Recently, a large group of health care activists wrote Jim Skinner, CEO of McDonald’s, to suggest that the company discontinue use of its signature marketing character, Ronald McDonald. The request was prompted by concern over the epidemic of childhood obesity that is fueled by McDonald’s and other fast-food chains.
Not surprisingly, the gigantic company’s shareholders rejected the request. Skinner announced: “Ronald McDonald is an ambassador to McDonald’s and he is an ambassador for good. Ronald McDonald is going nowhere.”
That’s no surprise, of course. Ronald is literally as recognizable to children as Santa Claus. Like Santa, he even gives the kids toys — not for being good, but for nagging their parents into feeding them monstrously unhealthy crap.
I’ve never found the food at McDonald’s anything but sickening — even as a child. But, weirdly enough, I’ve had a few personal encounters with Ronald that I think make me special.
The first — and my memory is fuzzy — was long ago in my late 20s. During that time in Atlanta, a lot of gay men frequented so-called adult bookstores to find partners for quick sex. One popular such place was on Cypress Street, which was also well known as a hustling district (and still is to some extent).
I stopped by on my way home from a night at Backstreet. I immediately met a guy who asked me to go back to his apartment rather than play on the premises. That — intimacy — always seemed to miss the point of going to a bookstore, but his building was within walking distance a few blocks away. So, sure, I’ve had 7 cocktails and it’s probably not a good idea to try to drive home now, so, okay, sure.
We fell into bed immediately. The next thing I knew I woke up about noon to the smell of bacon frying. The idea of eating was not attractive. In fact, laying eyes on the guy was not attractive. I had utterly no memory of what he looked like. I wanted to go.
“That’s very nice of you,” I said.
“There’s an extra robe in the closet, if you want to wear something,” he said, looking me up and down. He headed back to the kitchen.
I walked to the closet. The terrycloth robe was front and center. As I took it off the hanger, I noticed something brilliantly orange on the shelf above. A big wig! In fact, there were two or three more such wigs. Then I noticed something like yellow overalls.
“Holy shit,” I thought. “It’s Ronald McDonald’s costume.”
Of course, I didn’t think he was seriously Ronald McDonald. I thought maybe it was a Halloween costume. But, then, why would anyone need three such costumes? Maybe it was a sexual fetish. Had he dressed up like Ronald the night before? Did he try to get me to? There was no lipstick on me.
He came back in the room, with eggs and bacon on a tray. “I hope you enjoy this,” he said.
I couldn’t speak. Finally, I blurted, “Are you Ronald McDonald?”
“Of course not,” he said, patting me.
“Oh, okay,” I said. In those years, when I still drank (a lot), I was wonderfully able to suspend rationality without a pause. How I miss booze now and then.
We exchanged phone numbers. A few days later, he called and we planned to get together for dinner, but then he called and said he had to cancel. I was kind of relieved, being haunted by the image of a naked man in lipstick and an orange Afro wig in my bed.
He explained that he had to fill in for a co-worker at a special event.
“Special,” I repeated.
“Just another store opening,” he said. “I just wave and smile and have my picture taken. Kinda like a beauty queen.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Are you saying that you really are Ronald McDonald?”
“No,” he said. “There are many Ronald McDonalds. I am but one of many.”
I was amazed. I asked myself, as I often did, where this remarkable talent to attract freaks came from. Perhaps, it was because, being a queer living in a house completely decorated with religious kitsch, Florida souvenirs and funeral art, I was a freak myself. Take away his burgers and Ronald McDonald was just another clown with many clones. But I was one of a kind! (Yes, it’s “Sunset Boulevard” redux.)
We had a few sexless dates after that. He would never discuss his working life. He took being an emblem of dreadful food very seriously and his contract required that he not reveal his identity. “Imagine,” he told me once, “if everyone found out I’m gay. I’d be immediately branded a burger-peddling pedophile.”
He later told me that he hoped to break into the porn industry. Being Ronald was just to tide him over until he became famous without facial makeup and lipstick. In fact, he said that he was at the dirty bookstore the night we met because he was doing research of sorts. “I wish I remembered our sex better,” I said.
We drifted away soon and I forgot him for about 15 years until fate dealt me another encounter. (To be continued.)