McCafé Culture

A couple of years ago, the McDonald’s down the street from where I live made the news for being inhospitable to a bunch of Korean seniors. Here’s the setup: on a rather nondescript stretch of Northern Boulevard, a group of elderly immigrants claimed McDonald’s as their hangout spot. They would buy a dollar cup of coffee and sit there for hours and take up the seats for other customers. One day the management finally had it with them and called the police to forcibly remove them from the restaurant.

The media had a field day with the headlines. “Queens McDonald’s Terrorized by Pack of Senior Citizens” — intentional absurdity, and I guess it was meant to highlight the unfair conflict between a giant corporation and a small group that presumably had nowhere else to go. The whole episode presented a very welcome sort of narrative, especially about an insular and mysterious enclave neighborhood like Flushing: strange but familiar, amusing but also empathetic. We’re not so different after all. We just want a place to hang out with our friends.

But the funny thing is that Flushing has plenty of retail establishments that would serve these seniors. It has bakeries and restaurants and food courts, with wooden chairs and tables lined with glass, or plastic tables bathed in fluorescence, or metal chairs that are freezing cold in the winter. They are good places with good food. Barebones, maybe, but cheap, and certainly not so much less attractive than McDonald’s. Because surely you can’t ignore the immutable, obvious fact here: McDonald’s is terrible. It sucks. Not even Korean seniors think otherwise.

The real story isn’t so much about why these elderly immigrants chose McDonald’s; it’s about why they didn’t choose all the other places that were open to them. What is it about the neighborhood that led them to do this? Because clearly their occupation wasn’t a protest against McDonald’s. It was a protest against Flushing.

Flushing is a big deal nowadays. The Main Street 7 is the busiest subway stop outside of Manhattan. Rents are high and construction is constant. Restaurants are very well reviewed on Yelp.

This is not a place for old people. For the elderly who’ve weathered great upheavals in their lifetime, who’ve come across the ocean to live with their children and take care of their grandchildren, Flushing is not the retirement they imagined. Yes, they can find the same food that they’re used to. Yes, the people here speak their language. But the familiarity of the faces around them and the written characters on the storefronts must make their experience all the stranger.

The other restaurants in my neighborhood serve great food, wonderfully spiced and colorfully presented and cheaply sold. But you eat quickly and you move on, because you have work to do or school to study for, and the food is cheap because each restaurant competes fiercely on price. And if you’ve lived here long enough, you remember the many more failed and shuttered storefronts along with the successes. The constant, unforgiving pressure to move upwards and outwards is hard to get used to. There’s no place to sit around and bask in the respect of the younger generations. There’s no time for idleness. So the seniors go to McDonald’s because McDonald’s is the least Flushing place in Flushing.

I’ve lingered around in that McDonald’s as well, and in the other small pockets of space that seem sheltered from the general movement of the neighborhood. A place like Flushing can be just as overbearing as the suburbs. And it causes a similar reaction too, as you’re sitting in McDonald’s, or as you’re wandering around after school with no place to hang out, wound up like a taut bowstring, or when you’re in the public library reading Hemingway and trying to imagine walking to a good, clean, well-lit café on the Boulevard St. Michel.

That’s the counterculture in a place like Flushing: a bunch of disgruntled seniors and maybe a few clichéd wannabe bohemians looking to get out as soon as possible.

Of course, the Korean Seniors vs. McDonald’s incident was a tiny moment frozen in time. Urban neighborhoods constantly change, almost as surely as people change.

This winter, I came back to find a spate of new coffee shops opening in the neighborhood. They are obviously meant for the young people here these days – half a generation younger than me, and two generations removed from the seniors at McDonald’s. They have wood paneling, warm lighting, soft jazz, reliable wi-fi, wooden basket chairs painted delicately white, and long, deep rooms that put you far away from the opening to the cold New York sidewalks. The patrons have disposable income and time to kill. There’s a girl sitting across from me wearing black and white and bright red sneakers and big Bose headphones.

Conditions are much more pleasant now. You can even write in these coffee shops, like Hemingway.

But it also makes you think that there is a café culture for every generation, no matter what the cafés actually look or feel like. There are the post-war Parisian cafés of painters, poets and winos. There’s the Flushing cafés of today, with its cute PG-13 pleasantness. But even in my day, half a generation ago, we had something too. We had McDonald’s, and cold streets, and the feeling that you had to get out, to fly upwards and outwards like an arrow shot from a taut bowstring.

And you realize that the bustling, uncomfortable bakeries and food courts, the pace of movement that made you antsy and always pushed you to move on – that was as purposeful and effective of a design decision as any. And it ended up mattering a lot more than the arrangements of the tables or the warmth of the lighting.

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