On the dockside in Boston I spotted Fia’s Seafood – they were offering “twin lobsters” for $28.95; I ventured in and asked if the lobsters were identical or non-identical twins. “Why d’you wanna know?” the maître d’ snarled. “Because,” I replied, “I can only perform unnatural psychological experiments on them if they’re zygotic.”
The president was in town for a speech and the area around the State House was fraught with security: state cops on cliché Harleys, FBI agents in cliché letter jackets, and, most intimidating of all, those excessively polite men in pale yellow raincoats with pig’s tail antennae dangling from their ears. I gave them all a swerve and took the Red Line into Cambridge.
Sometimes it seems to me that the relationship between American society and its fast food is as close as that of … well, identical twins. Foreigners writing on US gustatory habits have always understood the cafeteria and the lunch counter as the extension of the production line into the stomach. If you haven’t already, take a look at Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s ecstatically enraged depiction of American fast food in his 1933 novel, Journey to the End of the Night.
Emerging into the darkness of Harvard Square, I also gave the raggedy man standing by the subway exit a swerve. (His sign read “Looking for a Little Human Kindness” – how corny can you get?) The street folk were thronging about Starbucks, homing in like zombies on its smell-a-round of deceit – the odours of bread, pastry and roasted coffee that as one enters are dissipated by the cold winds of commercial calculation. In the lift down to the basement I sighed as I tapped my receipt code into the console. “They gotta do it,” an academic-looking type said, “else the homeless people trash the restrooms – they smear shit on the walls – I guess they’re really aggrieved.” I gave him an admiring glance and said, “Nice use of ‘aggrieved’.”
Back on the surface I passed by the Bridge Over Troubled Water trailer – “Reaching Out a Helping Hand to 16-24-Year-Olds” – before coming upon Mr Bartley’s Gourmet Burgers, a Boston landmark – or so its sign asserted – since 1960. Inside, the tables were covered with wood-grain laminate and the chairs were of the green plastic, lawn variety. A waiter with a T-shirt that read – wholly in innocence – “We Beat the Meat” showed me to a table. Looking around me, I saw that this was an establishment dominated by what Walter Benjamin characterised as the “vertical type” of modern consumerism: hokey old advertisements for Chesterfield cigarettes; triangular road signs that showed stick figures crawling on their knees towards beer glasses, and that were captioned “STUDENTS CROSSING”; over several tables there were small signs that said “Johnny Cash Ate Here”, or “Robert Plant Ate Here” – claims I didn’t doubt for the thousandths of a second necessary for a computerised trading system to make a ruinous interest-swap.
Mr Bartley’s menu was equally diverting; the standard seven-ounce burger came in a plethora of guises. The Obamacare was glossed thus: “Nobody knows what’s in it … ask the liberal sitting next to you”, and costed at: “$ Trillions”; while the Fiscal Cliff – “it’s here!” – was rather more optimistically priced at $13.85, for which you got crumbled bacon, blue cheese, red onion, balsamic vinegar and additional onion rings. I wish I could tell you I ordered a Mark Zuckerberg (“America’s richest geek, Boursin cheese and bacon with sweet potato fries”), which was a snip at 13 bucks – but, strange to relate, my sense of humour seemed to have deserted me. While I sipped my Coke and chewed on my standard Mr Bartley’s cheeseburger (the only novelty being that I opted for provelone) I stared about me at my fellow preppies, who, to a man and a woman seemed to be channelling Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw in those early scenes of Love Story – before the crab bites.
Lucky us. Out there in the streets the chill winds blew along Massachusetts Avenue and our brothers and sisters were dunking in the trash cans for discarded donuts. As I say, I often feel that American society and American fast food are twins separated at birth; and while one has been fed on 100 per cent ground beef and French fries cooked to a golden perfection, the other has been starved, beaten and otherwise degraded. It’s an unnatural psychological experiment – nonetheless I’m sure you’ll agree that it has to be done.