How can I satisfy my appetite and need for pleasure without eating too much or spending more than £5 and feeling wasteful? I am on the Euston Road having an anxious debate about what to eat for lunch, giving each side of the argument more weight than it deserves. I have been trying not to eat too much recently, well, for a week or so, thinking of my wedding, it is natural that women want to lose weight for their wedding, they said, and the growth of my waistline during the most sedentary year of my life while trying to finish a piece of work that has been pushing me over the edge for a long time. I don’t know how much I care. Making packed lunches gives me a feeling of control that I link to the possibility of finishing my thesis after 5.5 years, 2 therapists, 4 supervisors, 1 terrible relationship, 1 much better one, 8 house moves, and months of audiobooks listened to alone every single moment of the day that I was not trying to write, from the opening of my eyes to their closing.
Obviously the packed lunches will not guarantee me finishing, but I am grasping at straws. I have been looking forward to this lunch, a brief lapse in my tupperware regime that really counts. I know how bad I am at meeting my own targets. I remember that McDonalds serves coffee and work out that I can get a meal with a coffee and thus avoid buying a coffee at the Library or elsewhere. I eat a McDonalds meal more or less every month or two. There are two McDonalds near King’s Cross and I go to the one opposite the station entrance, which I have not visited before. I note that it is a franchise, as a sign by the door indicates, and wonder how McDonalds enforce their cooking standards in franchised outlets and also, if all outlets were franchised (are they?) – how I can rely on McDonalds to deliver precisely the dosage of pleasure I seek at the moments I eat there. I admit I am mildly disturbed by the idea of the franchise.
I am in McDonalds to be alone with my lunch. I want the anonymity of a homogenous brand, the kind you read about. I do not want to be witnessed with a quarter pounder with cheese, fries, several sachets of barbecue sauce and ketchup. I reflect that the finishing date on my student card has passed (though my student status has not) and so I would not be able to acquire a free extra cheeseburger with my meal. I dismiss the thought of the extra burger, feeling shame, and at my long-passed expiration date. I have been made aware, despite the pleasure I feel in eating here (it rarely disappoints me, apart from occasions when the food is not hot enough), that I am making my body disgusting through my choice to consume sugar, fat, carbohydrates, cheap meat all at once, and god knows how many calories. I want it to be as private a pleasure as possible, so I feel dismayed when I notice a grey-haired woman smiling at me, trying to catch my eye as I queue to place my order. I try to assess her: she is quite slim, with messy hair, shoes in a pretty bad state of repair and she’s holding a coffee. She is hard to pinpoint. She has bought the coffee, a drink that McDonalds brands to suggest efficient, fun, modern people, the kind they want to attract. She hovers on the periphery of together and falling apart. Why is she trying to interact with me? Is she lonely? Is she mad? I am feeling so jumpy that I can’t deal with an unexpected intrusion into my lunch. Maybe I should smile back?
There are fewer and fewer places that people from the edges, by which I mean without money, can be in London. The family silver of public space, the most significant asset that councils have in their dusty coffers, has been sold and sold and sold. Now, many places that look public, like the squares around the new King’s Cross station, are in fact, privately owned, and subject to private rule, with private security guards and cameras. You can’t assemble in too large groups, or linger without raising suspicion of ~ malingering ~ or behave in a way that marks you as an outlier. Companies build anti-lingering elements into the architecture to discourage sitting where you might sit if you are on the edges of things: lying down, sleeping rough, or staying still where you might not spend money are activities made unpleasant. Surfaces that would once have been smooth have become uncomfortably ridged or spiked, corners of low walls have intermittent bumps so skateboarders cannot scoot along.
Where councils have shut down public toilets, McDonalds is implicitly in loco parentis. I have sheltered in the Brixton branch in the early hours of the morning, when I saw a man being mugged at my bus stop. I have spent many solitary lunches and dinners at the branch near UCL during my studies. There are not many places you can go for a nap or to study or to read a book. Ten years ago, when I often worked in a south London pub till late then went into Bloomsbury early for university classes, I was often so tired I would sleep for an hour or so in the Costa Coffee that was then in the basement of Waterstones on Gower Street. I was aware that sleeping in public is a shameful, fringe activity only marginally permitted by buying Costa Coffee’s overpriced sandwiches and the exotic-seeming cinnamon lattes that I’d not had before moving to London. I often see children and parents in McDonalds using it as a space for doing homework after school, someone recently told me that the Costa Coffee in Camberwell Green is full of kids nursing dwindling drinks, studying.
The grey-haired woman makes a comment to me as I collect my food and move away from the counter, but I don’t hear it. She seems intent on communicating. I do not want this. I am counting on the meal, consumed invisibly, to make me feel like I have more of a grip on things. To my horror, she follows me from the counter and sits next to me, trying to seem casual. I eat in a state of panic as she pretends to sip coffee, watching me. I am distraught that I have wasted my saved-up opportunity to enjoy this McMeal. She starts to talk to me again, pointing at my food, and I can’t work out what she was saying until I notice that there is a kind of detachable token, of the kind that can be collected, on my McDonalds coffee cup. She is asking me if she can have it, I give it to her. After that, she ceases watching me and I start watching her instead, relieved that my function has been fulfilled. She empties six or seven packets of sugar into her coffee and stirs it vigorously before drinking. I think about how disgusting it would be to drink coffee that sweet. But then the tokens, I realise, get you a free coffee if enough are collected. It dawns on me that she might be surviving on the calories she can fit into the coffee through free sugar sachets. I feel a change in perspective that feels like being punched in the gut. McDonalds, positioning itself anew as a coffee place, has copied the stamp-collecting loyalty cards of coffee shops like Starbucks and small ‘craft’ coffee places. I wonder how many cups she drinks each day, how long she has been collecting tokens, what she would do if they stopped handing them out. I think about our experiences of the fast food restaurant: I eat a burger as a measured indulgence in the media context of shame around cheap fast food and demonised food groups, and she drinks sugary coffee to survive, taking in as many calories as possible while maintaining a sense of precarious comfort and belonging in an accidental economy of unclaimed tokens and sugar sachets that have become like rations vouchers.