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This city of some 38,000 residents has always been famous for rather, shall we say, unusual things.

Not cute-unusual, like the carrousel museum or the Mighty Wurlitzer organ. Weird-unusual.

Like having the most bars on the shortest length of roadway (47 over two miles of Oliver Street, according to local legend).

And hiring uber-cop Nathan Achtziger, who gave a speeding ticket to one in three residents.

And hosting the infamous 1992 Jim Rose Circus Side Show featuring freakish Mr. Lift-O.

Yes, truly, North Tonawanda has odd distinctions. And yet another may come this fall:

"North Tonawanda: Candidate for Big Mac City!"

So says McDonald's, currently tallying data taken from July 1997 to July 1998 to see which American town consumes, per capita, more of these 530-calorie sandwiches than anywhere else.

And while any U.S. town could still win, McDonald's spokeswoman Amy Murray says leading contenders are Shamokin Dam, Pa.; Chowchilla, Calif.; Garrison, Minn.; and Niagara County's own Lumber City.

That's lumber as in, from side to side. A Big Mac, after all, does pack 28 grams of fat and 80 grams of cholesterol.

"Well, this explains why at Canal Fest this year everyone was about 500 pounds," cracks a Cramer Street resident, rolling her eyes at the news of the possible award.

Larry Ploetz's eyes, however, light up at the thought as he tucks into his $2.05 Big Mac at the McDonald's at 3120 Niagara Falls Blvd.

"I'd say it's the special sauce," he reflects. "I know they have too much fat and too many calories, but every so often, I gotta get one."

Store manager Courtney Furman nods. "It's still our most popular item," she says during a Wednesday lunch rush. "Even with the 29-cent hamburger special we have today."

A similar scene unfolds at the McDonald's at 315 Meadow Drive next to the high school. Hordes of teens mill about restlessly waiting for their food, while the drive-through cashier barks "I need a Big Mac, like, now?!"

Her sandwich skitters down an aluminum slide. She tosses it into a waiting bag and thrusts it out the window in one smooth motion.

"I have a couple a month," guesses Rosemarie Buchanan, 15, who's taking a break from band practice at the high school to nibble on her Big Mac. "They're just really good. They're filling."

How right it all seems. Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore -- we're in Big Mac City!

Hey, wait a minute. Hold it. Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, hold everything. Let's see that map for a second.

If North Tonawandans are, in fact, more swollen with Big Macs than any other town's citizenry, on whose Big Macs have they grown swollen?

Amherst's, it turns out.

Of the two McDonald's being used to gather data for the contest -- the one on Meadow Drive and the other on Niagara Falls Boulevard -- only the Meadow Drive restaurant is truly in North Tonawanda.

The other, by the map, is in Amherst.

"I'm sure we will challenge this," snickers Chamber of Commerce President Colleen DiPirro, cradling the phone while she checks her own map and then a phone book.

"See? It lists that location as 'McDonald's of Amherst,' she crows triumphantly.

"I'm as big an advocate for regionalism as anyone, but if McDonald's of Amherst took part in this, then in no way should North Tonawanda reap the benefits of this award."

Pause. Unmistakeable sound of laughter.

"We will pursue this vigorously."

"What, they can't lend it to us for one day? One McDonald's, for one lousy day?" fumes North Tonawanda City Attorney Henry F. Wojtaszek. "Wheatfield just gave us some land. Why can't Amherst?"

He begs for a night to mull over legal possibilities, then delivers a stunning assessment the next day:

Not only has the town engineer determined that the shadows of the famous golden arches at the Niagara Falls Boulevard location "technically fall into North Tonawanda boundaries," but the mayor's office has authorized the city attorney to begin eminent domain proceedings.

You mean. . .

"Yes," says Wojtaszek firmly. "We will presently be annexing Amherst, in order to ensure and safeguard our distinction as the Big Mac capital of the nation."

Says Ms. Murray, sighing over the phone after hearing of the development:

"Let me get back to you on this."