Shangri La Dee Da
When the Ribheads force permanent menu status upon the McRib Sandwich, there will be one more collapsed rampart in the inevitable procession toward Baudrillard’s Simulacra. The sandwich’s ubiquity will be its downfall. Such is our postmodern condition.
—Msgr. Andres Bolaño, PhD. From: “Boneless Pork Though the Looking Glass: Our McRibs, Our McSelves”
Over the hills are candy mountains, far away kingdoms bricked in gold.
Ignore them Shangri La dee das and stay upon the road.
There’s hog and hickory in this here life. Don’t worry ’bout the next.
A sparerib for your chalice. This, your earthly quest.
—Hobo road song
122 North Seneca Street
Opening day. A few locals in line, but mostly Ribheads. California Dave and Army Steve trade stories from the road. “You hear about that unsanctioned sell-off in Delaware?” Army Steve asks.
California Dave flashes that grin of his and nods. “I hear it was sublime,” he says. “Some manager found a stash in the back of a freezer. Went off the reservation and sold them at a 500% markup. But people came, man.”
“They always do, brother,” Army Steve says, and they high-five.
A retired Minneapolis couple new to the circuit chat up a kid working the register. The husband checks his watch a few times. “We’re still on Central Time, right son?” the old man says. He’s getting antsy. He’s got The Fever. You see that in people new to the scene. The old man checks his watch again. I look at mine. 10:26. Four more minutes until they begin serving lunch. He’s sweating. I’m getting a little flushed myself as those first steamy waves of onion and hickory waft up from the grill.
1212 North Avenue
Grand Junction, CO
Anyone on the circuit will tell you it’s better to go inside than hit the drive-thru for big orders. You talk into the speaker and ask for three dozen McRibs and you get some confused kid asking: “So you want, like, three Number 12’s?” I’m surprised management doesn’t train them for situations like this. There’ve been Ribheads since the original “trial period” began in 1981.
I run into Benson at the condiment station. He’s hard to miss, dressed in that cheap black suit like a circuit preacher, like a travelling salesman. His spit-polished Brogans look narrow. Probably 8Bs. He digs a wad of napkins from the dispenser. Counts out seven for himself like he’s dealing poker, then clicks open his briefcase and stashes the extras. He looks over the little assembly line I’ve got going; I’m loading up four Styrofoam coolers, the kind fishermen and organ donation couriers use, careful not to overpack and compromise the structural integrity of the McRib. “Save some for the rest of us,” Benson says. “Think of all the starving kids in Indiana.”
“Good one,” I tell Benson without looking up from my work. Benson’s moved on to a corner booth by the time I finish packing.
He’s another one who refuses to hit the drive-thru. “Drive-up windows are for Tourists,” he likes to say. Tourists are part-time Ribheads, day trippers who stick to a 200-mile radius from home. Benson claims they’re almost as bad as the Freerangers, those folks who wait for the McRib to come to them like it’s some kind of revelation. It’s not just that Benson refuses the drive-thru. He’s anti-freezing, anti-hoarding too. When it comes to The Life, the man’s an ascetic. He travels the circuit as thoroughly as any of us, but always dines in. Never orders more than two McRibs at any one location. And when he eats, it’s off his own plate, McRib cut in half with his own silverware. That’s what he keeps in the briefcase along with notes for his Ribhead newsletter, High on the Hog.
5700 Yellowstone Road.
There are more couples on the circuit than you’d think. Plenty hook up on the road. Some find each other on the internet. I even checked out a dating site called Adam’s Missing McRib. But I’m not ready for all that yet. Back home I’d been working up the nerve to ask Becky out on a second date. But that was before the fire at the shoe store. A lot of these Ribheads hook up in the midst of McRib highs. Some give up relationships back home for the convenience, the decadence of making love to someone who smells like a McRib too. You see them on the circuit hanging on each other like high school kids. “Unprofessional,” Benson says. “They groom like apes dipped in barbecue sauce. They give us a bad name.”
Maybe it’s because I saw Benson in Colorado that I choose to dine in at this place in Cheyenne. He’s got me thinking about aesthetics. It’s half past noon on a Saturday. I don’t see anyone from the circuit, though the place is packed. Old-timers, families, gangs of teenagers. There’s no tables or booths available in the dining area, so I’m forced to grab a seat out in the McPlayland. Two birthday parties are going on. Moms and dads chase down sugared-up kiddies. An employee’s dressed as Ronald. A few kids keep asking for Grimace.
I’m three bites into my second McRib when a little girl runs up to me. “I’m five,” she tells me.
“Good for you,” I say. And I mean it. I’m not sure if I want kids. Maybe someday.
“What’s a Grimace?” she asks. The inside of my sandwich is gray. Not enough barbecue sauce on this one. There’s something porcelain white—a bone chip, maybe a bit of tendon—poking out from the meat. I show the girl the sandwich.
“Do you know what a McRib is?” I ask.
We stare at my half-eaten sandwich. “Chicken nuggets are better,” she says.
7717 Dodge Street.
That first bite should be measured. Made with front teeth ripping into the baguette-style bun. In a perfect world the 0.25 ounces of onions and the two pickle slices would be evenly distributed across the plane of the McRib. The tangy barbecue sauce would provide a stable bed to support and anchor the steaming vegetables. A little sauce would form a tear-shaped droplet on the one corner of the McRib overhanging its bun.
If there was a capital for the McRib, it would be Omaha. McRibs always taste better here. The onions a little crisper. The barbecue sauce a bit tangier. Pork more finely molded. This is where the McRib was introduced—a limited test run in the autumn of ’81. Funny thing is, it’s technically still being tested. Never once made a permanent menu item. Every few months we hear whispers that Corporate intends to pull the plug on the McRib experiment. Marketing ploy, the more cynical among us claim. Of course it’s a ploy, the Freerangers say. These supposed missals from HQ, from the mouth of the big clown himself, send many of us into a panic. Whatever tendency leads one to give up a job, family, and friends to follow the McRib across the nation makes us more susceptible to rumors. Maybe we need to believe them. Maybe we crave that urgency.
3275 East Euclid Avenue.
Des Moines, IA
There’s a No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service sign on the door. I haven’t seen one of those in years. We had a version of that sign on the wall at work. No Shoes? We can help, it read. I was a salesman in my old life. I managed Saginaw, Illinois’ oldest shoe store, Van Leer’s Bootery. I sold 300-dollar rock-climbing shoes to yuppie couples who’d never gone before but saw the climbing wall at their health club and thought it could be fun. I sold 200-dollar sandals made from the treads of blown-out 18-wheeler tires to hipsters. Sandals the hipsters just had to have because they were “trucker chic” and “up-cycled.”
The owners, great-great grandchildren of the guy who founded the place, had just opened their second store out by the mall when the downtown store burned to the ground. They let me go with a half-a-year’s severance. Told me they’d manage the new store themselves until the insurance paid off.
Sometimes you’ll get a McRib that hasn’t been molded correctly. They kind of look like misshapen feet. A children’s 10, maybe an adult 4. Something average in width. That’s how I’d go if I were fitting a McRib.
551 Jefferson Avenue.
St. Paul, MN
I wouldn’t mind living someplace like this. The people talk funny, but they’re neighborly. Maybe I could meet a local girl. Maybe I could get that second date with Becky and one thing would lead to another and we’d move here. We could have that Minneapolis couple from the circuit over for supper.
There are a few Freerangers camped in the parking lot. They’re holding signs. ABSENCE MAKES THE HEART GROW FOND. MCMODERATION: I’M LOVIN IT! MCRIBS COME TO THOSE WHO WAIT. They wave to Ribheads leaving the restaurant, talk to us, hand out literature. They’re not rude. We all care about the same thing after all. A Freerange woman in tie-dye offers me a pamphlet. She smiles when I accept her literature.
“Pork is beautiful,” she says.
“Pork is bountiful,” I say.
It’s a lovely day. Mild autumn weather by local standards. Too nice to dine in another McDonald’s, so I walk across the street. I sit at a bus stop in front of a twenty-foot mockup of a Grain Belt Lager bottle. It bills itself “The Friendly Beer.” I unwrap my McRib and bite into my sandwich. It’s had just enough time to cool. I suppose this is blasphemy, but I enjoy a cooled McRib. You can’t beat the smell of a McRib hot off the grill, but there’s something to be said for one that’s sat a while. There’s a perfect state when the sauce cools to a gummy consistency. Purists like Benson argue it needs to be eaten hot off the grill. Every Ribhead knows those controversial lines from High on the Hog #27. The editorial page, The Benson Burner, opens with: “Scalding sauce and blisters on the roof of the mouth be damned! Suffer for your art.” Of course that caused a stir. None of us want to suffer. Isn’t that the point of all this?
There are no cars on the street. No one else at the bus stop. I enjoy my McRib in silence and look over the pamphlet the Freerange woman gave me. It’s an excerpt from an essay by DePaul University ethics professor and leading Freerange thinker, Monsignor Andres Bolaño. The title of the essay is “The Commodification of Scarcity: The Golden Chalice of the Golden Arches.”
“Under the current system,” he writes, “we have no agency. The man and woman on the street do not make choices. Likes and interests are dictated from the mouth of a clown. We bow before Golden Arches. We chase a fantasy from one horizon to the next. What is precious about the McRib? Is it the delicacy’s manufactured scarcity? Or is it the manufactured delicacy itself? While there is no denying that absence makes the heart grow fond, there must be something more than scarcity. Is there joy in the endless pursuit? I cannot answer this, for I await the McRib. It comes to me when it chooses. There is joy in uncertainty. Knowing this may be the last bite, I surrender to the act of consumption.”
7530 Pershing Boulevard.
The setting sun over the Kenosha skyline is a dream. Sun dogs, luminous crescents, chase the fading light. There’s a chill in the air. Winter will set in soon. The McRib will disappear from these parts. Guys like Benson and California Dave will travel south. Dixie loves its winter barbecued boneless pork. I don’t know if I’ll move on.
Becky and I went out for coffee on our first date. Coffees instead of beers because I knew she was nineteen, even though she claimed to be twenty-three. I was the one who hired her. I saw her paperwork. Some people used to think “sleaze ball” if you told them you worked in a shoe store. As if all those old-time shoe jockeys got off on touching women’s feet. It used to be a profession right up there with ambulance chasers and used car salesmen. But at least it was a profession. Today there’s no Buster Browns, no Kinney. When people hear “shoe salesman” they think of high school kids working part-time at Shoe Carnival or Foot Locker. How many of those kids would even know what a Brannock Device is, let alone know how to use one? Left Heel. Right Heel. “How can someone fit both feet in at the same time? People’s legs don’t move that way, dude.”
I hired Becky on the spot. She wasn’t even looking for a job. I was fitting her for some running shoes. She has low arches, so I was looking to get her in a pair of New Balance. She wanted something a little trendier.
There’s a pay-phone past the restrooms. I don’t see many of them on the road anymore. Certainly not in McDonald’s. I don’t pay bills these days, so my phone service was shut off not long after I hit the road. I plunk quarters into the phone, keep plunking them in until the recorded voice stops asking for more.
Becky picks up on the third ring. When I ask her how she’s been, she tells me she’s working at Applebee’s, tells me her speech class at the community college is a blow-off. I tell her about the McRib stuff. She jokes about me being responsible for the fire in the store, mentions that there’s a McDonald’s going up in its place now.
“Applebee’s has something on the menu called Riblets,” she says. “You should stop by sometime and try them.”
“They’re nothing like McRibs. There’s bones,” I tell her. It’s the last thing I say before I run out of quarters.
600 N. Clark Street
The “Rock and Roll” McDonald’s
Though I’m a dedicated Ribhead, some days, like this one, eating my 312th sandwich of the season, visiting my 75th McDonald’s, the same meal, different town, I think Monsignor Bolaño may just be on to something. Of course he’s leading a rally against Ribheads at this McDonald’s. This packed restaurant in his home town is the perfect venue to make a statement. He’s a handsome man. Tall, broad shouldered. Thick hair and white teeth. Sad, Latin eyes.
There are all kinds of tourists here, actual tourists this time, not McRib noobs. Busloads of wide-eyed farmers who couldn’t get a table at the Hard Rock or Ed Debevic’s settle on McDonald’s. It’s a sorry scene. Panhandlers hit the drive-thru hard, hoping to cash in on some soft-hearted Hoosiers in town to catch a Cubs game and a dolphin show at the Shedd.
Army Steve’s doing some sleight-of-hand, pulling a quarter from a little girl’s ear. She’s with the retirees from Minneapolis. I hear “grandchild” and “fall break” in that Minnesota dialect when I approach them. Army Steve says something about moving on to Delaware. “You heard about the deal they got going on there?” he says. “I never been there, but I’ll make it. Delaware, man. California Dave’s out there now.”
Army Steve tosses the quarter to the little girl and waves to me. “Good to see you, brother,” he says. He picks me up off the ground in a bear hug. It’s when I’m in the air, my body contorted around Army Steve’s paunch, my cheek nestled against his barbecue-slathered beard, that I realize, beyond the random high-five or occasional handshake, this is the first time I’ve been touched by another person since, since I don’t know when.
On the way to my car, arms loaded with another score of sandwiches, Monsignor Bolaño approaches me. “Delaware is a dream. Delaware doesn’t exist,” he says.
I stop. Stare at him.
“I heard your colleague speaking of treasure there. Have you ever been to that state?” he asks.
I shake my head no.
“Have you ever met someone from Delaware?”
I tell him no.
“That’s because Delaware doesn’t exist, son.” The Monsignor smiles, pats me on the shoulder.
2025 Foothill Road
I linger in the parking lot for a good twenty minutes. I don’t know if Becky’s working this evening. Part of me hopes she isn’t. There are three rundown bungalows across the street. Two are abandoned, windows boarded up with plywood. The third’s occupied. All three are forgotten on this busy stretch of road, sandwiched between a car-parts store and a strip mall. In the shabby front yard of the occupied bungalow a man flips hamburgers on his Weber. Four little kids play tag around a pickup truck parked in the driveway. I cross the busy road at a measured pace and approach them.
The burgers are burning, but it’s a good smell. Something different. I ask the man if I can borrow his telephone. I offer a wrinkled dollar. “Local call,” I say and point across the street to Applebee’s. He presses the patties with his spatula. Grease drips on the glowing coals. “Yeah, man. We got that,” he says. He takes my dollar, crams it in the front pocket of his jeans. “Johnny, go bring me the phone,” he tells one of the children playing tag.
While we wait for the boy, the man plates the burgers. White buns soak up grease from the carbonized meat. He offers me one.
“C’mon,” he says. “It’s on the house.”
I run my tongue over a piece of McRib that’s been stuck between my teeth all day. I grab the burger with two hands. Hold it just below my nose. There’s no scent of barbeque sauce, no aroma of steamed onion. Only the smell of the flame and the meat. I inhale deeply and bite through the charred surface into the rare center.
The man watches me eat. “Good, ain’t it?” he asks.
The kids in the driveway have ended their game of tag. One of them spins a glow-in-the-dark necklace around her finger, then tosses it high in the air. The other children follow its arc and raise their arms in anticipation.
“Yeah,” I say. “It is.”
Originally published in Malahat Review