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(JOREN CULL FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
(JOREN CULL FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

How I wound up sitting still in the fast-food lane Add to ...

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“Seven-and-a-half minutes.” That’s what she said to me. She was a very pleasant teenager working at McDonald’s.

That night, I had needed to get out of my hotel room and go for a walk. As I was strolling along Elgin Street in Ottawa, the combination of hunger and the aroma of fast food prompted me to make an uncharacteristic turn into Mickey D’s.

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I waited as the line moved forward with great efficiency, then it was my turn to place an order. After a pleasant McGreeting of “Hello” and “May I take your order?” I asked for a grilled chicken sandwich.

With those words, something in this young woman’s fast-food career seemed to be happening for the first time. As she typed in my order, I could tell something was wrong. She looked at me sheepishly and said: “Sir, we don’t have any grilled chicken ready. It will take 7 1/2 minutes to prepare.”

As she was deleting my order, I said something to her: something so unexpected that I could see in her expression that I had spoken words unheard of in the fast-food industry. It was as if I had revealed some great wisdom or spoken the true meaning of life.

I looked her in the eye and said: “That’s okay, I’ll wait.”

Flustered, she told me she had already deleted my order and would have to re-enter it. She began to furiously type away, as only a teenage texting aficionado could. With fingers flying, she might have been typing launch codes for some apocalyptic missile launch. When she’d finished, the order and the launch codes raced their way back to the kitchen’s screen. I then witnessed an acne-covered teenager stick his head out of the back grill and announce to me in a nasal voice: “Sir, that’s going to take seven minutes and 28 seconds.”

In my day, people used to add their two cents worth; apparently today you add your two seconds worth.

I nodded once again and gave him the okay, and was advised by the teenage chef that at least my chicken sandwich would be hot and fresh. My lucky day! With great pride, the girl announced she would deliver the sandwich directly to my table. Personal table service at McDonald’s, as well! It doesn’t get better than that.

So I just sat there with my own thoughts, watching the other patrons continually making their way out with their food. They looked smug, as if enjoying some great triumph in getting their food before me. They had never been to my parents’ Italian basement, where meals last three to four hours.

As they passed, I noticed a television set on the wall for guests like me who sadly don’t have some electronic device to keep them socially attached at all times. The TV talking heads were discussing some Third World dictator. My mind wandered from them and noticed two news tickers on the bottom of the screen. One ticker was indicating some new harrowing social crisis for a Kardashian (not sure which one), and the other showed endless stock quotes. I saw Lululemon stock was down two cents. I wonder, I thought, how many day traders are sitting in this McDonald’s at 10 o’clock tonight, have just seen this information and are running back to their office to sell, sell, sell?

Still waiting, I thought about what all the teenagers sitting at the tables around me might be thinking. In the time that I had waited for my meal, they could have, with their fancy phones, updated their Facebook page with details of some loser waiting for a McChicken sandwich for almost eight full minutes; or taken a phone video of me sitting by myself with no electronic device, pathetically alone with my thoughts – this all to be shared with millions on YouTube, and maybe going viral. Maybe even some Twitter or tweet thing could be brewing.

My bizarre thoughts were interrupted as I was given an official update similar to the breaking-news reports Walter Cronkite delivered decades ago. I was officially informed from the kitchen staff that my chicken sandwich was one minute and 30 seconds from delivery. I wasn’t sure how to respond other than with a pleasant nod. I’m sure if I’d had the proper phone there would be an app for that “90-second-to-completion announcement.”

The meal arrived with a smile and large fries, which I believe were upsized due to my unprecedented wait. As the young girl thanked me for waiting and left, I could tell by the pity in her eyes how she envisioned the world in which I live: a world full of VCRs flashing 12:00, and a rotary phone.

The McChicken was hot and quite good for sub-10-minute delivery. My compliments to the teenage chef.

Back at my hotel room, I looked at the alarm clock I’d set earlier. It was actually flashing 12:00. It was one of those new fancy hotel clocks that have three separate alarms, a radio, CD player, Wi-Fi something-or-other and more buttons than an airplane.

As I tried (for what seemed like 7 1/2 minutes) to set the correct time and to program just one of the three alarms, I thought about my evening and did what any other tech-challenged adult would do: I called the hotel operator for a wake-up call, unplugged the clock and went to bed with a full stomach.

Mauro Nardi lives in Hamilton.

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