We would meet in front of the Burger King in Piccadilly Circus to go to West End nightclubs during August of 2004, me and two Spanish sisters from my old residence hall who shared a love of dancing and cheap drinks. It was strange that, during my last weeks in London, here I was again in the neighborhood I’d first known the city by the year before: London’s equivalent of Midtown Manhattan. Back then I’d stayed with a friend at a cheap—the cheapest— hostel a few blocks from Piccadilly. For twenty dollars a night you got sweaty co-ed dorm accommodations, white toast & instant coffee for breakfast, showers spottily fitted with curtains. Once, in a fit of pseudo-bohemianism and seeking to achieve some kind of genuine hostel experience, I’d taken a shower without one.
Piccadilly had not changed much in the intervening year although I approached it now with the oblique attentiveness of a foreigner, no longer one of its very-short-term residents. The circus teemed with all manner of traffic on summer nights, and the luminous ads covering the cream-white walls of the Trocadero buildings made it brighter than day under the crown symbol where I would wait for the Alday sisters.
A British boy I had met in the residence hall told me Burger King was a British company. “What do you think the crown’s for?” he asked me.
Although I later discovered he was wrong—the first Burger King opened in Miami in 1954 and the chain didn’t reach London until the late nineteen-seventies— in London it seemed anyway ever so slightly up-market of McDonald’s. For one, the prices were higher at Burger King. I compared them pretty carefully because I was trying hard to cultivate a sense of value-consciousness. A Big Mac went for ?1.88, a Whopper ?2.79; a medium fries cost ?0.99 and ?1.19, respectively. What really sealed the deal for me, though, was the fact that the branch on Baker Street sold flame-grilled pineapple with yoghurt topping: one of those classy exoticisms absent from the menu of American fast food chains. You couldn’t get pineapple at McDonald’s.
When I arrived early to our Burger King, I would pass the time by reading menu posters and guessing the nationalities of passersby. Whoppers were “smothered in creamy mayonnaise,” and white shoes on a man were the surest sign of an Italian. Playing the nationality game in London never gets old because there, there are so many to choose from.
Just as you can play it, however, the game can play you, too. One day at the library where I was doing research, a security guard asked me if I were Romanian. I shook my head no and he proceeded to run through French, Italian, and Spanish before I quietly told him the truth. At the discotheques, I was often taken for Spanish, because of my companions and – I hoped – my dancing ability. The war in Iraq seemed to make it all the more imperative for me to conceal my nationality abroad. Whenever I stood under the red and orange crown in Piccadilly Circus, on the foyer of global capitalism à la mode américaine, I hoped I wasn’t given away by my height (5’9”) and by the fact that I was waiting outside a fast food restaurant.
It’s a British chain! I wanted to tell people. Before I found out that it wasn’t.
The sisters Alday were among the lucky that summer. After a few weeks of searching, they found employment at a McDonald’s near Victoria Station. At the residence hall, I’d met a lot of kids from the continent who had come to London for the summer hoping to find a job and learn a bit of English, only to be bled dry by the most expensive city in the world where a cheeseburger cost the equivalent of two American dollars and a night in the ramshackle dorm off Baker Street where I’d spent most of July, over forty. The Aldays hated their jobs at McDonald’s – who could blame them? – but at least it meant money that allowed them to stay longer, to speak English and to dance.
After one especially long evening that carried us from Burger King to a Spanish club to another Spanish bar that turned out closed, we wandered the streets in search of a place to eat. For a reason lost to me now in complicit fogs of sangria and tiredness, I had my heart set on getting McDonald’s.
My craving was a strangely unspecific one; on the way down Charing Cross Road I fantasized about golden arches but couldn’t decide whether to buy a cheeseburger or a McFlurry for myself. I simply wanted McDonald’s. (More than I wanted Burger King: McDonald’s cooks their burgers with onion and Burger King doesn’t, and I love the smoky sweetness of pan-fried onion. Just one of the minute yet critical distinctions which, branding matters aside, characterizes the fast-food business today. To paraphrase a famous Supreme Court opinion on how to tell pornography apart from its look-alikes: you know McDonald’s when you taste it.)
Happily, the Aldays obliged, even though I realized later that they probably could hardly stand the smell of the place. Maria knew of a branch open late just east of Trafalgar, so we walked south, passing a bunch of chicken-and-kebab joints on the way– including “American Fried Chicken”—without stopping. It was nearing four o’ clock when at last I bit into a Filet-O-Fish, made momentarily glad and proud to be an American by the rush of oily sourness that faded quickly from my palate.