poor neighborhood will provide fewer services and resources.

It’s sad to see that the morning groups are self-segregated, with a white table and a black table. Again, this is reflective of the larger issues we have in our country. It’s not something McDonald’s insists on by any stretch of the imagination. It is something that plays out naturally, by the way neighborhoods are segregated.

For me, the more interesting question is why people prefer McDonald’s to community centers. What I’ve heard from people is that the well-intentioned nonprofits who run senior centers and community centers offer many of the same services that McDonald’s does, but people don’t like them because they’re judgmental spaces. They just want to be left alone, right? They don’t want to be told what to eat, they don’t want to be told: “You should really eat low-fat foods, you should stop eating meat.” People just want to be left alone, and McDonald’s, by and large, leaves people alone. You sit there and you do what you want. People even bring in their own food sometimes.

Do people also find libraries to be places of judgment?

I think there are too many rules in libraries. You have to be quiet. There’s just a feeling that libraries are less accepting. In libraries you can’t just leave, and at McDonald’s you can go outside, smoke, and come right back in. There is just a lot more flexibility with McDonald’s compared to libraries. I think there is a sense that libraries don’t want this population there. You certainly can’t hang out with a group of friends and have a political discussion at a table. In terms of the homeless, the libraries have an equal draw but they are just less flexible and accepting.

From what you’ve learned, what would a good community space look like?

If I were to start a nonprofit that targeted the population I know best, which is homeless addicts, I would just have a space with tables, free wi-fi, charging stations, and a bathroom, that serves sandwiches and coffee. It wouldn’t ask questions, but would simply say, you can come in here and escape the heat. You can have computers, with a time limit, to get information. People forget that one of the biggest obstacles for the poor is access to information. Just having a place where you can sit and use your computer or use your phone, and not run out of minutes or get charged for minutes, is huge. Not a place that preaches, but just a space.

But McDonald’s allows people to rejoin mainstream America, the families, businessmen, and workers who are also there. So it’s a way to rejoin the population on equal terms, which wouldn’t happen in a space dedicated just to the homeless. McDonald’s allows them to recapture some of the dignity of being part of a public space. That’s huge.

Do you see a connection between the work you do and the fight for a higher minimum wage for fast-food workers? 

I am politically a socialist. I try to not get involved with that too much, just because I think they are two separate issues. But as a separate issue, I would love to see the minimum wage increased.

Do you find that your work goes in tandem with that fight, in that you’re trying to help Americans understand fast food as a thing that is integral to people’s lives? 

If a leftist were to come up to me to ask what my lesson is, I’d say it is to understand the people you’re advocating for. Understand that when you dismiss McDonald’s, or a Walmart for that matter, you are dismissing a lived reality. The most diverse spaces in the United States are Walmart and McDonald’s. I understand the frustration with how McDonald’s pays its employees, and how we as a culture pay our employees. But the reality for lower-income Americans is that McDonald’s provides benefits as well, both of cheap, quick food, and of a space that is important to them. You have to balance both of those when you approach an issue.

What makes one franchise better or worse than another? What works and doesn’t work? 

Televisions with the sound on don’t work — they drive people away. For the community, the layouts that work best are the ones where there is a separate wing that doesn’t get a lot of traffic flow through it. Obviously, the larger McDonald’s work better, they have more spaces for people to go.

What works and what doesn’t work is largely related to the community and the employees. If the employees feel invested in the franchise, then it works. If employee turnover is high, then it doesn’t work. In the ones I’ve seen that work really well, the franchise owner is very involved, whereas in the ones that don’t work, the franchise owner just treats it like a money machine and is never there. Those ones just fall apart. The absolute worst McDonald’s is in Hunts Point in the Bronx. They don’t care one bit about the employees or the customers. It amazes me that McDonald’s hasn’t come in and fixed it up. It’s really embarrassing to the franchise.

If you were to make a recommendation to the McDonald’s corporation, what would it be?

No TV volume in any of your restaurants. It drives everybody out — but maybe that particular franchise owner wants to drive people out.

I’m surprised they haven’t gone with the community angle in their advertising, showing people getting together to meet in the morning, and having larger tables that can accommodate 15 people. People make ad hoc arrangements, there is usually one large table that people end up taking over in the morning. But I’m surprised that haven’t gone with that angle: “We are a part of your community.”

In terms of actual things: they extended to all-morning breakfast, which made sense; later hours for the dining room — the dining room closes often at 10 and I see a lot of people who want to use it till midnight. I saw armed guards in Utah, which I think is a bad move, but maybe that particular franchise owner knows something I don’t.

Can you tell me about the last person you met at McDonald’s?

Gloria Stapleton. I met her in New Hampton, the county seat of Chickasaw County, Iowa. She was 72 years old with spiky blonde hair, and funny as hell. She and her girlfriends all sit at McDonald’s basically from 11:00 to 5:00, gossiping. She wanted to get black highlights put in her spiky hair, but none of the hairdressers in town would do it for her — they all said she was going to look like a skunk, and she said: “But I want to look like a skunk!” She was a little bit punk for a 72-year-old woman, but also very sweet.

Her husband of 52 years had died four years earlier, and this was her way of coping. Of the five women she hung out with, four of them had recently lost their husbands. She said everything in the house reminded her of her husband. Her way of getting out of the house is to go to McDonald’s and hang out. She knew everybody who came in, and all the employees. It really was, in many senses, her home away from home.

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Sam Jaffe Goldstein is a bookseller at Skylight Books.


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