If you want to symbolise human culture in one, simple object, look no further than those ordering screen thingies at McDonalds.
Now, I know all I’m about to say has already been said, which in itself is part of what the thing I’m trying to say, in like, the larger sense, is saying.
Bear with me.
So there’s three generations of humans on the planet right now. There’s the kid on the grandfather’s lap in the Werther’s Originals advert, the kindly grandfather handing over a sweet with a kindly smile, and the stressed-out parent off screen somewhere, having a meltdown as she fills in her tax return.
“Tax doesn’t have to be taxing.”
For the boomers, the McDonalds screens are one of the only recognisable things their sci-fi novelisations had prepared them for. “Isn’t it clever,” they say, as they press too-hard and too-long, accidentally ordering two meals at once, before kicking off big-style at the minimum-wage teenager with the out-of-focus stare behind the counter.
For the Gen-Zedders, the teenagers behind the counter, the screen is utterly adopted into their lifestyle. They flick through and order lightning fast, a momentary distraction from their Tik-Toks or their insta reels or…. God, it’s like they’ve never had to watch a yellowing Windows 95 era desktop pc defragment in front of them for 5 hours.
Here’s how it works for millennials. We may have invented the damn things, but for us, they symbolise our own impending mortality.
Picture the scene. You pull up in the McDonalds car-park and it’s dark outside. You’re not here for any good reason, you’ve probably had a shit day at work and you just want to claw out a small dose of serotonin for once but you can’t even fucking enjoy that because you’ll feel too guilty about the calories and you’ll make yourself sick when you get home anyway, before your partner gets home.
Then you brush your teeth and worry about the acid damage to your teeth, and then you make a start on dinner, and eat even more calories.
You aren’t sleeping well.
Right. But you’re here anyway, chasing the feeling you had when you were a child and everything was easier, so let’s go order.
You get out of your car and assess the situation. There’s some loud teenagers sitting outside on the brightly coloured benches, even though it’s bloody freezing. You’re pretty sure one girl is being fingered. You have a vague memory of doing something similar yourself, back when you were young and carefree, but now you’re thinking about water infections and why no-one is wearing a Big Coat.
You realise you feel old. Your feet ache.
You quickly scuttle past and through the two sets of automatic doors, wondering why they all have that pretend foyer area between them as you sort of dance around with an exiting builder, or lorry driver, or whatever.
He’s got a big belly and a blue polo shirt with a name on it like “Sanderson’s” but that doesn’t help.
“What do you actually do?” you want to ask. It bugs you. You can’t just stand there and watch him go back to his van, or lorry, and besides they never bloody say what they do on the side these days anyway. Just ‘solutions’.
You wish they had a solution for you.
Inside, a row of the McDonalds ordering screen thingies face you, leading to the counter with the teenager. This is where the meltdown starts.
If I use the screen thingy, that’s like giving in to capitalism, where bastard CEOs replace us all with robots, leaving us to… what? Sit around? You actually don’t mind the sound of that. You’re so tired. But the kid behind the counter, what about his wage, his life? Does he have a pension? When did you last look at yours? Will you have enough to retire on, now you’re halfway through your working life? You feel a thin film of perspiration emerge across your face. You remember reading they’re all covered in faeces.
But if you do decide to order through the teenager, everyone will know you don’t know how to use the screens, and you do know how to use the screens, you just don’t want to.
“Come on grandma,” you imagine the teenagers saying through the window. You glance over. They’re not looking at you. But they are.
“I’m not a grandma,” you say in an imaginary confrontation, “I’m a socialist.” They laugh and tell you to fuck off. You try to say something clever but something catches in your throat and you choke. They laugh harder. You collapse in a ball of pure agony, and wait for the tortured screams of the damned as the ground cracks open and you’re dragged to your deserved fate.
You use the McDonalds ordering screen thing after remembering you’d have to speak to an actual human, which is awful.
Right, here we go. Navigating the menu is easy. Almost as though a team of the best behavioural psychologists in the world worked on it. You don’t spot the dark patterns. Would you like to add a Toffee Latte for only 57p more? A large one? That comes as part of a deal if you bundle them into a deluxe meal.
Would you like whipped cream? Yeah, go on then. It’s only, what, a hundred calories? You decide to check. Fuck me, it’s like 600. That’s more than the burger.
Well it’s in the basket now. You panic. There’s an allotted time before you start to look like you don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t have time to remove it from the basket and add something else. Oh shit, it’s part of the meal, so you’ll have to start it all again, and you’d been clever and added an extra ‘patty’ (something you’d never ask an actual human being to do, but it’s acceptable when done through the McDonalds ordering screen thingy), and you’d made a deal with yourself to run an extra mile in the morning but you know you won’t.
So you rattle on and pay with your phone, making sure to tap it in a disinterested I Know What I’m Doing sort of way, and resist the urge to check if the fingering teenagers have noticed.
You don’t want to be accused of being a nonce.
After a short prayer the machine spits out a receipt, and you meander over to the Waiting Zone. You realise most McDonalds haven’t yet figured out what to do with the Waiting Zone problem. Most are just retooled versions of the old system where you used to queue. You remember queuing up with your mates back in the day, which was about a decade ago. No, fifteen years? Ugh.
There’s some delivery guys hanging about, their helmets somehow balanced on top of their heads, all staring glumly at their phones. One has pretty bad acne and has a streak of blood from his chin to his forehead where he’s pulled the helmet off. You want to tell him but you’re frozen in place.
You glance up at the screen and have a vague memory of waiting in Argos (or was it Index? What happened to Index?) with your mum around Christmas time, waiting for the lady to bring out a playhouse, or whatever. At least Argos has chairs while you wait. The blank space in front of the counter is like no man’s land, an empty area that no-one dares cross until the screen gives them permission.
The automatic doors open and you briefly hear the shrieks from the teenagers outside, and you dread having to walk past them again. You’re not going to eat inside, where everyone can see, obviously. You’re going outside to your car. You’ll sit with the windows open so it won’t smell afterwards, and you have a can of air freshener under your seat. Like you planned it. You planned to do this, and hide it. You’re hiding it from your partner.
Shame burns your cheeks.
You hate the word ‘partner’ anyway. But you can’t afford to get married. Not if you keep buying McDonalds.
A Nice Old Couple approaches the counter and jolts you and the delivery guys awake. They radiate a kind of warmth that crushes you. They’re holding hands. When was the last time you held hands? They’re fucking holding hands for the short walk past the McDonalds ordering screen thingies to the counter.
That must be what true love feels like.
The man speaks, ordering for his wife first, “She’ll have a Quarter Pounder and a Diet Coke, please.” Is it a large? “Go on then,” she says with a twinkle in her eye (you imagine as you stare at the back of her head).
He has a big mac and a full fat coke. She says she’ll grab a table, even though the restaurant (is it really a restaurant?) is mostly empty. She selects a table near the window, next to the teenagers. They don’t really notice. “I’m over here!” she calls, completely oblivious to everyone else who MUST be staring, like you. (They’re not).
Oh, to be self unaware. The guiltless freedom of being able to speak with a slightly raised voice.
You can’t imagine it.
He gives her a thumbs up and waits directly at the counter. Oh no. He doesn’t know the rules. You’ve got to stand back and wait awkwardly away from the counter. Everyone knows that. You’ve got to say something but then your number flashes up on screen.
Oh god. Oh Jesus no.
“Order number fifty three,” the teenager says. You turn, as though to run.
“I’ve got a quarter pounder, large diet coke,” the old man begins, but the teenager cuts him off, “I SAID ORDER FIFTY THREE.”
Oh my god, they’re the same. The old ones and the young ones. They don’t care, they’re loud, unaware of others. It’s just us, the anxiety-ridden dipshits in the middle who can’t even order a fucking burger and eat it like a normal person without taking fucking tablets to COPE.
Why can’t I be fingered on a bench and shout across restaurants that aren’t really restaurants?
“Is this yours, love?” the old man asks, gesturing at the crumpled brown paper bag. It is, you say, and somehow make it across no-man’s land and take it. The old man smiles and melts your heart. You dash out to your car and eat as your body sort of heaves in uncontrolled sobs. The coffee is good, though.
They forgot the extra ‘patty’. You don’t go back in. It’s been hard enough already. You drive home, hoping your body doesn’t absorb any calories before you manage to bring it all back up.
Those fucking screens, you think, as you kneel down to pray before the porcelain god. They made it too easy and ruined everything. They’re a promise that one day the evil overlords will automate your job, which you’re honestly looking forward to, but it’s too far away for you to enjoy.
Truly, we are the unluckiest generation. And yes I mean worse than the second world war lot. And the Charles Dickens workhouse children. At least they were making socks, or something, and not PowerPoint presentations.
You brush your teeth and make a start on dinner.