So. I’m standing in line, snaking along the path between cattle guards at a popular burger place. There are droves of customers on either side of me and as I idly scan the faces of the herd, I notice something scary. Twilight Zone-y. The scratching of catgut on violin strings fills my heart with eerie music, and it hits me like a tub of lard.
Not one face in the building is smiling. The woman behind me is scowling at the overhead picture menu in obvious displeasure. She is facing the common dilemma of burger boredom, and is searching for a new picture to select.
Men in grubby work clothes elbow down the rails with crumpled dollars and timeclock impatience. Their faces are gruff and tired. These are meat eaters, and you would think they would be giddy at the thought of beef on a bun.
No smiles here—not a canine tooth visible in the bunch. The shuffle of their work boots against salty flooring is as cheery as a chain gang collecting trash on the interstate.
Kids whining. Squirming. Getting out of line to swing on the cattle bars until Mom yells. Toddler twisting around adult legs like limp licorice, making their parent amble toward the counter in Stooge-like clumsiness. Dad is studying the menu, boring holes in the pictures with his eyes. He knows what his kids want him to order. He’s ordered the same thing a thousand times. But He looks anyway, hoping to find the HAPPY somewhere up there with the MEAL.
A cloud of drab mixes with the steam from the fryers, making all our faces look as pasty as the cellulite coddled against our thighs. The drive thru speaker crackles; an order that is identical to the ones before and after it blares into the air. I hear a yawn and look toward the cash register.
There he is, one of the reasons fast food has become a sad oxymoron. Sometime in the years while BILLIONS OF BURGERS were being sold, a shift change happened.
The new workers emerged from the pods of every Boomer’s favorite scary movie; pseudo people without a smile. Disinterested in humanity and disillusioned at the thought of gainful employment, they pinned on a nametag and pasted on a face more morose than those at Grandpa’s funeral.
This is not a pleasant restaurant. It is a feeding center for those too busy to cook and too defeated to expect service with a smile. I’ve grown accustomed to the muttered, “For here or to go” that has become the official greeting of fast food.
And I continue to offer my lunch money to sullen bodies, knowing I will be rewarded with a full stomach but starving for the days when it was an enjoyable treat to eat food from a logo-ed bag.
Where is the clown? The smiling girl with braids? What happened to that ruddy-faced King who grinned from my cardboard crown? It seems we’ve finally located ‘the beef’, but trimmed fun from the experience of eating it.
It’s my turn to face my inquisitor. I know what I want. “For here,” I say. Burger. Fries. Drink. He pushes vinyl-covered buttons with tired fingers and shoves my fill-it-yourself soda cup across the counter with disdain. I am dismissed.
I seem to remember a jingle about a ‘Hap, Hap, Hap, Happy Place’. Where families bonded, couples shared fries, and children giggled as they discovered tiny toy surprises.
This isn’t that place anymore. And I’m just too unhappy to think about it anymore.
Contact Robin at firstname.lastname@example.org