We first ran this on June 1, 2009 and it continues to be one of my favorite pieces. As one reader said, I have never again looked at McDonald’s the same way. We thought we would pull it up again.
I can’t wait to leave this place. It’s 10:49 p.m. and all the chairs that aren’t bolted down are on the tables. An employee mops the same floor over and over. I lean out of my seat, my backpack heavy and my hands shaking from the internal battle of fatigue and caffeine as I listen to Lonestar’s “Amazed” on KOIT—96.5 FM— for at least the third time. The manager, keys in hand, is oh so close to performing the official closing ritual. Any minute now.
Suddenly the door opens and in walk two older Latino men and a hip-looking young kid with black-framed glasses and a dangling wallet chain. Seemingly oblivious to the scene around them, they order fries and an ice cream cone and sit down at a table. Normal, maybe, but this group already spent hours here earlier in the day. So had I.
It’s exactly 5:36 a.m. when I arrive with 77 minutes of sleep under my belt and my head still swirling from the several liters of craft beer I’d downed just a few hours before. A Chronicle delivery van sits parked in the darkness outside the door. Opening the doors, One Republic’s “Apologize” blares from the overhead speakers. It is going to be a long day.
Before 6 a.m. hits, the tables float, sort of like islands of solitude—or maybe that’s the beer talking. Most customers, myself included, have cups of coffee in hand, and a few read the morning paper.
The TV in the “Kids Zone” is set to Cartoon Network, which at this early hour still plays Adult Swim.
An old lady with slurred speech shuffles by, complaining to her partner about how she “almost got into a fistfight” at the counter over the dirty table they’re sitting at. Across the room, an old man sits and stares at nothing in particular. Kind of like me, I guess.
Me, I sit, confused by KOIT’s programming, which at this moment invites me to listen to “the Battle of the Michaels: Michael Jackson vs. Michael Bolton.”
At 6:40 a.m. a man in a black jacket and bandanna walks in carrying a bottle in a paper bag. For him, it’s either been a long night, or going to be a long day.
At some point, maybe somewhere between my first cup of coffee and the giant glass of sweet tea – around 8 a.m. – the restaurant begins to change. Somewhere in there, an old man comes in and sits down, and is joined by another.
And then another, and another.
Behind me, a group of five Latina women drinks coffee and eats cake they had brought in from outside. A group of viejitos sit by the Precita Eyes mural near the door. By 9:30 a.m, McDonald’s is loud and full. Three women, one with her daughter, look at cosmetics as they sip coffees and eat Oreos, Pringles and tamales. It’s clear that to many here, this isn’t the McDonald’s we know as the franchise that is killing all of us with trans fats, but the Mission District’s equivalent of the Zócalo, the town square in Latin America.
As the menu changes from breakfast to lunch and the room fills with the unmistakable smell of McDonald’s fries, it’s clear that I’m not the only one who has been here for more than a couple of hours.
“I come all the way from Oakland just to hang out here,” says Henry Mixco, who sits at a table drinking coffee and eating pan dulces with seven other Salvadorans. Mixco, 70, used to work in a steel factory, but is now retired and comes to the McDonald’s several times a week to meet with friends.
“It’s got space, and the manager is nice to us,” Manuel Garcia chimes in, referring to Luigi Mazariegos, the store’s manager who goes from table to table mingling with customers like a host in any popular restaurant. The Salvadoran retirees come from as far as Pittsburg and Concord to catch up with their friends of 20 or 30 years in their old Mission District stomping grounds.
“This is the best therapy,” Garcia, 64 and a retired long-haul truck driver, says, referring to the hours spent talking, eating and just passing the time.
A tall white man wearing a knit cap with ear flaps and a monkey graphic comes in anxiously hawking a book of McDonald’s coupons in exchange for a few bucks. He doesn’t seem to have any takers.
“This is a place for the community,” Mazariegos says of his restaurant. He lets most people stay all day, but tries to discourage homeless people and “cholos” from lingering too long.
In the early afternoon the place draws a younger crowd, such as the three high school students who sit down as the boy, who looks to be about 15, pulls a PowerAde bottle half-filled with brown liquor, out of his black jacket.
“Looks like Bacardi Gold!” the girl says as she sniffs the bottle.
“Yeeup,” the boy answers and tucks the bottle back into his jacket. A couple of seconds later the trio makes their exit.
“It’s pretty fun,” says Hayley Cabrera, who sits by a window with her friend Johana Espinoza. The two come about once a week just to hang out. Both were born and raised in the Mission and are students at Civic Center High School.
“It’s not that much of a difference,” between McDonald’s and a café, Cabrera says as the two gush over a puppy held by another group of girls at the next table.
The day goes by, slowly. I watch Mission life go by on the intersection of 24th and Mission. When I get bored with that, I watch the steady stream of people who walk in off the street to use the bathroom.
The groups of people shift throughout the day. A group of old Mexicans fill the corner table, a group of middle-aged Latinas occupy the back wall. By mid-afternoon, the group of Salvadorans has left and is replaced with another group. The mailman comes in, and out.
The monkey-hatted man comes around again, this time he’s ditched the coupon charade and just asks for change.
“You’re with your people, right?” says Jesus Garcia when I ask the inevitable question, “Why? Why McDonald’s?”
The large space and familiar community has kept him coming back with his friends every day after work for more than 20 years.
About 5:00 p.m. a group of four boys dressed in black hoodies and black pants sits down next to me. A few minutes later, an SFPD foot patrol officer walks in and meanders around the store before walking up to the boys.
You’re not welcome, he says, if you’re not going to order anything,
“Time to go,” he says. The four stand and shuffle out.
His work done, he walks outside and starts talking with one of the junkies on the corner, both of them laughing good naturedly.
Six Hours Left and Jamming
Two boys who’ve been hanging out at a nearby table walk across the room to talk to two girls. Perhaps Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl,” has given them confidence.
Meanwhile, I see monkey hat is making his rounds at the Chinese restaurant across the street.
Another hour and a half pass. Things are really slow and the restaurant is quiet and empty enough to hear clearly the buildup of REO Speedwagon’s “Keep On Loving You.” It helps to pass an easy few minutes.
One man sits hunched at a table, counting the change in his palm to see what he can afford. It’s a situation I’m all too familiar with.
At this point I think KOIT is mocking me. “A little light rock helps your day go by a little faster,” the announcer says before descending into the maddeningly slow tempo of “Red Red Wine.”
But wait. As KOIT finishes up Lonestar’s “Amazed,” I see signs of life from a 40-something woman sitting behind me. She’s jamming.
From Richard Marx to Bette Midler to (the Dixie Chicks cover, NOT the original) “Landslide” she dances and sings along.
“I love the energy in here, the people that work here are fantastic,” says Jacqui Clemon when I interrupt her. Her energy is the only thing giving me hope through the final stretch. It turns out, that her reasons for coming here are not unlike those of the retired men.
The manager lets her sit for hours, in her case to study and rock out.
“I don’t like cafes because they’re too small and crowded…and they’re loud,” says Clemon, who found La Boheme too noisy, and the library too quiet. McDonald’s, she says, is just right.
Clemon, a part time student, who at the moment is reviewing her paperwork before starting work as a Muni bus driver the next day, says she sometimes comes in at 12:30 or 1:00 p.m. and will study until closing, ordering a side salad and drinking tea.
Meanwhile the dining room continues to empty out and with only a handful of customers left the staff begin to put chairs up on the tables.
The Final Hour
It’s 10:00 p.m. and KOIT provides a moment of nostalgia, cuing up “Time of Your Life.” Maybe. In the last 16 hours, I’ve eaten one steak, egg and cheese bagel, a quarter-pounder value meal, a sweet tea and three large coffees. I toast my day with an Oreo McFlurry.
I’m expecting some sort of dramatic exit music from KOIT – “Don’t Stop Believing,” “Living on a Prayer” – something with lots of hair and rock that would do the epic day justice. But for KOIT it’s “Love Songs After Dark,” and what seems like an interminable commercial break.
Returning from break, “Amazed” plays for the third time. I guess that’s fitting enough.
My ears perk up as I hear the jingle of keys and I look up to see the night manager heading over to the door, at last performing the simple flick of the wrist that sets me free. I’m not the last one there – the father, son and friend sit eating their fries and ice cream. They aren’t going to be rushed.
I walk into the night, freed from the light rock confines of KOIT, and hear the Scorpions “Winds of Change” coming from the doorway of Carlos’s Bar across the way.
As I look over my shoulder, a middle-aged Latino man walks up to the doors and, finding them locked, turns and walks down the street.