January 13, 1999

Views From Metropolis


Wendy M. Pfeiffer

Part 13 in a Series

"Over 98 Billion sold." I can't move on. I'm floored by this statistic.
McDonald's did more to teach me about numbers and their meaning than anything
else. I suppose it still has some lessons for me.

As a little girl, I remember when they built the new Golden Arches near our
house. It would later serve as a meeting place for the neighborhood kids, a
Saturday morning escape for the neighborhood dads, a reward for chores
well-done, and a first job for my older sister. It was through McDonald's that
I first heard about fast food, first ate sesame seeds, and first learned about
large numbers. Their milkshakes were better than anyone else's, but their fries
were not as good as A&W fries.

When the McDonald's near my home was built, a large sign was installed on its
roof. Underneath the name and arches was a tag-line: "Over 6 million sold." I
remember trying to pronounce the strange word, "mil-ee-yawn." "Mom, what's
'mil-ee-yawn' mean?" "Oh, that's just a very big number. There are probably a
million blades of grass in the back lawn." The next day found me out in back,
counting blades of grass. After awhile, I got a piece of paper and crayon, to
make tic marks for each 100 blades I counted. I didn't know what number came
after 100, but I knew Mom would be able to tell me. Of course, Mom had to call
in the math expert.

"Dad, why do they sell blades of grass at McDonald's? Do people eat grass?
What does it taste like? How do they count people? Do they count people the
same way they count blades of grass?" Poor Dad. Two hours later, he'd taught
me about cows and their multiple stomachs, carnivores, world population issues,
where hamburger comes from, generic number and counting theory, how things can
expand exponentially; and the more subtle lesson, that these things frustrated
him in some way.

I honestly can't remember noticing the McDonald's sign from that day to this. I
suppose it served its purpose, then was dismissed from my consciouness. Imagine
my shock--anguish, really--to see the sign on my route home yesterday, "Over 98
billion sold." My god, that's around 15 burgers for every human on earth! How
is that possible?

Have I really been alive that long? In the thirty-odd years of my life,
McDonald's has sold 98 billion hamburgers! What have I done during the same
time period? Compared to the Hamburglar, my life has been a tiny, insignificant
exercise: 1 high school graduation, 10 jobs, 1 college education, 1 divorce, 5
true friends, 1 true Valentine. 19 milestones, altogether.

Ronald, I need some advice. How do I grow my life exponentially? I've always
focused on depth. Now, I find that I lack breadth. Yet somehow, you managed to
succeed. No matter how broad your reach became, you remained the same. Your
hair is still a vibrant orange, your shoes are still as big and floppy. Your
milkshakes taste great, and people line up to see you in every country in the
world. You haven't dissipated with your expansion. What's your secret?

As a highschooler, I took a test which established my intelligence as among the
top 1/2 of 1 percent of the nation. After a week of watching me swagger around,
my Mom gave me a gift. It was a poster, with a beautiful picture of a
waterfall. The caption read, "To be simple is to be great." Perhaps that's
the secret. Ronald McDonald knows who he is and what he does. He focuses on
being himself, and doing what he does. People can do what they do, and not much

Perhaps McDonald's has given me self-context. I may not yet know who I am and
what I do, but I know my relationship to 98 billion burgers.

At least, that's the view from here.

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