Riding into work today I passed a red billboard with yellow type that said, “I start my day at $1.” It was for McDonald’s dollar menu. I thought about how clever the copywriter thought this line was, and how it was applauded by her Creative Director. Then I thought about the ad agency where they work and how happy they must be to have the McDonald’s account. I thought about how much effort must have gone into their pitch to the world-famous brand. And how hard they partied when they were awarded the business. And for what? Status? Security? We don’t give a damn how we use our talents. We only care about winning the account. And impressing our colleagues. And having a paycheck. We’ll sell whatever the hell you pay us to sell – manipulating how people think about things by employing consistent messaging in strategic locations. “For just one dollar you can buy a hamburger that was processed in a massive assembly line far away where the cows were marched into butcheries and their parts ground together and pressed into thin patties and frozen before being trucked across the country to be cooked by a pimply faced kid with brown pants and served to you through a window of a building where everyone in line is choking on exhaust fumes.” We don’t care that we’re literally poisoning people with our words and pictures. Fuck the outcome of our work. Profit is all that matters – not some fat kid’s arteries that are hardening with every french fry he fits into his face.
Capitalism is America. America is beautiful.
I had to visit Wal-Mart last night because A) it’s cheap, B) it’s convenient, and C) I needed toothpaste, pancake mix, and Drano. I thought about how every time I spend money in Wal-Mart I am funding the Chinese military. About how the only way we can pay five bucks for a twenty pound bag of Fruity Pebbles is because of the buying power of a company with a massive logistical infrastructure. About how the public relations spin for justifying ripping down trees to lay concrete is because it puts people to work. People who look a lot like zombies in the soft glow of fluorescent lights that hang from twenty-foot ceilings. People who take public transportation to work, make eight bucks an hour, and have to shop where they work because that’s all they can afford. People who are oblivious to the system and who have given up on anything except being part of the machine until the day they die; grateful for living in a country with big guns and bigger oceans that insulate them from the dangers of the real world. People not named Walton.
I went to a chicken shack last week for lunch. While I was waiting for my meal, a well-dressed black man his sixties arrived with a woman who looked like she was his mother. He ordered his lunch and his bill came to $8.53. He used a credit card. It was denied. His mother told him to use a different card. He did. Upon running the second card, the guy behind the counter leaned over and said, “It says it’s only approved for $6.50, Pop.”
“Oh that’s about right, I guess.” said the man, who went into his wallet and fished out his last dollar. The mother opened her coin purse for the balance. They received their food, smiled, and said goodbye. There was no embarrassment in them. No skulking away in shame. They proudly did what they had to do. Who knows what kinds of events caused their financial situation. But he was clearly used to having to dance around credit card balances and low-budget scenarios. And this made me angry. It made me angry because it’s ok. It’s ok that this man, who should be enjoying the twilight of his life, had to be creative about how to pay for his half-dark order of chicken. And probably has to do it daily. Maybe he didn’t see the McDonald’s billboard? Or maybe he did, but knows damn well that those appeals are created by slick white men who push poison and drive BMW’s.
Last night after Wal-Mart, my 11-year-old daughter said to me, “Daddy, our Spanish teacher told us that speaking a second language can mean a better college, and a better job, and more money!” I try hard to protect my children from the harsh reality of life in America. The never-ending chase for money. The hope that when we jump on the treadmill alongside everyone else that we’ll get a spot closer to the air conditioning vent. What about how speaking another language helps bridge cultures and create more empathy? Not sexy enough.
Not in America.