Friday, December 28, 2012

e pluribus unum

Driving across Pennsylvania recently on my way back to Ohio from Long Island, I stopped for a Big Mac and fries. I am not a frequent flyer when it comes to the Golden Arches. But on long road trips that great, greasy fast food, which took our nation by storm during my adolescence, is a favorite indulgence.

It was dark in the no man’s land of western PA when I exited Interstate 80 at Mercer and pulled into the local McDonald’s parking lot. The Mercer McDonald’s was nearly empty. I can report that it is a clean store. The walls above the booths are decorated with a number of framed nature scenes lovingly depicting regional fauna.

On the wall to the left of the counter is a map of the United States. The map was stuck with probably more than two hundred colorful pushpins, each marking the hometown of a recent customer. The manager told me he has to replace the map twice a year because it becomes overpopulated with pushpins.

Pennsylvania and the surrounding states boasted the most markers as you would expect. The East Coast was jammed, too, of course. But there were also pins marking towns all the way from California and Alaska to Texas and south Florida, not to mention a number of pins spanning the lower reaches of Canada. I scanned the map instinctively for my own coordinates to see if I could add anything original to this aleatory depiction of distance and direction, but both the North Fork of Long Island and northwestern Ohio were already pinned down nicely.

At that Mercer McDonald’s the folks working the late shift were pleasant and efficient. I took my order to go. But when I drove away, just another lonely cruiser, I carried with me more than a white bag of fast food. I was filled with e pluribus unum.

Despite a desperate economy and the social troubles facing our nation, I had the sense of being part of something positive, something living and breathing. I had the realization looking at that map on the wall of the Mercer McDonald’s that our national greatness relies not just on the historical geography of 50 discrete states. It comes directly from the individuals who inhabit and crisscross this land with freedom and dignity.

As I drove westward into the American night toward an uncertain personal future, one hand on the wheel, the other dipping into the McDonald’s bag for more fries, I was grateful to be part of this noble experiment.

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