We think we know the battle lines in the war between eateries and loiterers. On one side there are laptop-wielding freelancers in search of a de facto office with comfy seats. On the other side are café managers who would like to free up their tables for people who might actually buy something more expensive than a small drip coffee. The skirmishes take place in urban centers from Brooklyn to San Francisco, and the usual players are young, hipsterish types, trying to hash out a new code of etiquette for the telecommuting era.
But of course this narrative is drastically, oversimplified—and a surprisingly entertaining article from the local section of the New York Times provides a fascinating glimpse into an overlooked front in the restaurant-versus-idling-patron clash. The place: a McDonald’s in Flushing, Queens, a New York City neighborhood renowned for its ethnic diversity. The offenders: a large group of 70-something Korean-Americans. The time: all the time.
For the past several months, a number of elderly Korean patrons and this McDonald’s they frequent have been battling over the benches inside. The restaurant says the people who colonize the seats on a daily basis are quashing business, taking up tables for hours while splitting a small packet of French fries ($1.39); the group say they are customers and entitled to take their time. A lot of time.
“Do you think you can drink a large coffee within 20 minutes?” David Choi, 77, said. “No, it’s impossible.”
These senior citizens sometimes refuse to leave the McDonald’s during daylight hours, sometimes arriving at 5 a.m. and staying until after dark. The police have been called on four separate occasions to break up the gang—and the klatch just reassembles itself after the cops have left the premises.
Lest you feel bad that these elderly immigrants are being harassed by the NYPD—an institution not especially well known for racial sensitivity—rest assured that they (the elderly patrons, I mean) are definitely being jerks. Lovable jerks, sure, but jerks nonetheless. They refuse to let other customers sit down. They don’t even order food—in fact, they come to the McDonald’s after eating lunch at a local senior center. They take smoke breaks near the restaurant entrance. They’re not meeting for any official purpose—they’re just shooting the breeze. And their choice of McDonald’s isn’t for a lack of other options; there are numerous nearby civic centers, including one that prepared a basement room especially for this group of friends. They still return to the McDonald’s.
Best of all, they can’t even explain why they must meet at this particular McDonald’s every day, despite the best efforts of Times reporters Sarah Maslin Nir and Jiha Ham to find out. It’s just what they do. And, despite police interference, they have no intention of changing their ways anytime soon.
It’s a great story, and part of what makes it so great—unlike the average article about telecommuters overstaying their welcome at independent coffee shops—is that it’s not a trend piece. It doesn’t lay claim to any larger social importance. It’s just about an idiosyncratic group of people making idiosyncratic decisions. The article is worth reading in full—every paragraph contains a gem—as a reminder of why we need local reporting. Without it, great stories like this will never get written. This story is already spreading out from the Times to Facebook, Twitter, and foreign news sites. And if I know anything about This American Life, one of Ira Glass’s reporters is heading to a certain McDonald’s in Flushing right now.