Clark Street, Chicago: Rock N Roll McDonald’s

There are two Chicagos. There’s “Chi-raq” – gang-ridden, poor, with a murder or two about every other day. Then there’s “the Loop” and the Gold Coast, glitter in the morning sun, a mecca of skyscrapers and high rises, wealth and influence.

Nowhere else in America is the contrast between the haves and have-nots so stark.

Hell, I’d say Chicago is the most American city in the United States. Turn on WGN or WLS in the morning and you never know if it’ll be another story about a murder, or if the anchors are gonna pimp a flashy sports car on air. It’s our everyday life on steroids.

If you still doubt Chicago’s pure Americanness, did you know that McDonald’s is headquartered there? OK, OK, technically the HQ is located in a suburb of the city, but that’s close enough. McDonald’s even has a restaurant that doubles as a museum of sorts in Chicago on Clark Street, the former “Rock N Roll” McDonald’s immortalized by Wesley Willis. It takes up an entire city block and is surrounded by a seven floor Sports Authority, a Hard Rock Cafe and a Rainforest Cafe.

It left me speechless.

Really, McDonald’s in general is just tough to sum up. You want to hate it, to mock the Frankenfood and conformity. But truth is, we all have a soft spot for McDonald’s. They bought your allegiance at a early age with the Happy Meal toys, stuck their tendrils into your adolescent brain and injected it with addictive, mind-altering doses of sugar and fat.  They hook you early and keep you for life.

I think that’s what makes McDonald’s little museum on Clark so unsettling. It’s ostensibly a celebration of your childhood, which is a great thing. And there’s Ronald McDonald, frozen in carbonite like Han Solo at the end of Empire Strikes Back, welcoming to his McDonald’s fun house. What could go wrong? The promise is good times in Chicago, a trip down memory lane, a Big Mac served with a side of your childhood dreams.

But something is amiss.

The “museum” – if you can call it that – is located on the second floor. Take the escalator up and you’ll find it hidden behind the jazzed up McCafé hawking biscotti, gelato, and tiramisu. It’s a long, mysterious, serpentine hallway, with dated, tinny hits from the ’50s through the ’90s echoing off the walls, calling – no, beckoning to your subconscious,  whispering, You’re home. Relax. Welcome to the pop culture Valhalla. 

Display cases jam-packed with kitsch memorabilia from each decade drip with the thick, sickly syrup of nostalgia  (ed. note: not sure if they added an ’00s display yet) . Go-go boots, Lincoln Logs, a Tickle Me Elmo, a Cabbage Patch Kid… the very artifacts that once filled our world with wonder and drained our parents wallets. It’s supposed to make you point, to ooh and ah and ogle. Yet amassed here, cracking, peeling, and faded, it all looks so trivial, like it was all a big joke.

From afar, all is well. But don’t look too long or too close.

Was this our childhood, a meaningless collection plastic and cardboard, a series transient cathode rays emanating from an unfeeling tube? Was it all so flimsy, ephemeral and broken from the start? Exposed as a fraud under the hot glare of McDonald’s studio lighting, maybe those Pogs weren’t so cool after all. Maybe, maybe… it was really…

Fake. Fake, fake, fake.

This, my friends, is America, here in the most American city of all: Chicago. Take it for what you will.

Back outside, in a glass-enclosed box in the McDonald’s parking lot, statues of Reggie and Bettie from Archie are posed inside a candy apple red convertible. They’re staring straight at the bum across the street, eyes wide, smiling ear to ear.

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One thought on “Clark Street, Chicago: Rock N Roll McDonald’s

  1. My buddy used to live right by that McDonald’s. He said it’s where R-Kelly got into the trouble with that. . .well, who cares about that anymore?

    Most major cities have similar income gaps and extremes, with the middle continuing to erode. I do agree that it seems more pronounced in Chicago and New York, the countries two largest financial hubs.

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