Magazine | September 9, 2019, Issue

In Praise of Free Refills

Food and drinks at a McDonald’s restaurant in Times Square, 2012 (Mike Segar/Reuters)
In the hurly-burly of politics, we usually don’t stop to note our simple, unadorned love of the things that make this country so marvelous. That’s what we’ve asked our contributors to our latest special issue, "What We Love about America," to do.

A hot day in a foreign country.

You sit at a café. You order something to drink. You get 350 milliliters of liquid — roughly four thirsty sips, if you want to be technical — and if you’re still dry you need to order another 350 milliliters of whatever it was you were drinking, and they will keep track, and you will pay for each 350-milliliter installment.

You’ll know it’s 350 milliliters because, often, that number is on the glass itself, etched alongside a line about two-thirds up the side. The line is there to reassure both parties.

There is no ice. This is also to reassure both parties. Ice is a comfort and a pleasure, but it’s impossible to charge for, so the café management prefers to omit it. Ice is also a cheap way to get the primary liquid to hit the etched line sooner, and the customer is wise to that scam.

What remains is this: a few sips of a lukewarm beverage served in an atmosphere of mutual dislike and suspicion.

A hot day anywhere in the U.S.A.:

You sit at a coffee shop, or a diner, or you walk up to the counter at a fast-food place. You order something to drink. You then enter into an unspoken arrangement with the establishment in which they agree to refill your cup with water, iced tea, Diet Coke — you name it — until your thirst is slaked or your bladder complains. 

Someone will come by every few minutes and top off your water or iced tea, often by pouring sideways from the pitcher in order to give you plenty of ice. You don’t mind the ice, for two reasons: One, the cup is usually enormous — the size of a typical European bathroom sink — so plenty of room for everything; and two, they will keep refilling it, over and over again. They will refill your cup whether you order anything else or not; they will refill your cup after presenting you with the check; and they will refill your cup in the momentary interval between your paying the check and your walking out the door.

If you make the same request at a McDonald’s, the transaction takes on a Buddhist simplicity: They hand you a cup, point you to the drink machine, and say, essentially, “Have at it.”

While it is true that America in 2019 often seems like a toxic stew of anger and mistrust, that is the case mostly in virtual realms — online or onscreen. In the real-life dimensions of diners and fast-food places and hunger and thirst, America is a spectacularly generous place. Americans mostly pour from the side of the pitcher, to give you more of what you really want.

This article appears as “Free Refills” in the September 9, 2019, print edition of National Review.

In This Issue

What We Love About America

U.S.

American Men

American men — with few exceptions — treat you like a human being, in a free, natural way, because they’ve done it from the nation’s youth.

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