Back on the Chain Gang (2008)

Nick Catucci

Then: the dawn. The day, with ur-crucial assist from L.A., something national happened to send my N'Yorkcentricness down the drain; to force me to behold, once and for all, neither askance nor askew, the Not New York; to convince me that, except possibly emeritus, New York wasn't the capital anything of dick. —Richard Meltzer, L.A. Is the Capital of Kansas

Great spurting fountainhead of American culture or not, NYC hosts the same national and international (and notional) chains as, say, Akron. That these franchises disenfranchise workers and narrow consumer choice goes without saying. But New York would not be New York—just as Akron would not be Akron—without 'em.

Mickey D's, Donny-Do's, Ronald's Hut, or whatever you want to call it, McDonald's (724 Broadway, 529-9660) is, to use their internal marketing parlance, our "Trusted Friend." Breaking a longtime estrangement, I visited the extravagantly art deco'd NYU location just before the dinner rush and ordered a small vanilla shake ($1.79). The listless woman behind the counter handed me a yellowish glob of milk treat too thick to be sucked through a straw, its plastic top inexplicably splashed with chocolate discharge. Families, couples, and individuals with strollers, shopping bags, and briefcases filled about half of the first floor's tables. I sat under the vaulted ceiling of the checkout area, past the mezzanine, facing a mural of Manhattan with its landmarks collapsed together and rendered in cool greens, blues, and maroon.

Below, Ronald presided over the Happy Meal toy display, featuring Hot Wheels (two colors, with launchers) and Barbies (a Latina on the left, African American on the right, and blonde, placed a couple inches higher, in the center). I decided to order a McVeggie Burger ($2.99) and small Sprite ($1). The patty, a scabby, lukewarm meat imitation, came haphazardly combined with a mushy sesame seed bun, too-large chunk of iceberg lettuce, mess of ketchup, onions, yellow cheese square, and thin tomato slice. I ate most of it while "Mambo #5" played.

I then strolled down the street to Soho's Old Navy (503-511 Broadway, 226-0865). Where McDonald's cheerful, childish facade banks on perceived earnestness, Old Navy's image has a dull, semi-ironic edge exemplified by their latest ad campaign, "The Rugby Bunch." The nostalgia for '70s nostalgia is, naturally, nostalgia for the blithe '90s that birthed the Gap spin-off. Inside the high-ceilinged, concrete-floored storefront, one finds a variety of last decade's fashions (manufactured in Indonesia, India, Vietnam, Thailand, China, or Korea): women's "tech vests," available in two shades of pink (on sale for $17.50); green novelty boxers decorated with "greasy fries" (three for $8.50); pre-faded T-shirts emblazoned with the names of fake academies, nonexistent sports teams, or even more generic titles like "Team Athletic" ($12.50); girls' sparkly "Fancy Pants" stitched with pink and purple hearts and stars ($19.50); men's "baggy" jeans (on sale for $20); and jeans for painters, mechanics, cowboys ("boot-cut"), fatties ("wide leg"), and traditionalists ("Number 7"), all $22.50 to $24.50.

Painters and mechanics may buy their jeans at Old Navy, but for paint and tools they most assuredly go to Home Depot (550 Hamilton Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-832-8553). When I bought Sheetrock and doors last year, I didn't even need to visit the high-ceilinged, concrete-floored white-and-orange storefront; an employee drove a forklift through the streets of Brooklyn to my loft ($75 delivery fee). There's a reason why the Homies have put so many mom-and-pops out of business. Actually, two: convenience and selection (their prices aren't bad, either). Scented with fresh-cut lumber, the warehouse offers all the goods you need to, say, build a solid wall: four-by-eight sheets of 5/8 inch fire code drywall ($6.21 apiece); eight-foot-long, 2 1/2-inch metal studs ($1.94); joint compound (five gallons for $9.98); drywall tape (200 feet, $7.38); and sanding screens (10 for $10.94), among others. My dream items? Weber's Genesis Silver "C" outdoor grill, with side burner and crossover ignition system ($499); and Senco's sleek, silver-and-black 14.4-volt Duraspin Screw Gun ($198), which can be found just off of the aisle with Hitachi slogan "Got Wood?" plastered on the floor. Indeed, if New York is the capital of dick, we have large chain stores like Home Depot to thank.


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