a Barak & Sheba Article

The Grand Scheme, My Tragic Life, and Hot Mustard Sauce...
Friday June 27, 2014

About 6 months ago, McDonalds abruptly removed their Hot Mustard McNugget dipping cups from their menu. Yes. It's true. They did that. Why am I telling you? So you will understand that in the grand scheme, that very action is the key to everything that has led up to this story…

Why is McDonalds Hot Mustard Sauce the key? Well. Let me take you back some years. 36 years ago to be exact. Not this time of year, but fall. The leaves are just starting to turn. As the darker blue of evening starts to bring the scent of the change. Picture it with me. It's Mid-late September, in Murray Hill, New Jersey. Rolling hills, the grass still a rich verdant. The trees beginning to rustle with the yellows and reds of changing leaves.

Up on the hillside, a large modern looking building… well modern for 1979. Across from the spacious parking lot that butts up against the structure there is a field. Not just any field, but acres of well-kept green lawn. Perfect for laying on, sky-gazing, or just taking in the cool of mother earth. At the far end, just in sight of the AT&T / Bell Labs headquarters, nestled in one corner of the field is a softball diamond.

Not just any softball diamond – but THE softball diamond. The perfectly maintained ballfield. With all the particular game parameters in order – baselines, foul lines, all the plates, bags, pitching mounds, dugouts, batting fences… everything. I can still see it. From under or around the weathered picnic table off the first base line, I would watch. Another Wednesday night, another game with the Bell Labs Fantastics verses whoever the weekly rotation would bring.

Each Wednesday night my mom (yes the one from the BSing episode) would pack my sister and me up into the car. We would drive to the edge of town, toward those newly erected Golden Arches. That McDonalds was the first fast food restaurant I had ever seen, or for that matter, heard of. We would park, amble out of the car, and into the place. My mom would always order the same thing for my Dad. Quarter Pounder with cheese, medium fries and a coke. Then she would order whatever she was in the mood for, a small cheeseburger kids meal for my sister… and then it was my turn.

I had my two favorites. I would pick a 6 piece Chicken McNuggets or Cheeseburger without pickles or onions, and a small fries and an orange drink. The Chicken McNugget had just joined the menu, and I really liked 'em. But, there was that old standby of meat, bun, and the perfect combination of ketchup and mustard. I never knew what I was going to order, until that very moment. I guess I wanted to surprise myself. Who knows? But I was 9, and my mom let me order for myself.

Whenever the mood for McNuggets struck me, I always got them with a pair of Hot Mustard sauce cups. Back then? They were round - none of this rectangular stuff. You could fit almost the whole nugget in there. For a kid in his single digits? It was heaven from a fryer.

So on with the story. Once we had our booty back in the car, we drove straight up to Murray Hill, parked the car, and dashed across the field from the parking lot to the diamond. It wasn't far at all. Normally, the food was still hot when we sat down at our traditional picnic spot. My sister and I were always trying to get our hands in the bags to the fresh, hot, salty fries... But much to our chagrin, Mom always made us wait for Dad.

In between innings or at bats, my father would come jogging over to us. He would sit on the far side of the picnic table, where he could still see the game and cheer his team on. When someone was up, he would point, and give us their stats between bites. He would smile at us, at the meal, at our mom. It was the picture perfect family moment. It was normal. It was real.

It didn't last.

Much to the surprise of my sister and me, my mother and father announced several days before Christmas that they were going to get separated. Like many other American families, a year or so later, they got divorced. My father moved towns away, and my mother stayed in the family home for as long as we could. Dad found religion and Mom found Sigmund Freud. But I'm sure you don't want to hear about all that drama, and I certainly have no interest in it either.

So let's skip to the good parts. Time moved on, they both met new partners, and eventually remarried. The McDonalds? Well… That's where this gets another facet.

During those “rocky drama years” the ones we are glossing over, as no one cares… My best friend and I became BMX heros. Ok. So maybe we weren't BMX heros to other people, but we certainly had amazing adventures in the dirt trails in the woods near our homes. As a matter of fact, we even designed and almost build a dozen tracks. If we had the know-how, we would have made an awesome video game! We had all the drawings, the plans and even had a prototype that we had built from the stuff we garbage picked from our neighbors.

While many of those things were in our minds? There was one thing we did accomplish. We made a back trail through the woods. It veered off from one of the regular tracks, and had a couple cool berms, a jump, and even some whoop-de-doos. But the best part of our trail wasn't what was on it. The best part of our trail was where it ended. You wanna guess? That's right. In the back of the McDonalds parking lot.

On those hot and sunny summer days, we would ride all morning. Up, down, around hairpins, off jumps, through berms… we had so much fun. Then, we would head to McDonalds. We would park our bikes out in the bike rack, and head inside…. Into the Macadees fried smelling air-conditioning. We would mosey up to the counter, pull out the money we had saved from mowing lawns and place our order.

Normally, we would split a 20 piece McNuggets. He would switch between the barbeque and the sweet n sour, but I would always get Hot Mustard. Always. We would get drinks, sometimes orange, other times soda. And somehow, it always involved a paper back full of salty, fresh, greasy, yummy, French fries. Oh yes. It was heaven.

Back then? I didn't know. I didn't know that I was searching for the feeling of normal. I hadn't understood the symbology of what those Golden Arches meant to me. And, to be honest, I really didn't care. I just loved the lard-fried McDonalds goodness.

Where am I going with this? Well… about 6 months ago, McDonalds discontinued Hot Mustard sauce. I tried to stock up. But you know how that goes. You run out. It goes out of date. The cups explode in the heat of a car in the summer. It's a mess. It's tragic. I tried to get them through the Mexican mafia… but no luck there. I found them on ebay… but when they arrived, they were cheap knock offs… and paypal has long since cancelled my account (for being an adult business – but that is fodder for a different tale.)

Since then, I have tried online copycat recipes – to no avail. I called McDonalds. I wrote them letters. I tried to go straight around 'em and bribe the manufacturer. Nothing worked. There just wasn't any reprieve. I went through all the stages of loss. Finally, yesterday, I got to acceptance. That place where I knew the last vestige of my normal history was gone for good.

And this morning, when the depression of loss was finally beginning to cede… I had one of the worst work days ever. On any good day, working in the ER is a relay race from clock in to punch out. People were screaming, blood was flying, they were calling code after code… and that was just in the lunchroom – and maybe it was just spaghetti sauce… but it was bad!

Normally, I am just fighting Darwinism. A flu here, a broken toe there, the occasional vacuum cleaner hose stuck up someone'’s ass… you know. But today, I got case after case of really intensive and sick patients. I barely got to take a lunch. I mean, it was so bad, we had to order pizza, just to keep the nurses from eating the doctors.

Finally, my shift came to an end. My relief came and I looked at my watch for the first time in that five minute period. I took a moment to sit down. I gave report, and was able to catch the collar of his scrubs before he made it out the squad bay doors. His resigned grimace finally took hold, after I pulled him all the way back to the desk. He nodded as if to say, “Well played.” And then I left.

I should actually say, “ran for the door,” as that was more to the truth. I think I broke my badge, and the timeclock, swiping it so hard. Once I was out in the parking lot air, sure I had gotten away, I decided it was time for a drink. I drove down the main drag… and what did I happen to see? Yup. Those mocking Golden Arches. The ones that had killed the last tasty memories of goodness and wholesome life… just months ago.

My heart ached. Should I give them the chance? Would just an orange drink cure my woes? I pulled in behind the other lemmings, and waited. We moved, in a slow centipede like fashion until I was at the stanchion. The happy brimming voice said, “Can I help you?” I was about to spill this entire story into the microphone when I noticed something. Wait. What is that? Could it be? Does that small, round, applied sticker at the bottom of the picture of the Golden Fried McNuggets profess the truth? I had to know!

Faintly, with my voice gaining strength, I asked, “ Ma'am. It says on the menu out here… that Hot Mustard Sauce is back. Is that true? Is it back? Can I feel normal again? Are these tears of joy or pain? Will my parents ever love my sister and me again? If I build a softball diamond in a cornfield, will he come back? Can we watch the Fantastics play one more time?”

The pause on the other end of the speaker seemed significantly longer that the 67 seconds my watch ticked. Finally, the now not-so-brimming with happiness and slightly confused voice said, “Umm. We do have Hot Mustard Sauce. Can I take your food order?”

Shaking myself out of my hysterics, I forced calm back into my world. I think my voice had almost returned to even tones as ordered my old standard. A ten piece McNuggets with 3 hot mustard sauces, a Medium French Fries, and a large Orange Drink. I added for good measure… Don’t worry ma'am, I was listening to a book on tape and you caught me at a really emotional part. Her curt reply, “Of course, sir. It'll be $6.17 at the window.”

When I pulled up to the window, I could only see a hand. Kind of like that scene in the Lorax. Just a disembodied hand that lead to a shadowy figure in the window. But I paid bashfully, received my change, then drove to the next window. This time, it was the Lorax in the window. Well… almost. He was a short man, with a huge mustache and a welcoming smile. In his hands? A bag. A hot bag. A hot bag, with an intoxicating fragrance.

I took the bag. Carefully. Gingerly. Excitedly. I placed it on my lap. I could feel the heat emanating from the fresh, hot, fried contents. I slowly drove to the parking spot at the end of the row. Right up to the picnic bench off to the side. The one with the well worn seat. I sat. I placed my drink beside me. I opened the bag and leaned down. I breathed in the aroma. I took out the French fries. I took out the obligatory napkins. I removed the clamshell box of nuggets. I lifted out the 3 cups of hot mustard sauce. I peeled back the thin covering of the sauce. Unfastening the box lid, I took a nugget out, scooped up a large dollop of sauce.

Closing my eyes, I bit into that hot, juicy morsel. As my mouth exploded with flavor, in my mind's eye, I could see it all again. My life. As it was. The perfection of then. Just a memory spurred by a sauce. By a flavor. As I opened my eyes, I took the next bite. I considered. I smiled. Life was perfect then.

Had it not been for all that has been, I wouldn't be here. But now? As I write this? As I sit here, with the recent taste, and the remains of that orange drink? I can hear Sheba softly sleeping in the next room. The cat is nestled close to my ankle. My parents are still divorced. AT&T sold the Murray Hill office. There are no Fantastics playing softball in that field. But. McDonalds has brought back Hot Mustard Sauce. And you know what? Life is perfect. Now.

Barak & Sheba

©2014 Barak & Brat Sheba

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