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Thank God for McDonald's

George St SydneyThe sulphur-crested cockatoo screeched above us, hurling himself against the sealed windows of a Pitt Street high-rise.

He didn't have a branch to sit on.

We Sydney-siders, jammed between tower blocks which cut out the sun, and pavements shutting off the earth, were in sympathy. Things were pretty desperate. A Danish town planner had given the old girl a once-over. She needed a refurb. Developers couldn't keep their mitts off, and graffiti artists were all over her Western Distributor, so she was a bit on the nose, and people didn't like to hang around. They might come back if she off-loaded some weight, and took on some clean, outdoor public space, among other things.

Central Station, Town hall and Circular Quay could just fit the bill, especially if called 'sustainable environments'. Cocky might even get his branch and Mr Curly (complete with trusty flagon) his bench.

I found my own bench inside McDonald's Strand, which lies in wait, half way up George Street. Alongside the public, outdoor space, I was thinking, Sydney also needs bountiful, unhassled indoor space that provides shelter from the stormy blasts, cheap fast food, and clean safe toilets. We should feel as if the space were ours.

An indoor space like McDonald's.

At the counter, an elderly woman was asking for an ice cream with a 'pensioner's coffee, and one of those cardboard things to keep them steady', because she shook. The lot came to 50c. I wondered if I had heard right because my long black came to $2.40. She reminded me of my long dead Aunty Olive, in from the bush for the day and without much money to spend. McDonald's would have suited Aunty Olive's purse.

Who else was there? A dad and his kids, a Down-and-Out, an RSL, four German Backpacks, three Hard Hats, two Big Issues and a Sari, all with cheap food and drink, in a give-and-take atmosphere which allowed them to congregate, or simply to enjoy the peace and quiet alone, at a large table.

I can vouch for the table space because I measured it — surreptitiously because McDonald's is a bit touchy about such peculiar behaviour these days.

'Thank God for McDonald's', I said to my retro aunty Olive.

'You bet,' she said. 'Last time I was in town, the Wynyard toilets were shut. I needed to pass an intelligence test to find one in a department store.'

We had common ground.

Perhaps the buzz phrase is 'social sustainability', the rough-and-ready sharing of sought-after space, the kind of space McDonald's Strand shares with the older city churches and cathedrals, with their airy naves, roomy pews, tramps down the back and prime ministers up the front. On the debit side, of course, they also share the 'Give me a child until he is seven ...' mantra, vast wealth from global real estate, a sneaking cultural imperialism and an evangelical bent.

But on the secular, foodie side of things, in a town where the 'entice 'em, fleece 'em and eject 'em' philosophy is rampant, McDonald's still trumps.

And Sydney is not alone. Whether we are toppling out of Melbourne's Flinders Street Station, down and out in Paris and London, or lost in Rome, we can usually find a McDonald's where we can dump our goods, relieve our feet, write a postcard, scour the paper, lose an argument and drink excellent coffee along the way. The Great Cham himself never had it so good.

Nor did he have to contend with the food puritans, thundering, fulminating and sermonising about green-for-lean and red-for-spread tape measures, while claiming never to have brought their children here to sit among the unredeemed.

I said goodbye to Aunty Olive, shelved my tray and walked out of McDonald's Strand, into that part of George Street where the unredeemed once hung out. We're going back aunties and aunties ago now, of course, when the street was red dust, and home to convicts, marines, brick-luggers and ladies of the night. It was on the wrong side of the tracks, or, rather, the Tank Stream. Above, on the eastern side, ran Macquarie Street, 'a high place', as Ruth Park puts it in her book, Sydney, 'from which the posh could look down upon the rabble'.

The convicts wouldn't have said no to a bite of McDonald's, had it been offered them, especially if they had survived the Second Fleet.

Meanwhile, Cocky is looking forward to having his branch back, perhaps on Circular Quay, where, as family history would have it, an ancestor fell off her perch, potted by a colonising opportunist who crept ashore that fateful January day in 1788.

Eleanor MasseyEleanor Massey is a long time English teacher who now works casually in NSW schools. She is a freelance writer, with a number of published articles in such magazines as The Big Issue, Good Reading and Wet Ink.

Topic tags: cockatoo, pitt street, sydney, western distributor, landscape architecture, mcdonald's, big mac



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Existing comments

This is THE first article I've ever read in praise of McDonald's! And I rather like it. So much so, I've posted it to my FB page. Thank you for offering a different slant on things, Eleanor.

Janet | 17 March 2010  

Thank you Elanor for a delightful and entertaining read. I was born and grew up in inner Sydney, worked at McDonalds as a young fella in the mid 70's, and have experienced the relief [literally] of finding a Maccas in unfamiliar ports - several months deprivation in India, then pigging out at Changi airport comes to mind! I still have a soft serve spot for the golden arches.

Mick O'Donnell | 17 March 2010  

Great article.
Do you have a lien on the phrase "social sustainability"? I like it.

John R. Sabine | 17 March 2010  

Onya Eleanor. Good one!

Once upon a time, the Church may have offered the quiet repose and sanctuary of which you speak. Now, the ubiquitous McDonald's offers that unpretentious escape from the hubbub of daily pursuits.

A most enjoyable read. Thank you.

Bob GROVES | 17 March 2010  

Alas, the design profession (I include architects in this collective of professionals) has left the simple life to the Masseys of the world to lament the absence of human spaces in our megapolis. What occupies the minds of our designers who tend to chatter in gab-fests about designing for people etc., is that incestuous practice of giving each other awards and write about each other's work in words that the likes of Massey and her aunty Olive will not, in their wildest imagination, encounter. Perhaps, we should all go back to the fundamentals, that is, good design is for all people, not only those who read Monument or Architectural Design (Australia) and other esoteric parchments of knowledge. I suggest that we stand the so-called dsign gurus against the wall and execute their words!

Alex Njoo | 17 March 2010  

Had a great, cheap feed at McDonald's just the night.. I love the place! But thought such feelings were politically incorrect. Thank you Eleanor for a great snippet of inner city life.

Barry | 18 March 2010  

Thanks, Eleanor! MickeyD's serves the same needs here in Chicago, to those of us who freely admit it!

Rita | 19 March 2010  

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