Easy Chair — From the November 2013 issue

Home of the Whopper

Let me tell you about this one stretch of Hillsborough Road in Durham, North Carolina. It’s between two freeways, just a short drive from the noble towers of Duke University, and in the space of about a mile, you will find a McDonald’s, a Cracker Barrel, a Wendy’s, a Chick-fil-A, an Arby’s, a Waffle House, a Bojangles’, a Biscuitville, a Subway, a Taco Bell, and a KFC. As you walk down this roaring thoroughfare, you’ll notice that the ground is littered with napkins and bright yellow paper cups. But then again, you aren’t really supposed to be walking along this portion of Hillsborough Road and noticing things like those cups, or that abandoned concrete pedestal for some vanished logo, or the empty Aristocrat Vodka bottle hidden behind that broken Motel 6 sign. This is a landscape meant to be viewed through a windshield and with the stereo turned up. In fact, drivers here sometimes seem bewildered by the very presence of pedestrians, which may be the reason I was almost run down twice.

But it wasn’t a car that struck me on Hillsborough Road, it was a vision: a spontaneous understanding of fast-food efficiency. I was gazing on a simple yellow structure that contained the workings of a Waffle House when it came to me — the meaning of this whole panorama of chain restaurants. The modular construction, the application of assembly-line techniques to food service, the twin-basket fryers and bulk condiment dispensers, even the clever plastic lids on the coffee cups, with their fold-back sip tabs: these were all triumphs of human ingenuity. You had to admire them. And yet that intense, concentrated efficiency also demanded a fantastic wastefulness elsewhere — of fuel, of air-conditioning, of land, of landfill. Inside the box was a masterpiece of industrial engineering; outside the box were things and people that existed merely to be used up.

I tried to imagine the great national efforts that had made such lunatic efficiency possible. There were the agricultural subsidies and the irrigation projects and the many highway-construction programs, not to mention the mass media, without which our greatest brands could probably never have been built. Had all these mighty enterprises been undertaken simply to create the amazing but utterly typical landscape of Hillsborough Road? To ensure that certain parties might make tons of money while others made almost nothing at all?

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  • Bern

    Isn’t this a bit hypocritical when Harper’s pays its interns nothing?

    • Bullocks

      It’s a form of national service, the economic boot camp that has replaced the two years our fathers had to give to the armed forces

    • magicalcorn

      It’s easy to point out hypocrisy among the media, but the biggest problem is when that hypocrisy is in government.

      See Nancy Pelosi stuttering and trying to justify politicians not having to pay the minimum wage while businesses have to.


    • Dick

      That’s why interns got to get themselves a union — clearly, bosses of all stripes never care about workers, and the only thing that’s ever made a job worth our time is organizing for power.

  • katya21

    Catch the last installment of L-I-V-E Book ‘Furtive Desires’. Spying on her professor’s most intimate of moments was her guilty pleasure… Read at more at thegreaterbooks

  • Adam Mal

    This isn’t a very sharp article. It just kind of meanders and muses, with nothing really said. Ending with an odd prediction of the future…why write this other than to justify your trip?

  • InklingBooks

    Quote: “… organizer of weekly protests against the far-right state legislature…”

    At that point I stopped reading. This Thomas Frank apparently lives in a strange world where anyone a bit more conservative that Bill Clinton is a member of a spooky, scary “far right.”

    Week by week, I’m being forced to conclude that the current editors at Harpers do nothing to inject sanity into their authors musings.

    And, as another poster notes, the $7.25 minimum wage is $7.25 more than Harpers pays its interns. The next time we raise that minimum wage, perhaps we should ban unpaid internships.

  • DwightPowder

    wtf wrong wit robots working in fast food u all going to stop driving ur damn cars because a robote mad e it too? gtfoh

  • ExquisiteNoise

    This robot hysteria is a bit misplaced in my opinion. Here’s an analogy for you: let’s say 10 people lived on an island and it took all 10 of them fishing all day with poles to catch enough to live on. Then someone invented a net and that one person could catch the same amount by himself. Wouldn’t you call this progress? Or would you whine that 9 people are now out of jobs?

  • MD Mamun Alam


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