There’s a scene in the final episode of Mad Men where a lost and bottomed-out Don Draper finds himself in a confessional seminar at a New Age-y retreat. There, a man named Leonard bares his soul. “I’ve never been interesting to anybody,” Leonard says. “I work in an office, people walk right by me. I know they don’t see me. Then I go home and I watch my wife and my kids. They don’t look up when I sit down.” Leonard, of course, is expressing his need for something we’re all in need of: the need to be seen, the need to be acknowledged, the need to be recognized, the need to leave a mark.
Donald A. Gorske of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin has been seen. He’s been acknowledged. He’s been recognized. He’s left a mark. Donald A. Gorske of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin has eaten more than 29,000 Big Macs since 1972. And on the morning of January 26, 2017, Donald A. Gorske of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin appeared at a Wauwatosa McDonald’s to be acknowledged once again, to be seen once again, to revel in his achievement, to inspire those who might follow in his footsteps, and to hand out complimentary bottles of Big Mac Special Sauce. It was kind of great and kind of weird. This is a minute-by-minute report.
11:13 a.m. – I arrive at the McDonald’s on 68th and North. From the outside I can see balloons, streamers, and what looks to be a whole lot of people. I flash back to birthday parties my friends and I had at Mickey D’s when we were kids. My god, do people still do that? Throw birthday parties for their children at fast food joints? I mean, birthdays at Chuck E. Cheese are one thing—there are kid games for the kids and adult beverages for the adults—but McDonald’s? They don’t even have those janky-ass playgrounds like they used to, with the Mayor McCheese death towers you could climb up and fuck around in. Sigh. Where has the time gone? What happened to the innocence, the joy, the styrofoam containers that kept the hot side hot and the cool side cool? Is life truly just a meaningless slog of diminishing returns? I walk in.
11:15 a.m. – Yep, there are a lot of people here, all right. Regular schmoes, people in suits for some reason, people from the media (every local news station seems to be accounted for), and people who look like the kind of people who would show up to a McDonald’s at 11:30 on a Thursday morning for a chance to shake hands with a guy who has eaten nearly 30,000 Big Macs. And, well, me. It occurs to me that while I may not be wearing a suit (seriously, why are there so many people wearing suits here?), I am, in fact, all of these people. Yes, I am them and they are me. We are here, present in this moment, joined by two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, and onions on a sesame seed bun. I contain multitudes. We contain multitudes. I get in line.
11:23 a.m. – A guy walks through the door. “Is this the line?” he asks. “Looks like it, buddy,” the guy behind me replies.
11:28 a.m. – I’m watching the actual McDonald’s employees look at the rest of us like we’re crazy (we are), when I sense some hubbub. Oh shit, Gorske’s here! Yes, the actual Don Gorske! The Don Gorske who has eaten more than 29,000 Big Macs! The Don Gorske who was in Super Size Me! And he’s arriving in a white limo! People are “oo”ing and “ahh”ing as the limo pulls up. This is great.
11:29 a.m. – Gorske steps out of the limo with all the pomp and circumstance of a Hollywood red carpet ceremony and/or a Racine post prom and makes his way inside. People break out into applause. A throng of news cameras and cell phones surround “Mr. Big Mac” as someone who appears to be the McDonald’s manager escorts him through the fray. Gorske, 63, looks great: a Shoji Tabuchi bowl haircut, a long ponytail, some wispy gray muttonchops, and a pair of John Lennon granny glasses. He’s wearing a black McDonald’s jacket and a colorful Big Mac tie. “Hello!” he says. He seems really happy to be here.
11:30 a.m. – Gorske is taking questions from the media. Those questions include:
Q: “Have you already had [a Big Mac] today?”
A: “No, not today yet.”
Q: “Is [eating a shitload of Big Macs] the single most dedicated thing that you have in your life? And what’s number two?”
A: “I’m pretty much, uh, they’d probably call it ‘obsessive compulsive’ about everything. For me, I just buy Dodges, for instance. I found the right wife, so that’s going to be my wife forever. I’m just one of those people that when I find something that I like, I stick with it forever.”
Q: “Do you eat one-handed? Do you have the same format for all of them?”
A: “I pretty much eat all my Big Macs two-handed. If I’m not doing interviews or something like that, I usually use sixteen bites all the time.”
11:33 a.m. – For some reason I’ve been under the impression that Gorske’s visit is meant to promote the recent unveiling of the “Grand Mac” and “Mac Jr.” versions of McDonald’s venerable burger. It’s only now, as I watch two employees set up a table full of bottles labeled “Big Mac Special Sauce,” that I realize he’s here to, well, hand out bottles of Big Mac Special Sauce. It seems McDonald’s has issued a limited run of 10,000 bottles stuffed with the once-secret goop, and every man, woman, and child in the joint will be walking away with one. Oh, and Gorske will be eating his 29,100th Big Mac here today. The mind reels.
11:34 a.m. – Panic suddenly starts to set in. What the hell am I going to do with a bottle of Big Mac Special Sauce? I’m a semi-regular McDonald’s customer—once every two weeks if someone asks me, once every week if I’m telling the truth—but I haven’t had a Big Mac in years. Why? Because the last time I ate a Big Mac I thought I was having a goddamn heart attack. The story: It was late and I was drunk (natch), and I had impulsively dipped inside a McDonald’s on my way home and ordered a Big Mac meal to go. Back at home, while watching Superman III for some reason (the one with Richard Pryor), I took a few bites and suddenly felt my chest seizing up. I was having a heart attack. I called out to my wife, who was sleeping. “Help!” I cried. “Help!” She ran into the room. “What’s wrong?” “I’m having a heart attack!” “What are you eating?” she asked. “A Big Mac.” “God, why?” she said, disgusted. “You’re just having heartburn or something. You’re drunk. Go to bed.” I somehow lived to tell the tale.
11:37 a.m. – Anyway. The line is moving quickly. I’m almost up. Christ, remember that time I stood in line for 8,000 hours to get a bottle of 50 Cent vodka and have 50 Cent kind of grunt at me? This is nothing like that.
11:38 a.m. – Woman ahead of me: “How do you keep your weight down?” Gorske: “I’m hyperactive!”
11:39 a.m. – Well, here we go. “Hi,” Gorske says, handing me a bottle. “Thanks for coming!” “Hi,” I say. “Uh, can I snap a picture?” “Sure!” Gorske says. I fumble around, trying to shake Gorske’s hand while simultaneously holding the bottle and taking a picture with my phone. It ain’t happening. Instead, the picture comes out like this, which is just as well.
11:40 a.m. – Guy behind me, to Gorske: “Congratulations on your accomplishment!”
11:41 a.m. – And, um, that’s it. I consider sticking around to watch Gorske wolf down his 29,100th Big Mac (in 16 bites!), or maybe just ordering a Big Mac myself. Maybe I could chat Gorske up and ask him about Fond du Lac or something. Is the Forest Mall still there? How about that weird head shop my friends and I used to go to a million years ago? You, know, the Mad Hatteur? But no, I think I’ve done all there is to do here. I walk out, but as I do, something Gorske said earlier rattles through my brain: “I’m just one of those people that when I find something that I like, I stick with it forever.” I like that.
11:58 a.m. – Back home, I ask my wife, my wife that’s going to be my wife forever, if she’s hungry. “We can make our own Big Macs now!” I tell her, showing her my bottle (1,465 of 10,000). She refuses to humor me. Instead, she says, “I read that people are already selling them for hundreds of bucks. You should put it on eBay.”
Later that day, I do. I’m still waiting for the first bid.