Go with a smile!

Friday, January 07, 2011

McDonald's and US Interstates

When I was in JC, they closed down one of the coffee shops in the block near the MRT. They replaced it with a McDonald’s.

I think that was one of the earlier McDonald’s that wasn’t in a town centre. I was like, “What? They’re raiding the coffee shops as well!”

It was 10 years later that I actually went into that McD’s for the first time. One of my earliest sojourns inside, it was my one date with Water Girl where she contrived to make me wait for more than 30 mins. But I started noticing that it’s quite a homely place.

And I think this is something that I picked up while in uni. I just felt like I wanted to have some place to park my ass and take in 2-3 hours of reading. I think I got that good feeling about doing that because it used to mean that I would be making progress on my books instead of waiting nervously for deadlines to come and eat me up. It satisfied my ideal of having an ever-expanding brain.

I discovered the McD’s at off-peak hours are excellent for this kind of activity.

I used to really enjoy this mode of activity, and I would indulge in it every weekend. I could tell myself that I was doing things I wanted to do in life and was good for me (up to a point, it was not wrong, but I’ve reached that point quite some time ago).

When McD’s became a 24 hour joint, it was even better. I would pop down there at 2 in the morning, have either half or the whole place to myself, and polish off maybe another 50 pages. I remember doing that every week at one point. Driving to a different 24 hour place and parking your ass there for 2-3 hours.

I remember that there used to be problems with vagrants. You would have a few old and haggard people just sitting in that place. I’m guessing it’s not often that they enjoy an air-conditioned, clean and green place. Some crazy old woman would just look around for unused napkins left behind by diners, and collect as many as she could. Another would just snore there for hours. There was this drunk guy who was sweet talking a middle aged woman with very low self-esteem. Eventually they were tired of calling the police so often, and instead they would close the Al Fresco section right before midnight. That way they would eject any trouble-maker from the inside and he couldn’t continue to hang out at the outdoors section.

There were some older McD’s, and they harked back to a time when McD’s was considered “high class” food (not anymore) and their restaurants were either very spacious, or comfortable. I think during the 80s it was actually fashionable to dress up like a punk and hang out there. They renovated quite a few McD’s restaurants and changed the dominant colour to orange so that it looks like a warmer place.

There were a few McD’s which were not changed. One of those was in the Toa Payoh Cinema. Another in Clementi central. A third in Bukit Merah central. All 3 have since closed down for various reasons. But the Bukit Merah central one was my favourite for a long time because it was so damn spacious.

They did a good job of making McD’s into a homely environment – that is, during the hours that it wasn’t positively crawling with people. It wasn’t such a bad thing that McD’s were replacing a few kopitiams. They couldn’t replace all the kopitiams, for one, and even many of the kopitiams and hawker centres, with the easy-to-clean formica tops and heavy plastic chairs were beginning to resemble the McD’s a little more. McD’s has infiltrated the HDB landscape because it managed to fit in so well.

It used to be a favourite activity for me: a café, an ice cream parlour, a McD’s or a bus. Sit down and read. Few hours (and I partially kidded myself those were productive hours) pass. Even a kopi-tiam, when an EPL match is going on. On my 30th birthday, I went to the Coffee Bean in front of Borders, ordered an all-day breakfast, and read there for an hour. That was my idea of fun. It was what fun was in my 20s.

It’s just as well that the Coffee Bean is gone. (Now replaced by a Coffee Club). When things are gone, it just means to me that a big mode of living is gone as well.

Even during that trans-continent road trip with my sis 2 years back – I would be staying in Motel 6s across the country because they were one of the cheapest and yet reliable places. Those places were rest stops on the great highway. There would sometimes be a 24 hour eatery nearby so that you could go and clog up your arteries at any given time of the day. Sometimes in the middle of the night I would sneak out and go read a book there for an hour. Not surprisingly this was during the high tide of my café era. It’s usually a bad decision to stay up because driving the next day would be a little more woozy and dangerous, so I only did that twice. But it does occur to me that those places are rest stops on the great highway of life.

And sometimes I wonder – when you’re travelling, 75% of the time you’re seeing the road. There’s nothing really beautiful or meaningful about roads. You just go through them to get from point A to point B. The boredom and tedium gradually breaks your spirit. At the end of the day, when you asked yourself, “did you enjoy the ride?” the answer is usually “ho hum”. Creature comforts only make the unbearable less so.

So when I think back upon that year of the end of 4 roads, I wonder, am I treating life as though it were some long road, some meaningless midpoint between point A (birth) and point B (death)?


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