Chasing tales of two realities


There I was, at the world-famous Hamburger U. Or at least next-door, at the Hyatt Hotel on the McDonald’s campus in Oak Brook—just outside Chicago. The toasty warm smell of burgers and fries drifted across the serene pond separating the U from the hotel.

Down the road near the freeway is the very best McDonald’s restaurant in the world. At least that’s what I was told. I didn’t get there, which was too bad. I wanted to see an actual, real Big Mac that looked exactly like the backlit poster over the counter.

Instead, I wandered around the campus and paced up and down the hotel corridors for a couple of days. This particular Hyatt was designed exclusively for McDonald’s and it shows; all the wall art in the hallways is McCorporate. There are Renaissance paintings of demure women smiling at small boxes of McFries in the foreground, relief sculptures of 50s-style McDonald’s restaurants—every kind of art you can imagine—all with McProduct slipped in. It’s commercial porn taken to the highest levels possible this side of Walt Disney.

While I was there, McDonald’s was hosting its annual shareholders convention. There were lots of old people with canes and walkers—clearly the investors, and groups of young, multiracial business people in pressed dark suits and crisp white shirts—the McDonald’s franchisees, milling around the hotel shops and restaurants.

Back in my room I switched on the TV news only to learn that the campus was being picketed by protesters who want to kill off the McDonald’s mascot, Ronald, that arch-villain of childhood obesity. It’s a message to all factory food producers: the Froot Loops toucan and his friends could be next.

Between meetings I went outside for walks. It was like entering a private hell: suburban conference centres are designed as pedestrian prisons. Outside the campus gates I was the only walker on the sidewalk along the four-lane boulevard. Luxury cars with tinted windows whizzed by with flashes of sunglasses and blond hair behind the wheel. A new black Bentley Continental sport coupe—the first I’d ever seen—managed to stand out from the usual crowd.

The campus grounds were beautiful. A sweeping concrete causeway stretched over the pond between the buildings. The landscaping was carefully composed, with large stands of shade trees interlaced with manicured display gardens. The lawns are spectacular. Not a weed or dandelion to be found anywhere, the faint smell of herbicide telling the story.

I decided to walk to the end of the four-lane, then return to the hotel complex by cutting across the nearby golf course, which I did. And got myself lost. Then reoriented—after wandering trails, traversing hills ending up in wooded culs-de-sac, etc.—and finally picked up by security (a nice old guy in a Hawaiian shirt) and golf-carted back to where I started. I was slightly sunburned and very tired by the time I got back to my room.

There’s a loneliness to travel. You buy a book. You watch strangers in the airport. You plan the timing of your Starbucks’ coffee so you won’t have to pee during takeoff. You check and recheck your pockets so you don’t misplace your ticket or passport. You stuff receipts in one pocket only. You get tired of sitting on hard plastic chairs. Sometimes you talk to one of the strangers.

At one Starbucks I sat beside Mohan, the U.S. Olympic badminton coach, for a half hour and talked about the state of the world. While we did thunderstorms invaded O’Hare and my flight was delayed for a couple of hours. That meant I might miss my connection in Montreal, which, despite my best dash through Trudeau International, I did by 10 minutes. So I spent another night in a hotel with an enRoute magazine I hijacked from the plane.

There were two items in the magazine that stood out. One was the ad on the back cover for Louis Vuitton handbags. It was an Annie Leibovitz photo of herself with Mikhail Baryshnikov. He was standing barefoot—those feet telling the story of a lifetime.

The other was a short story by Sarah de Leeuw about Canadian small towns, like the one where I grew up:

“Take me in your arms, say these women, take me in your arms. This is the same thing we ask of this town in which we live. Please. Please take me in your arms, northern town of pulp mills and pickup trucks. Take me in your arms and give me a home and a front door and a backyard and some semblance of comfort carved out of the wilderness, some safety from howling wolves and the birds of prey that would most certainly take us, if only we were small enough, take us away to cities or other ethers by hooking into us with talons and lifting us away, crying in a wind racing through streets that fall dead by the dinnertime hours.”

You can find Sarah’s story on the enRoute Air Canada website at
It’s well worth the trip.


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