Calen doesn't think discussing politics is a very good idea.
A short, rotund man with a shaved head, he's perched at the edge of the bar playing a digital billiards game on his phone, even though he's no more than ten feet away from an actual, real-life pool table. He relays the same advice that wise, peacekeeping men have passed down for centuries.
"A good way to lose a friend is to talk politics," he says. "It's just such a touchy subject anymore."
Calen's friend Josh is the one who dragged Calen out of the house on this night. Josh is tall, probably about six foot two, wearing a baseball cap with a curled brim and a sweatshirt advertising a landscaping company. As he speaks, country twang on full display, it quickly becomes clear that he does not particularly share his friend's sentiment on this matter.
"Oh yeah, Donald Trump takes his seat tomorrow. Woo!" Josh says excitedly as he scrolls through a social media app on his phone. "I don't follow politics. And I don't really talk politics, but I voted for Trump."
Then he leans in.
"I believe the South will rise again," he declares firmly. "I believe that us Americans are going to go to war with somebody inside America before too long."
A bit taken aback at this prediction of an impending civil war on American soil, I ask who we will be fighting against. Josh looks me up and down and then turns away, staring stone-faced at the backsplash of the bar as he silently takes a drink of his beer.
That's when it hits me: Josh doesn't think we'll be fighting for the same side.
It's the night before the inauguration of one President Donald J. Trump, and I'm in a tiny corner bar attached to a used car lot in St. Joseph, Missouri, some five hours or so from my hometown of St. Louis and about an hour north of Kansas City.
I've made the long journey across the state specifically for this occasion. A northwestern Missouri town of roughly 77,000 people, St. Joseph made national headlines in October when its daily newspaper, the St. Joseph News-Press, became only the second publication in the country to endorse Trump for president. By election day, Business Insider calculated that the number of newspapers endorsing Trump totaled 19, compared to Hillary Clinton's 240. The St. Joseph paper, clearly, was an outlier.
In an editorial headlined "Trump and GOP offer best hope to lead America," the News-Press laid out its case.
"It might seem unlikely, but Trump — a candidate who brags of his wealth — has done much more than his opponent to identify with the needs and interests of people who are struggling and striving for something better for their lives and their children's lives," the paper stated. "Many recognize his business successes far outweigh his failures, and he could use his knowledge and insights to accelerate our historically slow recovery from the recession."
The News-Press also quoted a St. Joseph resident, a woman whose anti-Hillary sentiment echoed its own: "She calls us 'deplorables.' A person like that can't connect with middle-income or lower-income Americans."
In this post-election age, with reporters rushing to the heartland to find the so-called "real America," St. Joseph seemed like a fine place to go, a perch from which to watch the nation changing hands, Obama to Trump.
But I had an additional motive for my visit. St. Joseph made headlines earlier in 2016 for an entirely different, far more compelling reason: The announcement that the "McDonald's of the Future" would open there in August.
A 6,500-square-foot monument to the righteous and noble consumption of fast food, this particular McDonald's would be the largest of its kind in a four-state area, according to owner/visionary Chris Habiger. Construction costs were estimated at $1.59 million. News reports suggested the restaurant would feature a "fast-casual" vibe, in keeping with dining trends, with the inclusion of tableside service and plush couches. Touchscreen kiosks would feature prominently, enabling customers to customize the "burger of their dreams" with hundreds of available options, as Habiger told the News-Press. Habiger said he expected to employ 85 people at the new digs.
But most importantly, most patriotically, most tastily: The restaurant would feature unlimited french fries on its menu.
Golden, delicious and beloved the world over, McDonald's fries are more American than the bald eagle, and more popular too. They never disappoint; they never go bad. They hearken back to a time when America was great, when family values and corporate interests aligned in perfect harmony and a simple trip to Mickey D's for mom and dad and their 2.5 kids amounted to good, wholesome family fun. A time when America still made things, dammit! Crispy sticks of faux-potato, maybe, but still.
For my part, I was interested in seeing how many of them I could stuff into my face in one sitting, and the McDonald's of the Future would make this dream a reality. Quite frankly, I don't need to travel to find America. I already live in America. I'm just here for the french fries.
But that's business for the morning. Tonight is the last night in Obama's America and I'm drinking with the locals at Mugshots.
Mugshots, too, recently had its moment of celebrity. In December 2014, Mugshots was inundated with protests after offering a "Michael Brown Special" consisting of six shots ... of tequila. "It's not meant to cause any harm," a co-owner told the local Fox affiliate. "I should have thought a little bit more about it before I made it a shot special." Given the statistically notable overlap between Mike Brown detractors and Donald Trump supporters, it was fair to assume I'd be drinking with some people in a mood to celebrate our new overlord.
Mugshots is a spare affair — one pool table, one dart board, a small handful of tables and a bar lacking the appropriate number of barstools. A sign on the outside of the building carries the pub's official slogan — "Where Sarcasm is ALWAYS FREE" — while a second sign out front declares that "Hangovers are temporary; Mugshot stories are forever." Inside, two LED-lit chalkboards behind the bar itself, used in most drinking establishments to list daily drink specials and the like, have rather different messages scrawled on them. "My Baby Daddy aint shit!! Sounds a lot like, 'I let Losers cum inside me'!!" is written on one. "Is it Blowjob? (1 word) or Is it Blow Job? (2 words) Gawd! I hate writing Thank-you Cards" graces the other. Blake Shelton's "Some Beach" plays on the jukebox; Josh sings along between commentary on the rise of the South and predictions of civil war.
Our bartender, Rodney, holds a cynical view of the office of the presidency.
"I don't believe that anybody that sits in the White House really has much control over anything," he opines. "There's a whole lot of money out there that has control over what goes on in this country. And we ain't got a damn say about it. It's whatever those people wanna do. And that guy in the oval office is just a face." Calen nods in agreement.
On the subject of McDonald's fries, though, everyone perks up. I announce that I will be heading to the promised land tomorrow: I tell them I'd bet a friend I could consume no less than four pounds of the delicious dish.
"You gotta order the special deal — you can't just order a Big Mac," Josh suggests helpfully, setting aside our impending blood feud for the sake of sharing his expertise. "You gotta order the specialty burger in order to get the unlimited fries. We found that out the hard way." Josh and Calen, it turns out, have already made the trek themselves. Naturally. Because we are all one when it comes to McDonald's fries.
"There's four pounds of grease in one fucking serving," Rodney offers. "And we're not even really sure if they're real fries or not." After some discussion, we collectively come to the conclusion that they are likely 10 percent potato, 90 percent petroleum byproduct. But damned if they don't taste good.
"The hospital is clear on the opposite side of town from McDonald's," Calen warns.
"Yeah, if you go into cardiac arrest, you might as well give it up," Josh laughs.
At this point, the jukebox starts playing Paula Abdul's 1989 single "Opposites Attract" — a song about two people who couldn't be more different finding common ground enough to live and love together. Maybe a shared love of french fries is all it takes to find unity in a divided America. Maybe things would be OK after all.
St. Joseph has a rich and storied history. Situated on the Missouri river, it was the starting point of the Pony Express, in some ways truly the Gateway to the West. It was also the scene of Jesse James' death, and the birthplace of Walter Cronkite and Eminem.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, St. Joseph was home to some 100,000 residents and three major meat-packing facilities — making it the fifth largest hub of meat-packing in the entire world — but those jobs left town with the introduction of refrigerated trucking. By 1910, the city's population dwindled to 77,000; it's stayed roughly the same ever since.
There's still one large hog-processing plant in town, and it's the city's second largest employer, but nowadays most people work in manufacturing, financial services, and education and health services.
The city has maintained an unemployment rate lower than that of Missouri as a whole for the last ten years, save for one month in 2011, when it briefly rose above the state by a tenth of a percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Obama's final years were good to St. Joseph, as the rest of the state: Unemployment dropped from its mid-'90s high of 12.4 percent to 9.8 percent in early 2010 and then down to 4.8 percent last August.
Yet Buchanan County voted sweepingly for Trump over Hillary Clinton in November — 59.28 percent to her 33.4. Trump easily outperformed more typical Republicans: Senator Roy Blunt eked by with only 49.56 percent of the vote.
From my hotel on Frederick Avenue, east of downtown, the city looks to be a never-ending sea of strip malls and corporate eateries. Across the street is a Denny's, next door to a Red Lobster. Adjacent to that is an Applebee's. We're within walking distance of Texas Roadhouse, Golden Corral and Bandana's Bar-B-Q as well. It's no wonder that new McDonald's was such big news. This city loves its chain restaurants.
The receptionist at the hotel is a friendly young lady who is excited to tell anyone who will listen about her new truck. "It's a Ford, though," she says, "so I'm definitely gonna catch hell from my family for that." (Hers is a Chevy family, apparently.) A room is a scant $55 a night, and the bedsheets are clean enough.
Right next door to the hotel is an abandoned waterpark/hotel hybrid, partially destroyed and gutted for scrap. Piles of twisted metal are stacked well above six feet high — any resource of value has been sucked clean out of the building, leaving a hollow, collapsing shell. A pile of mattresses, once a source of comfort for the downtrodden and weary, sit outside in the night, rotting.
The fog is unusually thick on this night, but through the hazy dreamscape I can still see a glass-encased structure that houses six flights of stairs. At the top, there's a hole where a six-story water slide had once been. There is, from here, nowhere to go but down.
Beneath the stairway to nowhere is what used to be a "lazy river" pool and a child's waterpark playground; pieces of the ceiling have fallen from above, much like Chicken Little's sky, and are now littered across both.
Inside the abandoned hotel portion the scene is even more apocalyptic. Walls vital to structure are torn asunder, their innards exposed. A closet for employees still has clothing hanging in it. A large box of Bibles has been left, completely abandoned.
On a battered wall in the lobby an official-looking certificate remains, framed and hung with care. In large script across the top, it reads, "Focus on the Future."
I wake up on Inauguration Day in a panicked sweat. Flipping on the television around 9 a.m., I see that soon-to-be-President Trump has decided that today is a Red Tie day, which I take as an ominous sign. I've noticed over the past eighteen months that Trump's choice of tie color serves as an interesting window into his overall demeanor on any given day — kind of like a mood ring. Blue is the calm, relaxed Trump, cooing softly in your ear about how great and tremendous everything is going to be. Red is the fiery, angry Trump, shouting loudly about his many enemies. He usually picks red.
Heeding last night's omen, I take a deep breath and focus on the future — the "McDonald's of the Future." On the road I pass a billboard with a photo of a box of fries, advertising "Endless Love" just ahead. My mouth waters.
From the outside, my destination mostly just looks like a regular McDonald's, albeit a large one. But inside, it's the future, baby.
Which is to say it kinda feels like a Chipotle. Unpainted wood slats form an important part of the decor. The furnishings have a mid-century look — instead of the usual booth or table options you'd find in a McDonald's of the Past, there are countertops and barstools, circular tables and ergonomically designed chairs. Pretty much any edge that can be rounded is rounded — as we all know from the aesthetic choices of the automobile industry throughout the years, rounded edges are more future-y than sharp angles.
Strangely, however, the restaurant doesn't have any TVs — based on the nation's most recent choice of top executive, it seems very likely the future will include televisions. There are monitors throughout the room encouraging you to purchase various McDonald's items, but none on which to view the day's news.
I set up my laptop instead (free wi-fi does indeed exist in the future). I also pull out a kitchen scale so I can weigh my food before consuming it — in order to properly document my consumption, because I'm a journalist, dammit.
I quickly learn that the future will include automation of labor, which is well-represented at the restaurant. Still, when I approach the ordering kiosk and search for the specialty burger Josh referred to the night befor, I soon become frustrated and call a worker over to help me. I predict this will be a feature/bug that pops up frequently in the future. I choose the "pico guacamole burger" meal; my total comes to $7.71 with tax. The burger itself soon finds its way to the garbage, as it is obviously unnecessary.
I take a placard with my order number on it to one of the booths: In the future, your McDonald's food is brought to your table for you, lest you burn off any of those incoming calories by carrying your own stuff. I jealously eye the woman sitting behind me, who has laid claim to a couch/booth combo — that is to say, basically a regular old couch with a table mounted in front of it. It looks comfortable, and I begin plotting my invasion.
Opportunity strikes when she pulls out her cell phone and asks her husband to record the inauguration for her. She has been trying to watch the proceedings with an iPad and a set of headphones, but she's experiencing technical difficulties. I offer to let her watch on my laptop, and she invites me over — best seat in the house, secured. That's how I meet Bonnie.
Bonnie looks to be in her late fifties, with short, sandy-blonde hair, glasses and a jacket pulled up over her shoulders for warmth. She is grateful for the assist, but confused by my kitchen scale. I explain my four-pound mission, which she thinks is pretty funny.
My first batch of fries comes just as the Missouri State University Chorale begins to sing on screen. This order weighs in at just over four ounces, and as the voices of the singers soar to the heavens, I eat my first fry. As delicious as ever, it touches my tongue and immediately sends my tastebuds into an orgasm of salty, greasy delight. This is America. I am winning.
"Did they swear him in yet?" asks a McDonald's employee named Jean.
"Not yet. But Missouri State is singing," Bonnie replies, swelling with hometown pride. "And Roy Blunt was on there earlier. He's kind of the head of the inauguration!"
Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer is next to take the stage, slyly giving a speech at Trump's inauguration without speaking Trump's name even once. Meanwhile I power through my first order of fries, blissful but still hungry.
My second order weighs less than the first — just over three ounces. I eat it greedily and gleefully while Justice Clarence Thomas swears in Mike Pence as our country's new vice president.
Jean pipes up again, voicing her disapproval at the Democratic congressmen who opted not to attend the inauguration.
"I got so irritated I thought, those 60 or whatever that did not attend — talk about a basket of deplorables!" she says. Bonnie nods in agreement.
Attempting to direct us back to the things that we can agree on as a country rather than the things that divide us, I bring our collective attention back to the good. "I'm just talking about this basket of french fries," I quip. Jean and Bonnie both laugh. Crisis averted.
I finish off my second order, and Bonnie seems skeptical. "Four pounds is a lot of fries," she says. I dismiss her concerns — what could possibly go wrong? French fries are good and wholesome and American, and everyone knows it.
I dive into my third order while the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sings "America the Beautiful." The coupling of such a patriotic song with the consumption of such a patriotic foodstuff makes my heart weep red, white and blue tears of joy. I'm up over half a pound now, and the sky is the limit.
Chief Justice John Roberts appears next. The big moment has arrived: the swearing-in of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States.
But around this time, toward the end of my third round of fries, my system begins to protest. I begin sweating sheer grease from my brow, my blood thickening and slowing. Determined, I press on, but as I start my fourth order, I'm starting to feel nauseous.
As Trump is officially declared President, a loud cheer goes up in Washington, while Bonnie and Jean nod approvingly and smile, clearly pleased that America is now Great Again. Trump takes the podium, red tie blazing, and launches into his inaugural speech.
At this point the mounting potato poisoning begins to affect my perception of reality. I could swear I see rain and umbrellas and ponchos throughout the speech — but as we all know from Trump's later visit to CIA headquarters, the rain stopped immediately and it became "really sunny" when he began to speak. The fries must have deceived me, because the notion that a sitting president would lie about, of all things, the weather is just too fucking insane to even consider.
My condition only worsens as the speech continues. Trump speaks of "carnage," and "blood," and "decay," and "tombstones." I finish my fourth order of fries and start on the fifth — but I'm gagging on their salty greasiness. My stomach knots up in pain.
"Did you get all your potatoes eaten?" Jean asks.
"No not yet," I reply. "And it's starting to get difficult."
"Looks like it's raining," Bonnie says as she watches the screen, apparently afflicted somehow with potato poisoning by proxy.
"Yeah it seems like it started right when he started talking," I reply, by now clearly hallucinating and delirious.
"I don't know if that's a good sign or not," Bonnie says with a laugh. "I think one thing that's good — we don't need any more politicians; we need a businessman for this country. And Trump — he might be good. You don't get that rich by just sitting around in your office eating candy."
At the thought of eating (candy, fries, anything), I can feel my vital organs beginning to shut down, clogged with grease and petroleum byproduct and 10 percent potato. As Trump finishes his speech, I excuse myself to the bathroom, where I proceed to vomit.
The process is like the puke version of a Play-Doh Fun Factory: I haven't been drinking anything, save small sips of water, so the fries return in much the form they originally went down — a mushy, disgusting paste that's more exuded than propelled. It tastes exactly the same coming out as going in. My body hasn't had time enough to break this "food" down yet, so there's not even a hint of bile.
Still, what I witness is the strangest thing, and I return to my table seriously disturbed. Beneath that golden, crispy exterior, are McDonald's fries no more than puked-up potato? I take a single fry and cut it open with a pocket knife, slicing very carefully and surgically to examine the insides. To my shock and abject horror, I find that it is filled with vomit — the exact manner of vomit I'd just flushed from my system and down the toilet.
Or maybe I'm still hallucinating? At that moment, though, I'm convinced that the scales have fallen from my eyes. I finally see the world for what it is.
Scratch the surface, and the grand promise of a brighter future reveals itself to be nothing but more hopelessness, concealed behind a gold-colored facade. Sure, indulging yourself feels good for a while — great, even — but an overdose on the lowest common denominator will inevitably prove toxic. The system simply cannot stand up to such an assault.
All told, I consume 17.7 ounces of fries — well short of the four pounds I'd assumed my body could handle. But I am done.
Shaken, I turn to my new friend and discuss politics. Calen wouldn't approve, but I have to take my mind off the horrors I've just seen. Fries are no longer a spot of common ground; they are the enemy itself.
"I met a guy at a bar last night who thinks there's gonna be a civil war soon," I say.
"You're kidding," Bonnie replies. "That's crazy. I don't think so."
I tell her about Josh's assertion that the South will rise again, and she just rolls her eyes and groans.
"These years coming up will be interesting," Bonnie offers. "If everybody would reunite and not just — not have Democrats that just don't want to do anything, just to make him look bad. It's craziness, because whatever's best for our country needs to be what is done. Not what's, you know, just 'cause they want to act like a bunch of asses."
On the surface, I agree whole- heartedly. But quietly, I fear her candidate just may be filled with the stuff fries are made of.
Disillusioned with the future, the fries, the city of St. Joseph and the state of American politics in general, I drive back to St. Louis with a stomach ache.
It hasn't subsided since.