We've all been inundated with news of the recession lately -- how money is getting tighter and the cost of living just keeps shooting up. It may sound like an awful lot of doomsday talk, but the reality of the matter is many of us can't afford to live the same way we've grown accustomed to. For New Times' Brandon K. Thorp, the recession has impacted him where it hurts the most: His stomach. As he found out firsthand, it's one thing to have it your way when you're dining for the pleasure of it; it's quite another to truly need it.
I’ve never spent much time thinking about the Whopper. It’s a bad sandwich, and it is almost always beneath consideration. Only when my stomach is not just empty but yawning, marinating in its own acidic squirtings, do I really grok the Whopper’s weird appeal. The Whopper is not “food,” really. It’s more of a weapon, a high-powered hunk of meat and bread meant to bludgeon your appetite into cross-eyed submission. Shut up, stomach! says the Whopper. I don’t have time for your bitching right now!
The Whopper is also one of the cheapest ways yet invented of cramming a few gazillion calories down your throat, and so it has long been a friend to those people suffering hard times. Those times are now, of course, and “those people” are increasingly “all of us.” Across the nation, people who wouldn’t dream of dining on Burger King four or five years ago are swinging through the drive-thru before heading home and watching the tube. In 2008, it’s what passes for “splurging.”
This was far from my mind on the balmy Tuesday evening last month when I swung through the drive-thru of the old Burger King at Oakland Park Boulevard and Andrews Avenue. I was with my boyfriend and his friend from Singapore, and we were hungry. We were also poor. We had exactly $22 to our collective names ($12 was mine, $10 was the boyfriend’s, and the Singaporean had squat), but we were happy. We were digging the night, the company, the laughing — the kinds of for-free things that people have always been able to enjoy regardless of their socio-economic particulars. I assure you that we’d have been happier gnawing on fusion-y tapas at a trendy little café someplace. We are food people, or were once upon a time, and it would have been nice to get into some wine and cheese pairings, or to head over to The Four Rivers for some of that foie gras with spiced lychee. I’d been thinking about that very dish all day — all week, in fact — but I couldn’t have it, and wouldn’t be having it any time soon.
Of course, nobody has a right to foie gras, and even Burger King is a privilege. Being able to bop down the street for a Whopper would be an unimaginable luxury to most of the people who’ve ever lived on this planet, and so we should have been grateful. I think we were. We weren’t bitching, at any rate, even if we were subliminally aware that Burger King is a restaurant of last resort. But we were hungry, and if you’re hungry enough, Whoppers can be pretty yummy. I looked forward to eating mine.
The chick at the drive-thru window was sweet. I think her name might have been “Bonnie” or something like that — she was small and pretty, and she had a lovely smile. Before handing us our bag, she asked if we wanted any ketchup. I said we wanted lots, and she gamely grabbed a huge wad of packets and stuck them in the bag. Then she took another few packets and added those, too, and asked her if it was enough. “More than,” I said, and thanked her.
We drove into the parking lot to check the bag. We’d already received our drinks, so that was okay. We had two medium fries coming, and those were in place. But we were missing one of our sandwiches.
“This,” said our Singaporean, “is why you should check the bag before you drive up.”
It was a good point, but I didn’t think about it at the time — what bummed me out was the knowledge that we’d have to open up these two sandwiches and expose them to the air before getting back to my house, just to figure out what was missing. It would cool them down considerably, and I’ve always been afraid of fast food that’s not steaming hot. It’s a weird phobia and probably totally baseless, but there it is: I just cannot eat lukewarm burgers.
We were supposed to get a single Whopper with cheese (for the boyfriend), a movie tie-in sandwich called the Indy Whopper (two beef patties, bacon bits and cheese for the Singaporean) and a double-Whopper with bacon and cheese (that one was mine, though I couldn’t tell you how this differed from the Indy Whopper). It was one of the latter two that was missing. Sighing, I parked the car by the front door and went inside.
I believe in being friendly to people in the food business. Ingratiatingly so. I wouldn’t trade my job for theirs, because theirs involves hot kitchens and bitchy customers. My two attempts at working in the food business ended in catastrophe and shame, so I feel real admiration for the poor bastards with the fortitude to stick it out. I don’t want to make their jobs any harder.
This is my operative philosophy in all food-related transactions, and it was no different as I walked through the front door of this particular Burger King.
“Excuse me,” I said to the kid behind the counter, “I was just at the drive-thru, and we were shorted on sandwich.”
“What?” he said.
I repeated myself.
“What’re you missing?”
“Um, either a double-Whopper with cheese and bacon or an Indy Whopper. I can’t tell them apart. Sorry.”
“Alright. One second,” he said, and I thanked him as he disappeared into the warren of fryolators behind the counter.
I figured he’d return with one sandwich or the other, but that’s not what happened. A minute ticked by, and then another, even as I knew my sandwich was rapidly cooling into inedibility in the parking lot. I drummed my fingers on the counter and thought: This is what happens when you go to Burger King.
I had been there approximately 200 seconds before a manager by the name of George stepped out from the kitchen. I thought this might be a good sign, because managers tend to get things done, and this dude looked like pure business: he was good looking and had the jaw of a veteran ass-kicker. Taking in that face, I briefly worried that he’d be so appalled by the kitchen’s lapse that he’d take to flogging that nice girl at the drive-thru. Then I dismissed the thought. She was too sweet for flogging.
It took him a moment to look at me, but the moment our gazes met I realized things wouldn’t go so smoothly. George’s eyes were wide and possessed a studied blankness, and the whole assemblage of his face was utterly without emotion except for the slight upward ticking of one lip. It took me a moment to understand what kind of look this was, but then I caught it: contempt. He was looking at me with contempt. It was the same look my cat gives to struggling lizards trapped beneath her paw.
I don’t think I gave any sign of how nervous this made me feel. My ingratiating smile was back in place — and boy, wasn’t it unmanning all of a sudden? — even as I felt my knuckles stiffening beneath the counter. I had greeted George with a cheery “Hello” when he’d first appeared, but he’d said nothing. Long and ugly seconds passed before he dignified my presence with a word. Then he said: “What seems to be the problem?”
I cleared my throat. “Yes, thanks. We just went through the drive-thru, and we were shorted one sandwich. It was either an Indy Whopper or a double Whopper with bacon and cheese, and — ”
“I think you’re mistaken.”
Why was this man looking at me like I was a cockroach? Did he think I was trying to scam him? Trying to run a burn on a Burger King?
“I packed those myself,” he said. “If — if — you’re missing anything” — he emphasized that second if, as though to let me know he was on to my petty thievery — “it’s just the regular Whopper.”
Without waiting for my response, he hollered to someone back in the kitchen to get to work on an ordinary, bacon-less Whopper. I was appalled. My instinct said to say “fuck it” and go somewhere else, or to meekly accept the thing I was offered and fulfill my craving some other day. But dammit, this was the last of our money. We wouldn’t be able to buy anything else for days — not a gallon of milk, not a gallon of water, not a pack of cigarettes, nada. We had elected to spend that money here, at this place, and I’d be fucked if I was going to get less than what I’d paid for.
But old habits die hard, and so with that smile still stuck on my face and my spinal column jellifying in back, I said, “Oh, well, wait a sec. Let me just go check. I’ll be right back. Thanks!”
I ran out to the car to check on the status of those damned burgers. Sure enough, I’d been right. And my boyfriend was already chowing down on his ordinary bacon-less Whopper — the very one we supposedly hadn’t received.
I went back into the restaurant, thinking: Surely I don’t have to prove this to anybody. Surely we can hack this out like civilized people. “Sorry sir,” I said, “but we’re definitely missing one of the ones with bacon.”
It had now been five minutes since I’d entered this place. Five minutes of fretting over how I might go about getting my hands on a very inexpensive piece of food that, after all, I had already paid for. Five minutes of French fries cooling in the car, five minutes of the last goddamned restaurant meal I’d be able to afford for a week disintegrating right in front of me.
“I don’t think so,” said George, sounding very bored with me all of a sudden.
“But — ”
“We’ll have that regular Whopper out to you in a sec.”
For some idiotic reason I was still trying to maintain my smile, but right then I felt it curdle on my face. I’m quite certain I looked like I’d just swallowed a bug. That’s exactly how I felt — I could feel my vocal cords working, but there was some kind of salty, tickly blockage in my throat that made speech impossible. I was miserable all of a sudden, truly miserable in a way that shocked me. This was not a conflict I wanted. I was not prepared to do battle over fast food. Doing battle over fast food, I realized, is to acknowledge that I need this food, that it’s somehow worth fighting for. There is nothing noble about it, even if I were to try defending it by saying I was standing up for my principles or some other bullshit. Even the most principled among us know when to pick their battles, and the ones worth picking are seldom found at Burger King.
Without knowing what I meant to do, I said: “Wait here.” I didn’t feel good, but at least I wasn’t using that simpering tone that had been driving me crazy since I arrived at this godforsaken place. I ran out to the car again and snatched my boyfriend’s half-eaten sandwich from his hand and grabbed the bag of untouched food from the floor by our Singaporean’s feet. I walked it into the restaurant and up to the counter.
“Here,” I said, and George looked at me like I was crazy.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“Here! Look! No bacon!” I pointed to the half-eaten burger.
“Wait a minute,” said George, and without a word of explanation disappeared back into the kitchen.
Did I look crazy? Did I look homeless? Did I look like the kind of person who’d go through all of this trouble to cheat a Burger King out of a sandwich? I examined myself and realized that, well, I kind of did. I was wearing frayed gray trousers that I ordinarily wear to the horse ranch where my family volunteers on Fridays. My shirt, too, was frayed and old. My ensemble was meant for kicking around the house, not for ugly confrontations in public places. But I could suddenly see myself as George saw me: a frumpy, poorly dressed youth with tattoos on his forearms; a bad kid with no work ethic who fed himself by running petty scams on fast food joints, ready to take his ill-got grub to some deserted parking lot and get drunk on (stolen) Colts and smoke (scammed) pot and listen to (cassettes of) country music.
This is not me.
This is not me.
My sense of pride had somehow taken on a physiological aspect. It felt like a small and agitated animal running up and down my trachea, activating my bile ducts and messing with my wiring. My face was burning while my brain screamed: You asshole! This is not me! In my head, I hollered: I am not desperate! I don’t give a fuck about your food! I don’t need it!
But I did need it. I wanted to throw this half-eaten sandwich into that smug motherfucker’s face, but I couldn’t even bring myself to walk out the door. Somehow, a routine burger run had devolved into some kind of public psychic castration, and an unsmiling little sadist named George was holding all the balls.
He appeared once more from the kitchen and didn’t even bother looking at me as he said: “I’ll be getting you that regular Whopper in a sec.”
“Man,” I said, and my voice was trembling. I do not like confrontations, and I usually don’t have them. “Listen, here’s my business card.”
“Why do I need your business card?” He really thought I was crazy now, and I was unlikely to convince him otherwise. I certainly couldn’t tell him the truth — that I wanted him to see this little document so he would know I was a somebody; a professional; a non-leach. This was not the kind of situation in which I wanted to bear my soul. But I needed him to have that card.
“Just so we can trade information, George. I know who you are, and now you can know who I am.” I did my best to look menacing, but even that felt like a wince.
He looked at the card and began to walk away, totally unimpressed. He was a manager at a Burger King and I was just another raving white trash customer. He had seen it all before. I felt very tired.
“Listen dude,” I said. “Forget the sandwich. Just let me have my money back.”
“What?” He wasn’t being a dick, he just hadn’t heard me — I sounded like a laryngitic lab mouse.
“I said, forget the sandwich. Just give me back my money. I’ll go get the drinks.”
Shaking his head, he said, “I don’t want your drinks,” and got my money from the register.
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We didn’t look at each other at all before I left. All the while George counted up my money and handed it to me, I kept my eyes on that pathetic half-eaten sandwich on the counter, watching the cool lard on the bun sparkle in the fluorescents. George had ruined my night and I had freaked him out, and we wanted nothing to do with each other.
I didn’t talk on the drive back to my house, and I didn’t say much at all that night. I was too busy hating on George. I was still mad at him the next morning, and it took me until noon to realize how silly I was. It took me still another day to wonder what kind of savage forces were working on him, never mind me. I was paying twice my 2003 mortgage at half my 2003 wages — what was George’s story? Had he refinanced at the same time as my family? Might he have done so at the very same bank?
I’m a little curious, but I won’t be talking to him about it anytime soon. George and I don’t like each other, and increasingly I find that I don’t have enough spare emotion to fret over other people’s economic hardships. I used to be very empathetic, back when I never ate Whoppers. The recession hits the wallet first, but it doesn’t stop there.
- Brandon K. Thorp