Even the sea gull perched atop the golden arches on Georgia Avenue NW at lunchtime looks baffled and depressed -- fit only to quoth a gull's version of "Nevermore." Its friends are Dumpster-diving for Big 'N Tasty leftovers in the parking lot, and one of them deposits a chicken bone on the hood of a customer's blue Mercedes.
A chicken bone?
Yes, McDonald's serves Buffalo wings now.
Maybe that's the problem -- a crisis of identity and purpose. Or maybe it's the sodium and the fat -- finally America has had enough? Or it's a sudden and massive loss of business acumen, like the recent decision to tie in Happy Meals with that Disney turkey "Treasure Planet." Or maybe it's the refusal to get hip and roll out a veggie burger nationwide, as Burger King has done.
Whatever the cause, the result is that McDonald's just announced for the first time since it went public in 1965 that it expects to lose money this quarter.
This is unsettling, as when a river burns or a diamond shatters. It does not fit your understanding of The Way Things Are. McDonald's does not lose money. McDonald's serves 46 million customers every day in 30,000 restaurants in 121 countries. It embodies so many American values that it might have invented some -- speed, salesman -ship, ingenuity, competitiveness, mass production, global manifest destiny. It must not stumble, or else what next -- apple pie is a fraud, Mom is a spy, the colors on the flag begin to run?
Everyone younger than 50 has powerful childhood memories involving McDonald's. The clown, the PlayPlace, the cheeseburgers so much better than at home. A cherubic prepubescent chant echoes across the land: "Mickey D's! Mickey D's!" Even if a youngster grows into some kind of puritan convinced that McDonald's is a force of nutritional or culture-killing evil, it is an awesome evil, not some losing-5-cents-a-share embarrassment.
Same goes for those anti-corporate radicals in Europe and Latin America: When they sack the local McDonald's, it's not because it's a symbol of American impotence and capitalist faltering.
McDonald's has burrowed so deeply into the collective psyche that even panhandlers request specific menu items.
"Can you help me get a Big 'N Tasty?" asks Bernard Washington outside the McDonald's on Georgia Avenue.
Washington, 39, is an out-of-work machine operator from West Virginia whose car broke down near Howard University. He slept in the car and now he's hungry. He can't believe McDonald's is losing money. He remembers when he was a boy and McDonald's seemed like a delightful circus. Now, "my daughter perks up when she hears 'McDonald's.' "
He gets his Big 'N Tasty, then starts fundraising for fries. "They're only asking a dollar," he observes of McDonald's. "Basically they're giving away food."
He stops: Maybe that's it. The prices are too low! McDonald's has finally become too good a deal. The current Dollar Menu promotion means you can get a Big 'N Tasty burger for $1 plus tax, or fries for $1, or a drink for $1. "That could be why they're losing money -- the Dollar Menu," says Washington.
Stock analysts have all sorts of theories for what ails McDonald's, involving over-expansion, loss of focus, price wars, quality control, a changing restaurant universe. But McDonald's is the ultimate people's restaurant, and the people have their own theories.
"The fish filet, which I used to love, just doesn't taste the same," says Michael Simms, a sheet metal mechanic from Temple Hills, buying lunch. "The french fries don't even taste the same."
No, says Winnder Martinez, 27, a drywall subcontractor, the problem is the opposite: "People are probably getting used to eating the same stuff over and over. The taste of the food -- it's good, but once you get used to it, you get tired of it."
Consider the parable of the hot dog and the rib sandwich, two relatively recent promotions, says Greg McCray, 39, a computer network manager from New Carrollton. He's getting breakfast from the McDonald's on East-West Highway in Bethesda, near his job.
"The McDonald's hot dog, now that was a joke," he says. "Who would spend $2.50 for a hot dog when you could go to a hot dog stand and spend $1.25? You don't see them selling those anymore.
"But things that were good they didn't keep either. Like those rib sandwiches. Those were good, and they didn't keep it. They were about $3.75, something like that. I might be off on the price. It was in the $3 range. They were high, but they were good."
McCray has been thinking a lot about the plight of McDonald's, which he loves. He grew up across the street from a McDonald's on South Dakota Avenue NE, and now he figures he eats at McDonald's three times a week.
"They smack too much mayonnaise on the food," he continues. "It's supposed to be the same amount, but sometimes they put too much on. It goes back to training."
And the fries. McCray shakes his head. The fries are a problem. Too much salt, not enough of whatever it is Burger King does to its fabulous fries. Sometimes his wife sends him to Burger King to get fries, and to McDonald's to get beef.
He also thinks the company could project a better image on television. "McDonald's commercials are average," he says. "You look at Burger King. Burger King has got Shaq" -- Shaquille O'Neal -- "doing commercials for them. They've got a Shaq burger! Wendy's? The old guy" -- late founder Dave Thomas, who used to appear in Wendy's commercials -- "is in the ground and he's still making money. They're looking for a replacement for him."
How unfortunate that this negative milestone occurred the year of the 100th anniversary of McDonald's founder Ray Kroc's birth. Founder's Day was Oct. 4. Kroc, who died in 1984, was the former milkshake-maker salesman who opened his first hamburger restaurant in 1955 in Des Plaines, Ill. Sales that first day were $366.12. His 1975 autobiography, "Grinding It Out," is an archetypal tale of American success.
Now, for the first time, a whiff of mortality hangs about the golden arches.
But McCray, for one, is sure McDonald's will endure and prosper again. It is woven into the daily routine of so many lives -- good customers all, who will keep coming back. Even if burgers are a dollar, McCray says, the dollars add up quickly.
Recently, after his daughter's basketball practice, it was late and McCray took his wife, daughter and son to the drive-through to pick up dinner. He had only $10 in his wallet. After his family members had ordered a chicken sandwich, two Big 'N Tasty burgers, three fries and two drinks for a dollar per item, the total with tax was $9 and change. McCray couldn't order anything for himself.
When they got home, they shared, and dinner for four under $10 tasted pretty good.