NEW YORK, NEW YORK — The McDonald’s across from the Empire State Building is the only McDonald’s on 5th Avenue, and surely the only one in the world with a UFO landing site. Most of the thousands of people who queue up there each day probably don’t notice it, but if you happen to look up while waiting in line or just as you turn from the counter you see that you’re standing beneath an inset painting of a landing spacecraft, jets ablaze. Instead of the usual décor — pale landscape watercolors and bits of regional history — this McDonald’s provides it’s own thematic window into the cosmos, including a composite world of meteors, spaceships and nebulae that is inhabited by marine mammals and illuminated by Egyptian-looking electric torches. And at the front of the restaurant, next to the stairs that lead up toward the balcony, a small bronze plaque declares this McDonald’s the “capital of the world.”
McDonald’s, according to Debbie from the customer satisfaction department at their corporate headquarters, has rules about the appearance of its franchise units. All McDonald’s must continue to provide “the McDonald’s experience” and a “family friendly” atmosphere, and any deviation from the usual red and yellow palette and iconography has to be approved. “But there are a few themed restaurants, like the rock and roll McDonald’s in Chicago,” Debbie noted. “And there’s one in the southwest somewhere with like an old west theme.”
“What about the Cosmo-nautical McDonald’s across from the Empire State Building?”
“Never heard of that one.”
“It’s full of airbrush murals and prints with all kinds of planets and blue whales in space and stuff like that.”
“Really? That’s certainly unusual.”
“What do you think it means?”
“I can’t say.”
It’s meaning might have something to do with the plaque up front. Titled “Heading for the Next Millennium,” the inscription tells a story, in the owner’s own verse, about the relationship between the universe, time and the origins of aquatic life:
There are many similarities between the vastness of outer-space, and the depth of our oceans. This McDonald’s parallels the idea that possibly the beings that lie in our oceans, originally came from a home, far away, in some distant part of outer space.
The plaque continues, posing a question more poignant (and puzzling) than whether or not to super-size your Shamrock Shake:
Here, We stand in some distant portal of time,
Here, but, somewhere else at the same time.
The Reason why they are here, who they are, and then, what we are doing here?
Debbie said she thought the parent company looked favorably on franchise owners indulging their creative spirits, and that unusual interiors are evaluated on a case-by-case basis. I asked her if she knew why something as important as the Capital of the World McDonald’s isn’t listed in the phonebook. “Got me,” she said. “Should be in there. Try looking for the number on our web site.” I did, and found that not only is the number not listed, but that particular McDonald’s cannot be found on the McDonald’s Web site’s Restaurant Locator.
A rogue McDonald’s then? Not exactly. The New York regional office, it turns out, is aware of the situation. “The owner’s name is Myong Juch,” the woman there told me. Juch is a fifty-six-year-old Korean immigrant who spent ten years as an airline purser before entering the entrepreneurial world, first as a bodega owner and then as the first Korean member of the 13,000-strong force of McDonald’s franchisees. Juch’s initial investment has apparently paid off; the woman at the regional office told me he recently opened another one on Bowery in Chinatown. “That one’s got a theme, too,” she added.
The original McDonald’s at 34th street and 5th avenue was built in 1972, and at that time it was a regular old McDonald’s. Juch bought it ten years ago and shortly thereafter decided to remake it to his liking. Juch currently divides his time between that McDonald’s and his new one downtown, which features a fountain and padded silk chairs and many otherwise fancy accoutrements. Juch maintains no set schedule, and the shuttling back and forth makes him difficult to reach by phone. The best way to find him, I was told, was to drop in unannounced. “This is like his home,” an employee at the uptown store said.
But when I tried to find him, Juch wasn’t home. I did find two employees sitting together on their break by one of the wall counters. “Hey, what’s with the sea creatures in here?” I asked them. The smaller of the two women, who was eating a McRib, said, “There’s no sea creatures in here.” Behind her, smiling dolphins floated across a starry sky. “What about those?” I asked, pointing. “Oh yeah,” she said. Then she added: “You want to see something really nice? Come here.” She led me back toward the front of the dining area. We passed the poster with instructions for saving choking victims and stopped in front of a gilt-framed print showing some penguins milling about on ice floes, flippers outstretched, with the Earth rising over the horizon, and a diaphanous blue whale descending from the sky. “This one is really nice,” she said, with her hand on the frame but looking away. “If you really look at it, you find out how beautiful it really is.”
By this time, customers at nearby tables became curious, and some chimed in. “Yeah, what is this all about?” one man asked. “It reminds me of Superman II, when Superman goes up north and builds an ice palace.” He was looking at the other side of the room, where a vast mural suggested that we were looking out from underneath a golden portico onto a soft-airbrushed galactic region. A closer look revealed that the portico, whose columns are capped with grinning harlequin masks, was painted onto a canvas applique.
“Pretty elaborate, I guess,” the man said.
On my way out, I asked two employees about the plaque’s last and most lyrical stanza:
Some day we will stand another world.
Let us hope we care for the creatures
We share these worlds with.
The adventure begins here!
One had never read it; the other smiled and then said, “I don’t pay much attention to that plaque.”
The next day, I tried again to reach Juch on the phone. I still wanted to ask him why he took the trouble to make his McDonald’s into a kind of unearthly shrine, and what he meant by the inscription on the plaque. Juch wasn’t in, but the man who answered said he liked Juch’s decoration and outlook. His name, it turned out, was Quasar, and he’s worked at Juch’s McDonald’s for several years. “Quasar?” I asked. “That’s right. It’s an unusual name, but you have to meet my parents.”
What did Quasar think about the plaque? “I like it,” he said. “Why not?”
“The whole thing fits in with your name,” I suggested.
“Yeah, I guess it does. A quasar is a star that’s getting ready to die; it’s about to explode and become a supernova.”
“So maybe that’s where I am in my life right now; I’m about to go supernova.”