Scribbles from R Scott Jones
June 2nd, 2024

Two Men in a McDonald's in Small Town America

My long road trips usually involve passing through countless rural outposts of what is known as small town America. Often, the easiest place to grab a bite is at some fast food chain; many times, it's the only option available. If I can eat inside, I usually do.

And inside many of them, there are two older men sitting together.

Two older men seated at a table in a fast food resturant. They have food in front of them, but are both staring off to the side of one another.
This happens to be a Jack in the Box in rural Texas last month, but it's the same scene I see often—two men, silently seated together, staring off. But still together.

Sometimes they're actively conversing. Sometimes, they're just sitting there. Together. Not reading the daily newspaper (do those even exist anymore?), or looking at a phone, or otherwise engaged in much of anything besides sitting and occasionally poking at their order. Maybe glancing up occasionally to the lone tv, perpetually tuned to Fox News. A comment will eventually be made, and that will entice a short conversation. Followed by some more quiet sitting. This is obviously a ritual they repeat often (once a week? Every other day? It's hard to tell). But it's clear that while neither person necessarily looks excited to be there, it's both pleasant and appreciated company.

It's surprising how often I see this play out these days, at least compared to a decade or two ago. Perhaps I'm just noticing it now.

We often think of the small town diner as the center of community life in rural towns (apart from church and the local dive bar, that is). But increasingly, it's the otherwise sterile interior of a McDonald's. And many times, that McDonald's is attached to a gas station.

And it's just two older guys at a small table—not a group of regulars shooting the breeze with their favorite waitress, in between occasional nods or pleasantries with adjoining tables of other locals, who are also there most days, ordering "the usual," and also only paying in cash and coins stored in their front jeans pocket. Did they mention they knew the waitress since she was just a toddler?

I'm not sure what this change exactly means, though I have some guesses. But here's how I feel when I witness this: I'm both saddened and supportive.

I'm saddened because—from afar, just the observation of a random passerby over the course of a dozen minutes—this seems a lot lonelier than I remember small town life to be. I often go out of my way to pass by their table, en route to grab an extra napkin or dump my trash, so I can proffer a direct smile or make a friendly comment. It feels like a kind thing to do; because if I'm honest, I feel a bit of pity for them.

Being a regular at a fast food chain is a world apart from being a regular at the diner or local bar. The McDonald's is staffed by a kid, who will only work there for a year or two, and is designed to provide the least possible amount of interaction. Hell, you're now directed to the damned kiosk just to order these days—then called not by your name, but by a literal  number. There's no friendly chitchat, and no one notices when you don't show up next week, certainly not enough to call and check on your unexplained absence. Not here.

But at the same time, I'm glad that it's still happening. Social community is really important, and there seem to be fewer and fewer ways that we get it these days. Even those fleeting moments when the waitress asks you if you want more coffee, or the small talk you have with the grocery store cashier as she rings up and bags your produce.

So many of our formerly routine social interactions have moved online or been automated away. You don't go to the bank anymore, you do your banking in a browser, at home, alone. You don't ask for a refill like you might at the diner, you walk over to the soda dispenser at the McDonald's and silently do it yourself. You use the self checkout at the grocery store because there's only one checkout line open now and your feet hurt too much to stand in its long line.

And I know, particularly if there are few new events in your life, and if you see each other quite regularly, that it's pretty easy to run out of conversation topics. I noticed this with my elderly dad, too, when we'd get together in the last few years of his life. Spending time together was still meaningful, and important social time, even if it much of it consisted of sitting quietly next to each other at the bar, occasionally sipping a beer.

So I appreciate this obvious attempt to remedy this societal change. To continue those social connections, even if they appear—perhaps to an outsider—as a lonely existence. It may not be as rich as previous decades might have easily provided, but it's still something, dammit.

Cheers, boys!