I love fast food. I’m clearly not alone in this — it is, after all, a multi-billion-dollar industry. There are a lot of things that have made it such a successful business: the price, the convenience and, of course, the flavor. All of those things work on me just as much as anyone else, but my particular passion for fast food goes deeper than that. It’s not just a matter of physical satisfaction for me — fast food is like a road map of my life.
Some of my earliest memories involve the Burger King that was across the street from my grandmother’s fabric store. Visiting that store was always a treat — the office had a swinging door like a cowboy saloon, and sometimes my grandmother would let me use the sewing machines to make neat designs on spare scraps of fabric. Lunch time was about the only time we ever used the front door since the parking lot was in the back. Consequently, I had the front and back of the store mixed up until I was probably six or seven.
The store was situated right in the middle of the block, so we had to walk all the way down to the corner to reach the crosswalk, past the beauty college and the shoe store. I had to reach up to hold my grandmother’s hand when we crossed. She’s five feet tall and very petite — I’ve been able to see the top of her head since I was 12, but back then she still seemed huge to me. I think she probably always will. The counters at the Burger King had wood trim along the edges, which I used to try to hoist myself up on so I could see the menu on the wall. Sometimes, afterwards, if my brother and I had been particularly good, we’d go to the toy store next door.
After my parents divorced and we moved over the hill from Salinas to Carmel Valley, my mom had to work several jobs to make ends meet, and since she couldn’t afford child care, we often went with her. One of her night jobs was bookkeeping for a gas station in Monterey. My brother and I would sit outside the gas station office for hours, reading and making up games with each other, and talking to the mechanics and pump attendants.
The head mechanic, Dale, had dark skin and always had grease under his fingernails. I told him once that I wanted to be a mechanic like him so I could use the hydraulic lift and the air wrench. He told me I didn’t want to be a mechanic, that I could get a better job than that. I didn’t understand what he meant at the time, but we agreed that maybe being an electrician would be a good job.
Most of those nights we ate at a Wendy’s nearby. Back then, Wendy’s still had an all-you-can-eat salad bar, which I loved. Once, the guy at the register was so impressed by how many times I refilled my plate, he gave me a free Frosty. To this day, Frosties taste like an accomplishment to me.
In high school, my friends and I regularly hung out at a Carl’s Jr. two blocks up the hill from Cannery Row. True, Carl’s Jr. isn’t exactly the most happening place, not even in Monterey, but it did have the advantage of free soda refills, which we took advantage of to a degree I’m a little embarrassed about now.
There was a nice view of the ocean from the dining area, which we completely ignored, preferring to spend our time playing cards, creatively mixing different flavors of soda, and insulting each other. Once, my friend Lee snagged a jalapeño from the salad bar as we were walking past and popped it in his mouth. That remains the only time I’ve ever seen someone actually cry from spice, which the rest of us went on to refer to as Lee’s “instant karma” moment thereafter.
Every single time my stepfather took us on a road trip to Southern California, we stopped at the same Burger King (just off Highway 101 in Buellton). There was the time he took us to Huntington Beach and taught us how to bodysurf, and the time we went to Disneyland. When my parents drove me to college for the first time, we got out there to stretch our legs. I stopped there on my last trip home after I graduated.
Nowadays I live in Southern California, while most of my family is still up north. That town and that restaurant have become the symbolic boundary point in my mind between my two Californias. And yet, I know next to nothing about the place, my entire experience of it being limited to the quarter-mile stretch of road between the freeway and the Burger King. What is life like in Buellton? What do people do there for fun? I have no idea. I wonder about it often, though.
College saw the beginning (and, thankfully, the end) of the “midnight Jack run” amongst my friends. For whatever reason, the popular thing to do at my college was to eat dinner as soon as the dining hall opened at 5:30, but given the hours we kept, that meant we’d all get hungry some time between midnight and two. A couple of us would pile into my car with fifty bucks or so and a list of orders, returning with several bags of burgers, curly fries, and jalapeño poppers that would be distributed to far fewer people than appropriate for such a bounty.
The Jack in the Box graveyard shift not only knew our names, they knew every quirk of our orders. If we happened to go away for a long weekend, they’d ask us where we’d been. One year, a guy from my dorm even got them a Christmas card. That I gained 30 pounds in college is only surprising in that that’s all I gained. Still, some of my best memories of that time involve conversations on the drive to and from that Jack in the Box, or sitting around in one of our dorm rooms talking while we ate, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wish I could keep eating like that.
Once, I announced to my Facebook friends “I’m going to Burger King now and that’s final.” (This is, after all, what Facebook is for, right?) The first response was “I don’t recommend it.” I understand why, of course. There are any number of places I could get my lunch that would be more interesting, not to mention healthier.
But for the price of a combo meal I’m not just getting a burger, fries, and a drink. I’m getting a walk with my grandma or a vacation with my stepdad, a brief trip back to a time when I had fewer responsibilities, when everything was still shiny and new. And I get that for under ten bucks. Kind of puts a new spin on the term “value menu,” if you ask me.
“SneaKing” JSmith @ flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
“wendy’s” belgianchocolate @ flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.