I saw the worst appetites of my generation

I feel tempted to say something rude, or gauche, or at any rate frowned upon in sophisticated media circles. On the heels of having, through inattentive planning, dined at an Applebee’s, I feel like howling in despair over American culture. I know it’s green of me to be shocked by an Applebee’s, but I’d never eaten in one before, and I wasn’t prepared for an environment so thoroughly corrupt. There; I’ve begun to sound the wrong note, to write in the disallowed tone.

Maybe I had been put off my feed by reading in the morning paper that six months after the discovery of an American mad cow, the government had only just got around to requesting that cow brains and cow spinal matter be left out of lip gloss and moisturizers. Or maybe it was the unfortunate coincidence last week of the National Archives and Records Administration’s vow to preserve all U.S. military service records in perpetuity and the Pentagon’s admission that the microfilm of Bush’s National Guard paystubs had been destroyed (the paper originals, which would not have been so fragile, were no doubt trashed decades ago). Or maybe it was the report from the National Endowment for the Arts on Thursday, according to which the decline in literary reading by Americans has accelerated so precipitously that in the year ending in 2002, roughly the same percentage of American adults attempted to read a novel, short story, poem, or play as were incapable, because of illiteracy, of doing so even if they had wanted to. About 45%. (Note that if 45% tried and 45% couldn’t have tried, then there’s not a lot of statistical room for change of this trend through mere will power. Campaigns of exhortation won’t do much. The culture has shifted, and reading for pleasure is now a minority taste, which will continue to retreat.)

So Applebee’s. Blaring televisions were broadcasting the World Series of Poker, sponsored in part by Levitra. That is, an erectile dysfunction drug, which recent history suggests will be used for the most part recreationally, was paying for the glamorization of gambling, an addictive behavior which functions in our country, thanks to the pusillanimity and venality of thousands of state-level politicians, as a regressive tax, and these messages, accompanied by Top 40 radio, were rendering intimate conversation all but impossible. If you weren’t on speaking terms with your family, this was a wonderful place to eat. Our table display included an ad for bottled water, for sale at $1.49, in which was mounted a sample bottle, in case anyone was having trouble with the concept. Good luck to the vegetarian—or to anyone who doesn’t like to eat animals pumped full of antibiotics, snipped of their beaks, and raised in boxes—in search of a salad without slices of fried chicken in it.

It was a wretched environment, and I felt sour. And I felt sour about feeling sour. I needn’t have eaten there, of course, in the larger scheme of things. (In a small town, however, there aren’t many alternatives to these big-box restaurants these days.) It’s nonetheless dismaying to experience an environment engineered down to the last detail to take advantage of weakness—of the human wish to take a pill rather than change a life, whether the pill be for what the eighteenth century called a cockstand or for diseases like diabetes and high cholesterol that have proliferated because of overweight, which is worsened by consuming the food and drink served in such places. Some have warned that because of obesity the young today may be the first generation in American history to die off before their parents. And now the NEA report suggests that they will read fewer books than their parents in each of the years they do manage to complete.

I expect there will be a lot of worldly acceptance in the next few weeks of the new statistics about literacy, if much attention is paid to them at all, and rants like this one are not very worldly. I know that the link between visual-media supremacy and the structure of restaurants like Applebee’s is tenuous, but there is a link: distraction displaces attention. I don’t mean to sound like a supercilious shit: I know that not everyone eating in Applebee’s is as sloppy as the designers of it hope. But individual will power and self-discipline only go so far; no one really wants to be left outside of group life. In such an environment, eventually you’ll forget that it’s hazardous to the common weal for people to think they can opt out of worrying about the quality of the water. Eventually you’ll drink the high-fructose corn syrup, and the “metabolic shunting” of your insulin system will not be the only shunting you will suffer.