The McDonald's at 490 Eighth Avenue. Photo: Andrew Willard
With ten, maybe twenty bags of trash slushing onto each other on the curb, the doors open to four men leaning a little too far into their chairs. Are they asleep? They're not really moving. A line curls, immobile, from the lone cashier. This is 10 p.m. on a Monday at the McDonald's on 34th Street and Eighth Avenue.
“That McDonald's?” locals ask. With NYPD and ambulances frequenting the establishment on a weekly basis, it's hard to not notice what's going on. Notorious for its back room, where drug deals are allegedly made, it seems every visit is accompanied by a fight or spectacle. Customers blow up about getting 15 cents too much for change, proclaiming “I don't need your handouts” for the whole place to hear, while others get carried out by stretchers. On Nov. 11, NYPD squad cars were traded out for fire trucks because the roof had caught on fire. No one was hurt, and the place opened up the next morning.
Some of the problems at this McDonald's stem from the methadone clinic just down the street, dispensing the opioid to help treat heroin addiction. There is also a needle exchange and two outpatient substance-abuse programs within walking distance. In 2015, reporter Kim Barker's story in the New York Times exposed this McDonald's for what it is: a trap house (or drug den). “A Manhattan McDonald's With Many Off-the-Menu Sales,” was the headline on the Barker story. Patrons go to the bathroom, buy what they need and nod off in the front tables.
“The Zombie McDonald's” or “The Junkie McDonald's,” as locals have called the place, according to Barker, is just twelve blocks from Times Square. As tourists run starry-eyed among the concrete metropolis, a man wrapped in a blanket sleeps above a subway grate. UGG boots from Mississippi or Maine stomp near his cup of change next to his cardboard sign, oblivious to the poverty at their feet.
One Monday night, just after the Thanksgiving holiday tapers off into Christmas cheer, at 10:09 p.m. a woman is screaming from the back of the McDonald's for a winter coat. Almost immediately a man runs in carrying a bunched-up blue coat. Another man walks in the restaurant saying, “Check, please!” but there's no check.
There are two young women, and the thinner of the two brings a wad of paper towels towards the back. Both of them are arguing with a man, claiming he stole the women's phone cord and battery from her coat, with some expletives sprinkled into the conversation.
“Thief,” she spits.
“You better get away from me, I'm going to punch you in the mouth,” he retorts.
Their arguing continues, getting louder, bouncing throughout the McDonald's booths. A man starts to usher his wife out of the restaurant at 10:18 p.m., looking fearful and not even ordering food, as another man follows the people arguing with a phone, recording and egging them on.
Sometimes this McDonald's has a security guard to calm the ruckus. Even police officers will stroll in to keep the peace. This night, however, the place is unsupervised, just for the patrons and the workers.
As the fighting continues, a homeless man approaches a table for a dollar. They don't have cash, he asks again, and they say the same thing so he leaves. The people arguing continued their aggressive conversation outside.
A group of four huddle behind this table at 10:21 p.m. In hushed voices, one man whispers to the others, “I need it,” repeatedly. Another whispers back, “I got fired.” At one point a woman appears, with an Auntie Anne's pretzel wrapper, and hands this to the man who “needs it.” He leaves, less anxious, as ambulances whir by, flashing through the window.
The thin young woman returns, guiding another woman with a ponytail to the back room. A different woman walks towards one of the men sleeping near the front. She checks to see if he's breathing. Meanwhile, a man who appears to be homeless starts rifling through the McDonald's trash bins. He takes a cup, throws away the lid and walks away with a seemingly empty cup.
It's now 10:30 p.m. A worker walks towards the back and announces she is shutting the area down for the night. One man rises to the occasion, grabbing cups, ketchup wrappers, napkins and a stray newspaper from the floors and tables, throwing them away.
As the back is closing down, the endless line has become bearable, people are just sitting eating burgers and pizza that is not on the menu. As the doors close, the same four men are unmoved. Slouching, leaning into the plastic chairs, eyes closed, hopefully just asleep.