Horrible restaurants abound in this land, America. While it’s easy to avoid the unpleasant meals most of the time, sometimes chance and desperation force the eater into the worst meal of a lifetime: a sad meal.
A sad meal is more than just gross food. It’s a combination of that, dreary ambience and a bad mood. Something feels “off” about the experience, almost like a waking dream. Feelings of profound sadness over the human condition season the meal. Skin crawls and feet fidget just being in the restaurant, but the eater is trapped. He did not freely enter the situation, and he is not free to leave. The plate (or sack) of nauseating metaphors is key to his freedom. Finishing it somehow unlocks the door and ends the nightmare.
I’ve had three sad meals that I can remember. The first was more than ten years ago. The last was just yesterday.
Sad Meal Number 1: August, 1996, small town on the edge of Texas
In the summer of 1996, my best friend’s father took us on a road trip to Los Angeles from Texas. Our route was leisurely, putting us smack in the middle of nowhere around dinnertime. Despite, a full day’s worth of beef jerky and gatorade packed in our bowls, everyone was starving. Unfortunately, there was no food in sight. We continued on to more of nowhere, passing cows in the darkness.
“Sometime soon I’ll eat one of you,” I muttered to them. “Sometime soon.”
After another two hours, we rolled into a small town. It was a one street affair, just a few shops along the main road. Beyond that were abandoned looking shacks and trailers. Under normal circumstances, this would be a town to drive through and forget. But our stomachs had other plans.
Next door to the gas station was a squat wooden restaurant with two cars parked in front. It was a restaurant, and it was open. It didn’t broadcast what type of food it served, it was simply Nells. The wood sign was faded, but there was no evidence of an apostrophe. Nells don’t punctuate, apparently.
Both my friend and I looked at each other nervously. But our reluctance went unnoticed by his father who had already reached the restaurant door. It opened with a ding. We followed the führer inside.
Nells was practically abandoned. I had hoped that our “city clothes” would be stared at by the locals, but there was only one person in viewing distance of the door. This lumberjack/serial killer type with too busy jamming fries in his mouth to look. Even the host didn’t bat an eye when she greeted us and led us to a dark, bloated booth in a shadowy corner near the window. Couldn’t she see my long hair, soul patch, and earring? Wasn’t I just dripping with rebellion? Didn’t I look at least a little like John Leguizamo from Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet? No? Well okay then, lady of Nells.
There were numerous signs that the meal was going to suck. The stagnant air was hazy not just from cigarettes but from acrid and moist kitchen smoke. A smell had been worn into the place: a combination of of wet rags, cigarettes, grease, burnt meat, old coffee, trucker BO, old vinyl, lacquered wood, and spray deodorizer. Dining in a cave size human armpit would have been just as appealing. I glanced at the cooking area and couldn’t see ingredients. The cook looked wild and guilty. Assuming he could read, I’m sure he would ignore the hand washing signs in the restroom.
Once we sat down, it was easier to spot the other people in the restaurant. Everyone looked sullen and unhealthy. Two large and serious were sitting silently at a booth along the opposite wall. It was unclear whether they had ordered food or finished their meal. Only two large sweating red plastic cups and a crusty bottle of ketchup were on the table. The serial killer had finished his fries and was chatting with the waitress behind the counter. There was another lone man sitting at a table by the back. His gaze was fixed at the middle of the room, though it was easy to think he was staring directly at us. The man wore a thick button down shirt that was unfastened at the top. The kinky black hairs of his chest were visible across the room. He held onto a mug of coffee that rested on the table. My friend thought he worked in the kitchen and was on a break. I wasn’t so sure.
The waitress handed us some laminated and greasy menus. They listed the heart and rectum clogging fare you’d expect from a restaurant in the middle of nowhere. If there wasn’t meat in the entree, then it must be a side dish. If there wasn’t butter and cheese in the side dish, then why would it be on the menu?
It wasn’t easy to choose. Everything looked so gosh-darn untempting! My friend’s father ordered a cheeseburger and fries, a safe bet. My friend ordered chicken-fried steak. I skimmed the menu again and found a rather surprising entry at the bottom: salad bar.
“I’ll just have the salad salad bar,” I said, trying not to alarm her.
Her look seemed to ask “Just salad?”, but she jotted down my choice, and stuck the ticket under the salt shaker.
The salad bar was housed in a sturdy plastic table with legs as thick as an elephant’s. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it was stocked with some lackluster veggies: iceberg lettuce, some olives, mushrooms, slimy cucumber, some tomato, some corn. Toppings included shredded cheese, croutons, bacon bits. There were four types of dressing. A separate area contained a bucket of pasta salad and a chunky mystery goo.
I brought my salad back to the table and poked at it. The vegetables weren’t noticeably old, but something tasted off about them. I wanted more than anything to get out of that smelly restaurant, but the other’s food was slow to come and slower to eat. I watched them eat with anxiousness and disgust. I could taste my friend’s meal in my mind. It was dog food.
Everyone finally finished and we piled back into the car. My friend and I got into an argument which quickly made us forget about the horrible meal. We dozed off listening to static-filled AM radio broadcast of a baseball game. By morning, Nells would be far from us. But it wouldn’t never be forgotten.
Sad Meal Number 2: July, 2002, halfway between LA and San Francisco
In the summer of 2002, my then girlfriend, her parents, and I were driving back to San Francisco from a family reunion at a beach north of Los Angeles. There was not much in the way of scenery or food along Interstate 5, just endless hills of yellow grass, irrigated farmland, gas stations, and chain fast food.
We were long past due for lunch when we stopped for gas. I distinctly remember seeing some recognizable chain at that exit, but my girlfriend’s parents were set against it. Instead, we drove across the street to a burger place that looked like it had originally been a Dairy Queen. The only difference was that the shingles of the facade were painted blue instead of red.
They restaurant had hard plastic booths, veneered table tops, metal napkin dispensers and a chaotic floor of brown and orange tile. The walls were painted yellow and decorated with a few sloppily hung posters. There were no customers. Four pot-marked and pale teens were chatting at a table. They scattered to their posts as we approached the counter.
Everyone ordered the same cheeseburger combo with fries and soda. The teens clanked and fried away behind the counter and promptly brought us our red plastic baskets of food. After we took our first bites, they all moved back to the table by the window and started chatting again.
Despite our food being made to order, it was stale. The burgers were damp and heavy on the mayo. The lettuce was white, the tomatoes bland, the onions slimy. The sesame seed buns were like pimpled butts. I took a reluctant bite: tasteless. I looked over to the youth to see if they noticed my sadness over the first bite. One girl was now lying across the booth and running her hand along the ground like someone wasting time by a little stream. Then something caught her eye and she pointed to the ground. All the others followed her gaze. The conversation became more exited. Everyone seemed to be chuckling more.
I abandoned the burger. Unfortunately, the fries were greasy and flaccid. I reached for a packet of ketchup, but before I tore it open, I noticed writing. In large block letters, scrawled with ballpoint pen was the word “BUG.”
The youth still seemed to be watching something on the floor. It was a large cockroach. Suddenly thoughts of all the bugs I couldn’t see filled my head. I imagined them festering over all the ingredients, falling into open hamburgers and fry cookers. Had the bug crawled on that packet of ketchup, or did it function more like a bug watcher’s journal? Either way, I wasn’t going to use it.
These bugs presented a conundrum. If I didn’t eat my food, it would appear rude to the girl’s parents who bought me lunch. If I told them that there was weird writing about bugs on the ketchup AND actual bugs wandering around, they would be embarrassed for suggesting the place. I decided to keep it secret.
As we sat inside that dreadful restaurant eating food with the bugs, I distracted myself with the future. I didn’t know where my career was going or if the relationship was going to work out, but at least my future meals would be bug-free.
Sad Meal Number 3: January, 2009, Nashville.
All Wendy’s aren’t created equal.
I was traveling home with my girlfriend’s parents and nieces after a colorful and noisy morning at the circus. Everyone was hungry and shellshocked. A few people wanted burgers. J. and I wanted gourmet burgers. After all, we were in downtown Nashville. But with two young kids and not knowing the city, we settled on fast food. There was momentum for the Golden Arches, but it was overridden by the elders for a trip to Wendy’s.
This Wendy’s was in a down and out industrial area near the fairgrounds. It looked fine enough on the outside…
Opening the door flooded us with a stale and smokey combination of shit, grease, and steam. We could see the air.
There were two groups of people dining. One large family of gangsters and teenage mothers was clustered around two tables. There was a shady looking guy in wife beater and bandana sleeping. Amongst the jungle of plastic plants in the conservatory-style section, were three mailmen eating burgers and playing checkers.
This time, everyone looked at us when we walked in.
We ordered our meals with difficulty. The guy behind the counter didn’t seem to understand anything we ordered. Either he didn’t know the menu or we were enunciating. Eventually, the orders went through and we sat down at a table picked by one of the nieces. It was right next to the other family.
The food was horrible to look and and horrible to eat. All of the burgers look smashed. The fries were old and cold. My drink tasted a little like soap. As I was hungry, I ate my chicken patty thing quickly. But waiting for everyone else to finish was excruciating. The mood in the restaurant was somber and sad. It carried over to our table. Everyone but the children knew that the meal wasn’t life affirming, but we kept our dissatisfaction to ourselves.
Midway through our meal, someone who had previously gone through the drive-through came inside to return four shakes. Since no one was talking, it was easy to hear her complaint.
“These shakes are weird. I want to return them.” The lady held up the tray. Four sad looking shakes were dripping all over the place.
“Our vanilla machine ain’t working so good,” the employee behind the counter explained.
“It ain’t the vanilla. I ordered chocolate. The milk just tastes bad.” She pushed the tray toward the counter, got her refund and walked out in a huff.
Everyone at our table heard this conversation but tried not to acknowledge it. If the shakes were spoiled then all sorts of nasty things could be wrong with our meal. I wish I could have been as carefree as the kid next to me eating her nuggets off the table, but I knew that we had failed. Out of all the food in this world, we had ended up there. We had all been too weak to deny this fate. Now we had unpleasant business to finish.