McDonald’s. I’m trying really hard right now to think of another proper noun that made me more excited when I was a kid. “Atari”, “Hostess”, and “Baskin-Robbins” came close. I’m trying to think of what would elicit the same kind of response in me as an adult. “Canon”, maybe? “Cedar Point”, as in the amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio off Lake Erie, would for sure, both then and now. A quick trip to McDonald’s was much less expensive than any of these other things, and the fact that my brothers and I weren’t treated to meals there with any sort of regularity made a trip to the Golden Arches seem really special.
When I was really young, some of my classmates from families that seemed to be well-off had their birthday parties there. I was invited to maybe only one or two of those celebrations, but that was okay because that was only the warm-up for me getting to have one my own birthday parties a few years later at ShowBiz Pizza, which was later rebranded to Chuck E. Cheese. I’m proud to say that after having attended a couple of semi-recent corporate events at venues that feature once-popular arcade games, my Skee-Ball skills seem to have carried over mostly intact from 1985.
Uptown, Chicago, Illinois. Sunday, April 21, 2013.
There’s a scene in the movie Breakfast At Tiffany’s where Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly declares to George Peppard’s Paul Varjak about the famed jewelery store that, “Nothing very bad could happen to you there”. In my childhood, that place was McDonald’s. It now makes all kinds of sense when I think about it. McDonald’s became a place associated with rewards or special occasions in the pleasure center of my kiddie brain. My family would sometimes eat there when on a road trip that was longer than the two hours it took to drive to my grandparents’ farm, and sometimes during Christmas shopping with Mom, my younger brother and I would be treated to McDonald’s when we had been on our very best behavior.
Before my appetite outgrew it, I always wanted the Happy Meal, which in my case would be comprised of a hamburger, a small order of french fries, a small pop (orange drink, forever!), and a small, plastic toy – all contained in a colorfully printed, folded cardboard box with cutouts at the top that served as a handle. Others in my family would sometimes try to convince me that for the same money as the Happy Meal, I could get almost twice as much food. Absolutely not, and I did not care. If I was allowed to have anything on the menu by Mom and/or Dad, I was going to have exactly what I wanted, which was going to be a Happy Meal.
When my younger brother’s kids came to spend a week with their uncle four years ago, the local McDonald’s was a lifesaver. Thankfully, there are at least a few healthier options on the menu today (i.e. apple slices instead of fries, etc.) than when I was a kid growing up in the ’80s, so I didn’t feel terrible about us eating there a few times, and the kids were happy. However, there was still something missing during those dining experiences: Where were the McDonaldland characters?? Of course, namesake Ronald McDonald’s clown face and big, red hair were everywhere, but what about Mayor McCheese? Where was the Hamburglar (“Robble, robble!…”), or Birdie, even if she was a little whiny and sort of annoying? Last, but definitely not least, where was Grimace?
Grimace is, was, and probably always will be my favorite. He was big and goofy and very purple, long before a certain, similar-colored cartoon dinosaur named Barney was seemingly everywhere all at once. He had this low, guttural voice that sounded like he was talking out of the back of his throat, and also the best, loud, boisterous laugh. He was also hapless and got into the most ridiculous situations in those thirty-second TV spots that would run after school or on Saturday mornings between my cartoons. From the moment Grimace’s big, awkward self would lumber into frame, you just knew you were going to be shaking your head and laughing at something foolish. Oh, that Grimace. This grape Kool Aid-colored dude was always up to something.
I mean absolutely no disrespect to the owner of our subject car, but when I spotted this purple ’65 Buick Special in a neighborhood parking lot, and especially facing it dead-on, it reminded me of none other than Grimace. My mind seems to form associations that are mysterious even to me after some forty-something years on this planet, but when I looked this purple Buick in its “face” and saw its slightly droopy mouth of a grille grinning back at me, I might have even started salivating at the prospect of a large order of salty, greasy, delicious McDonald’s french fries. Granted, this ’65 Special is not quite as formless as gumdrop-shaped Grimace, sporting the crisp, new contours given to Buick’s intermediates with the redesign introduced the year before.
I’ve mentioned briefly before in a previous essay how I thought the “Special” model name sounded dorky, which befits this car’s resemblance in my mind to a big, lumpy, purple, fuzzy whatever-it-is. The Special, though, was seen as also lovable by many buyers in 1965, with total Buick A-Body production of almost 235,000 split pretty closely, 43% / 57%, between the Special and its upmarket Skylark stablemate. The former’s share of Buick’s midsize sales would steadily erode through 1969, its last year in this form (before reappearing as a bargain-priced Colonnade for ’75), when the rechristened Special DeLuxe accounted for only 35,600 sales, or just under 19% of total Buick intermediate production for that last year of the 1960s.
Just two engines were available for the ’65 Special and Skylark: a 225-cubic inch V6 with 155 horsepower, and a 300-c.i. V8 that was also standard on the LeSabre, with either 210 with a two-barrel Rochester carburetor, or 250 horses with the 4-bbl version. All engines had cylinders of exactly the same bore and stroke, as the V6 was basically three-fourths of the V8. When I was a young kid going to McDonald’s, 75% of anything wasn’t going to cut it with me, which is why the Happy Meal was the only way to go, at least until I was in maybe the third grade. And you’d better not put your ketchup-y fingers on my plastic toy, that is, unless you want to see me grimace.
Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois.