Bathrooms — Not Food — Are the Great Equalizer at Highway Rest Areas

The New York State Thruway has gotten rid of McDonald's at nine rest stops, prompting some soul-searching.

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On December 21, the New York State Thruway Authority announced that the McDonald’s at nine rest areas along the Thruway would be shuttered effective New Year’s Day, which was sad news for the McDonald’s freaks among us (me), but, otherwise, the news came and went, because who cares. A couple of weeks later, though, a columnist at The New York Times decided to care, asking the all-important question: “Must We Gentrify the Rest Stop?”

There was, you see, the sad news about the McDonald’s but also the Thruway Authority said it would be closing two other rest stops for construction to build “updated restaurant concepts, Taste NY food and drink products, outdoor seating, seasonal food trucks, playgrounds and pet walking areas among other amenities,” which, sure, because again: who cares.

Still, the news led Ginia Bellafante, the NYT columnist, to contemplate what it means.

The Thruway’s service areas were originally built in the mid-1950s and brought the equalizing experience of cafeteria food to a world that was much more egalitarian. Howard Johnson’s arrived in the 1980s. McDonald’s entered the frame a decade later, the last time the stops were remodeled. The current reinvention will bring local farm stands, food trucks and, among some other fast food selections, the polarizing choices of Chick-fil-A, run by a red-state billionaire contributor to anti-LGBTQ causes, and Shake Shack, founded by a liberal billionaire restaurateur who came to prominence serving expensive food around Union Square.

Certainly, there are many reasons to consider it great progress never again to be led into temptation by the golden arches on this stretch of roadway, reminded of the scourge of low-wage work, environmental damage and the aggressive undermining of public health. But on the countervailing side, where we might find some modicum of social good, McDonald’s provides a business model that does not market identity. You don’t get to pretend that you are chic, or rich, urbane or pious when you order a Double Quarter Pounder With Cheese. You are not buying into a philosophy or a lifestyle; you are buying 740 calories of distraction from life.

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Given the deep and longstanding tensions between central New Yorkers and those living downstate, it is not obvious that the people of Utica, for example, would be delighted by the Manhattanization of the highway, over merely maintaining functional generic space that allows them to refuel, grab a sandwich and move along, a dozen potential Instagrammable moments be damned.

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In the end, her column is a fairly conventional take, which is that these new changes sound bad and why can’t we stick with the old things, because those were good, which is something I say all the time about everything too.

The problem is that the column doesn’t address the real point of highway rest stops, which primarily exist to offer a place for one to urinate or defecate, and that experience remains as egalitarian as they come in this country. These new Thruway rest stops will still be that, too, even with all the dumb new food. Gas — the second-most important function of a rest stop, and a very distant second at that — will still be there as well.

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I submit that we can save our outrage for when rest stops start offering nicer bathrooms for those who pay, and grosser ones for those who can’t, which is something I assume the New York State Thruway Authority currently has their best people studying. Until then, we’re all in the same room pissing into a hole, just like everyone else.