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Fast Food Activism

by Matthew Ainslie Burke, image by Black Koki at Love and Hate Studio / 16.03.2010

Fast-food outlets are comforting in the guarantee of sameness they offer. Ask, and thou shalt receive – a perfect transference of imagined desire into real-world satisfaction. As I stand in line, looking up at the succulently rendered chicken burger and waiting to bend this Mecca of instant gratification to my will, I am purposefully oblivious to the converse of my soon-to-be satiated anticipation.

I’ve learned not to look back as the doors close behind me. Small faces press themselves to the glass, their breath leaving transient mirages across the pane. The glass is a forcefield: physical and psychological. They cannot enter, and their excommunication is invisibly walled off from my consciousness. It’s reminiscent of a time people believe now banished.

These are precisely the thoughts which are light-years from my mind as a cashier becomes vacant and I step forward quickly to fill the void, thoughts awash with the promise of Succulent Chicken.
“Hi, I’d like the Succ-”
“Would you like to add hope?”
Add hope? My brow furrows. The cashier points to a poster, my eyes follow. An anonymous celebrity hovers above a group of children. Her quiet eyes speak of a great humanistic project. Add two Rand to the price of your meal.  Add Hope. With a capital H.

It’s an odd betrayal of this place’s promise. An ungratifying insertion, an invisible barrier between asking for what I want and getting it. Add Hope. Imperatives press in from all sides. There is a queue behind me. Children are starving. Someone important is watching.  There is no time to reflect. The giant Succulent burger bears down on me, as do the truculent chips beside it. The celebrity endorser-figure looks on. She is cast in black and white. It’s a Manichean test: you either do or you don’t.

“Uh, yeah,” the golden words of a default morality jerk out of my mouth.

I receive my order and find a table a decent distance from the glass. I’ve added Hope, relegated the responsibility to the past tense, discharged my duty. A moralising Hamlet, I reach for the ocular proof and unfold the thin till slip. There it is, beneath ‘Lrg Chips – 14.00’ lies my proof: ‘Hope – 2.00’. I fold the slip in an act of acquittal, and look back to the poster for affirmation. Add Hope, it demands of me afresh. The children are starving. As long as that poster stays on the wall, the children will always be starving. The images are starving.

I realise the ploy. The frantic urgency, the unrelenting imperative – they gesture away from the problem’s cause, from the why. The celebrity’s firm moral hand entwines its fingers with yours and leads you away from the disease itself, and to an infinite realm of intolerable symptoms demanding unending action. To satisfy the poster I would have to spend eternity in that queue, buying the smallest mini-salads, adding Hope, and rejoining the line unto the ending of time. It’s a supercilious morality which cannot divorce itself from an obsession with purchases, with now.

While the glass is a physical barrier to entry, Hope is a subtler division – one for the mind. It interrupts your order, disquiets you, but is quick to lull. It’s OK, you can do your bit from in here. You don’t even have to turn around and look at them. Just say, “Yes”. The real world is quietly euthanised. What is excluded is the sedate barbarism of this place, an inverted culinary Colosseum where you can sit with your back quietly turned and eat a burger in front of hungry children. If I were to enact the truth of this place I would have to press my face against the glass, pack my mouth to obscenity, and pump my maw whilst glaring into whatever eyes would meet mine.

It is not the shiny, posed, celebrity-endorsed images which are going without. It is the indistinguishable bundles of reality outside who are famished, cut off from a world of Succulent Chicken and Hope by a wall of transparent forces. They are the survivors, the bearers of real hope. They have to be. As I slip between them on my way out, it is all too apparent that the abstract goodwill was not for them. It was a gift that, backed into a corner, I bought for my middle-class sensibilities. And that is the comforting genius of this fast-food retailer, beyond the mundane mouth-watering indulgences on offer – they sell Hope there too.

Image © and courtesy Black Koki at Love and Hate Studio.

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