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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