Signifying Either Nothing or Everything about America Today

by Adam Reger

Just one day after I wrote this, about a news story that was basically a novel in capsule form, came the news of the three Cleveland women found alive and escaping from a rundown house where they’d been kept captive for about a decade. I imagine somewhere book deals, television rights are being discussed right now, if they have not been finalized, and there are certainly novel-length accounts of the case to be written.

I don’t have anything particularly novel or insightful to add to the story, except to note the weird (or not weird at all, maybe) pervasiveness of fast food restaurants in this story.

For your consideration:

Charles Ramsey, the man who saw Amanda Berry crawling out of the house and went to her aid, said when interviewed, “I heard screaming. I’m eating my McDonald’s. I come outside. I see this girl going nuts trying to get out of the house. I go on the porch and she says, ‘Help me get out. I’ve been here a long time.’”

This was certainly well-noticed on Twitter, where enough people tweeted at McDonald’s that they’ve announced they will “reach out” to Ramsey, whatever that means.

But there’s also the fact that Amanda Berry was abducted at age 16 in 2003 after returning from working a shift at Burger King.

And among the details that have come out subsequently are the seemingly inevitable recriminations and clues missed. One of these pertains to warning signs about Ariel Castro, the man who owned the house where the women were kept captive, and who has been confirmed to be the father of the six-year-old girl found inside the house. In 2004, Castro was suspended from his job as a bus driver for 60 days after leaving a four-year-old boy on his bus for several hours. From the Wall Street Journal: “The report, which doesn’t make clear who called, alleged that Mr. Castro told the boy, ‘Lay down, b—,’ while he went to eat in a Wendy’s restaurant.”

So there you have it. Fast food is somehow intimately connected to this case. Perhaps the hormones in the beef patties affected Ariel Castro’s judgment, or some additive in the McDonald’s Ramsey was eating gave him the momentary courage to—

Nah, not really. Poor neighborhood, cheap and admittedly tasty food, fat nation. Case closed.

But as a writer, it’s hard not to see these details in news stories and think of them as perfect, crucial details that lend texture and atmosphere to the depictions of reality—and of class, especially, in this case—the journalists present. You might knock a fiction writer in this instance for going back to the same well one or two too many times. But in nonfiction terms, these details are superb at telling us something about the world and times we live in.