I read that a Burger King franchise in Helsinki has opened an in-store sauna, serving Cokes and fries to visitors as they sweat it out, and my first thought was: I want to go there. I don’t mean “go” in the sense of an ironic pilgrimage, the way some people go to Dollywood or the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum. This is a more disturbing impulse. Even if I recognize the sauna for what it is—a cynical ploy by a multinational corporation to hijack a local tradition, down to the inclusion of BK-branded robes and towels—I have an ingrained affinity for Burger King that resists rational argument. I could hurl a brick through the window of their corporate headquarters, but I know I’d only end up wanting a Whopper as the cops handcuffed me.
I haven’t eaten at a Burger King in years, but I’ve accepted that the Whopper is my madeleine. I guess this makes BK—the world’s second largest fast-food hamburger chain, an amoral monolith helping to drive up the obesity rate by plying a misinformed, increasingly impoverished public with processed foodstuffs—something like my Combray. As sad as it sounds, to sink my teeth through that sesame-seed bun is to activate long-dormant memories of … the sesame-seed buns of my childhood.
I spent a lot of time in Burger Kings as a kid, so much so that the sight of the midnineties BK logo—boxy and stout, replaced in ’99 by the smoother version with a blue swoosh—gives me a pang of sadness. I don’t know why my family went so much, except that BKs were moderately more ubiquitous than their competitors. I grew up in a comfortable, affluent suburb, which means that a lot of my memories are this way: not just unremarkable but festooned with the emblems of corporate culture. What’s human and alive in these memories is inseparable from what’s branded about them. Actually, it’s worse: what’s branded about them sometimes feels like the only through line, the only way back from the present. (So you see, I wasn’t totally exaggerating about Proustian memory.)
Even when you’re a kid, growing older is strange and hard. One of the ways it’s hard is the brute fact of inaccessibility: you can’t go back to the past. That never stops feeling unfair, even when the world you’re denied comprises old-model Burger Kings with plastic booths and tiled drop ceilings and rasping ice dispensers failing to dispense ice.
The old Burger King was homogenous and bland. It was also a place where some people I love were still alive, sitting there eating BK BIG FISH sandwiches, and where I had considerably fewer cares than I do now. In other words, it’s still, trans fats and all, a place I sometimes want to return to. Sauna or no, the Burger King “dining area” has the benign, timeless safety of commercial space, designed to seem so stable that no evil could visit you there. That, to me, must have been part of its appeal when I was growing up: it was a faceless, deathless zone where you could Have It Your Way.
I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that the real estate in my head has been commercially developed, right down to my subconscious. (I dreamed last week that I switched antiperspirants.) And it’s not just Burger King: When I caught lightning bugs in my yard growing up, it was in a cup clearly marked SLURPEE, such that to encounter the flickering beauty and wonder of fireflies even today makes me want a Slurpee. When brands, slogans, and logos are so braided into your consciousness, they’ll take on an emotional valence. Nostalgia is the engine of desire.
Who cares, you may say. Of course corporations have cultivated our minds. They’re corporations. That’s what they do. As a leftist talking point, rampant commercialism feels dated to the late eighties and nineties, when the anticonsumerist movement found traction and an increasingly visible “alternative” culture prided itself on deriding mainstream tastes. Visions of the future like those in Infinite Jest or even Back to the Future Part II depicted an America glutted with billboards and neon, where every square inch of space was bought and sold—the eye, wherever it roamed, could not help but alight upon a Twinkie or a Diet Pepsi.
Today that imagery seems facile, in part because the commercial machinery has grown more sophisticated. When companies are tracing your digital footprint, mining your personal data, and honing their ability to seduce you with goods and services, an ill-advised fast-food spa no longer seems such an urgent threat to our autonomy. As more attention goes to advertising’s mechanisms, to the quality of ads, it’s easy to forget that their quantity remains stupefying. As the satirists of the Gen X era predicted—not that it took tremendous acuity on their part—we’re being advertised at more than ever. Even to mock the ass-covering legalese ®s and ™s and ©s feels trite now. Everyone has accepted these symbols as fixtures of the marketplace.
Still, if we’re going to carry around this commercial baggage, we would do well to unpack it … somehow. I think of two friends who had both spent time in Budapest many years ago—what loomed largest for both of them was the city’s Burger King, the biggest on the planet. Probably even Burger King execs would agree that, in a more perfect world, a memory of their restaurant would take a backseat to something more distinctly Hungarian. But that Burger King was designed to be remembered, just as the new Helsinki spa is. The noblest course of action would be to prevent these places from ever being built. But assuming that’s beyond the power of mere mortals, the nearest solution would be a kind of willful self-preservation: to find a way to exist in the Burger King saunas of the world without completely going totally insane. It sounds impossible, but until recently, so did eating a burger in a 150-degree room, naked.
Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.