Dinkytown's McDonald's has finally closed, giving way to a proposed upscale apartment development, according to news reports. After 57 years of serving the local poor, the site at the corner of 4th Street and 15th Avenue is now going to serve the outsider rich.
Under the Dinkytown McDonalds' rubble lay some of my earliest American memories.
My first visit to the Dinkytown McDonald's was in the summer of 1977, as a young immigrant shaking off the dust of my memories of life in Egypt. My stomach still had some Egyptian food in it.
America was a new world of wonders — of new costumes, new language, new culture and new ways of eating.
I was working at an assembly plant in the Dinkytown area. The job required skills I hadn't developed in Egypt, using my hands. On the assembly line, you needed to be fast, focused on keeping up with the moving parts. My work at that plant resembled a famous scene from the Charlie Chaplin film "Modern Times."
One day, a group of workers went out for lunch and asked me if I wanted to tag along. I usually brought my own lunch from home. This was the first time I went hunting for American food.
A short walk through Dinkytown took you past a coffee shop, used book stores, a barbershop on the third floor above the Varsity Theater, a bank, a clothing store and a music store, all within your reach. Then came the bridge at the corner of 4th Street and 15th Avenue and a big red building with a golden arch in front.
It wasn't like any building I'd ever seen before — the shape, the size, the color. And the smell.
I'd never eaten at a McDonald's before, never even seen one. Never heard of one. There weren't any McDonald's in Egypt then.
Once inside, I got my first sniff of McDonald's French fries. I was hooked. The place was wide, clean, colorful. I thought it was an art gallery. Everyone stood waiting quietly in lines and politely ordered their food from a pictorial menu on the wall above an open kitchen where I recognized another assembly line, this one for making Big Macs.
I had only a few words of English at the time. But at McDonald's, you didn't need to speak English to eat.
McDonald's was the first place I learned about American democracy; it treats everyone equally. Everyone gets the same junk regardless of race, religion, age, nationality, social status or position. People from all walks of life — families, kids, business executives, blue-collar workers, homeless nomads, students, the elderly — all are the same at McDonald's. My supervisor was standing patiently behind me in line.
At McDonald's, food seems to arrive before you even finish your order. I thought that was magical.
"How can I help?" came the voice of a young server. I ordered a "Quarter Pounder," which I'd heard another customer in the line order. But "No cheese!" I shouted.
Arabs eat cheese fresh with cucumber and tomatoes, not with beef. Americans never leave well enough alone, adding caramel to my beautiful apple at the State Fair, an original sin, and chocolate to hummus at the supermarket, a gastronomical blasphemy.
The Dinkytown McDonald's was more than a place to eat. It was a refuge. I waited for the 6A bus there, took cover inside when it rained or snowed. It is where I had my first Happy Meal while I was depressed, enjoyed my first American cup of black coffee, worked on my homework as a student at the University of Minnesota, and went on my first cheap date. Now all these memories are buried under the rubble and the ruins.
There are almost 14,000 McDonald's in America; its impact on the nation's life and culture is palpable. McDonald's helped liberate the American housewife from the kitchen; American women now spend more time watching cooking shows than cooking. McDonald's helped take the reverence and fear out of dining in America. Kids don't ask what's for dinner anymore. People don't have to be home at dinner time. They just drive through the nearest McDonald's for a refill. It is the simplest decision an American makes all day.
Americans' affinity with McDonald's starts at an early age; when parents drive their kids to the nearest McDonald's. It is the safest place for families with obnoxious children. Children can't get hurt or break anything at McDonald's. No spoons or forks; plates and cups are all paper or plastic; tables and chairs are bolted in the floor.
The impact of McDonald's on life and culture is not limited to America. There are almost 40,000 McDonald's around the world. A few have sprouted all over Egypt, but they're a bit different. The French fries are bigger, and they offer Mcfalafel. A Quarter Pounder may cost almost the equivalent of a day's salary for an average Egyptian. Egyptians eat fast food slowly.
One day during the "Arab Spring" in 2011, I visited the McDonald's nearby Tahrir Square in Cairo. Protesters had gathered there to take a break from tear gas and police. A bearded man with dusty clothes walked inside and asked the manager if they had water for Wudu (praying wash).
"We don't have any water," the manager promptly replied. The bearded man walked away.
The manager then turned to me and said, "They [protesters] are destroying our business."
Cairo's McDonald's didn't serve any Happy Meals that day.
Ahmed Tharwat, host and producer of the local Arab American TV show "BelAhdan with Ahmed," writes for local and international publications. He blogs at Notes From America: www.Ahmediatv.com. Follow him on Twitter: @ahmediaTV.
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