Laura’s had a lot of shitty jobs in her life, but if she had to pick the shittiest one she’d have to go with the one 12-hour shift she spent working the Drive-Thru at the Burger King in Hadley, Massachusetts, during a UMass/Amherst winter-session in the early 1980s.
That’s an actual picture of the actual Burger King she worked one shift at — and you might be wondering how she got that photo. Well, she got that photo when she suggested to Ben that they make a trip during his vacation to Mass MOCA (the supercool museum of contemporary art in North Adams, Mass) and then drive through Amherst, her old college town, on the way back home from there.
You might be wondering, given Laura’s discussion in last week’s Bird-on-the-Head brant, why on fucking earth Laura would be interested in taking yet another drive down an unhappy memory lane — her college years were, she thinks, among the worst years in her life — and all she could say to that at the little hotel they stayed in at Porches, right near Mass MOCA, she saw a whole bunch of brochures — one with a Natural History Museum at Amherst College — and, being in her new Kerouac-ian Road-Trip Frame of Mind, figured it would be fun to show Ben where she went to college and some dinosaur bones.
First of all, they got off the highway in Northampton, a nearby crunchy college town that is part of the “Five Colleges” business (Smith, Mount Holyoke, Hampshire, UMass, Amherst College) in what’s commonly called “The Happy Valley.” (Seriously, that’s what they call it.) This was kind of a lucky accident, given the fact that Laura was “improvising” her way there — instead of using the exit off the Mass Pike that she normally used to go to UMass, she decided to go a “different” way which she figured would be faster. Whenever she thinks this she knows deep down in the pit of her stomach that she — the person with absolutely zero sense of direction — should not be “improvising” her way anywhere. But it was kind of too late for that as she looked for road signs to Amherst and instead took the exit for Northampton since she knew her way to Amherst from there.
All of this is a long way of saying that they parked the car and went to a diner for lunch. It was one of those old fashioned metal diner-car type authentic diners which Laura knew could be really great or really shitty, and, as it turned out, this place was the latter. Laura’s not going to name the place by name but she has to say that not only was the food mediocre but she had one of the strangest restaurant experiences of her life there.
This is what happened: Ben and Laura sat down, looked at the menu, and proceeded to argue about what Ben was not going to get — meaning that Laura had to narrow down his carb-choices from like 6 to 2. Whittling down the tempting options to “French Toast” and “Nacho Fries” (fuck it — it was vacation, she thought) they waited for the waiter, a big guy, probably in his late thirties, who was actually very friendly and kept Laura’s coffee cup constantly full, to swing by and take their order.
Since they had no idea what “Nacho Fries” actually were, Laura asked the waiter about them. “They’re French Fries with nacho-cheese dipping stuff on the side.” Laura’s certain her face must have fallen — she could just imagine the sad little cup of microwaved liquid neon orange cheese — but she ordered it anyway. As she already said, it was Ben’s vacation and she thought WTF.
About five minutes later, the waiter brought the basket of Nacho Fries to the table — incredibly hot incredibly greasy fries in a small plastic basket on top of an unabsorbant sheet of waxed paper. Nestled in the basket of greasy fries was the sad little cup of micravied liquid neon orange cheese, just as she’d pictured it, and as she stared at it and thought how grotesque it all looked, the waiter stuck his food-service-plastic-gloved hand into the basket and grabbed a fry, then dipped it into the cheese dip. “Looks like I’m going to have to try one!” he said as he put the cheese dipped fry into his mouth and chewed loudly. And then he turned and walked away.
Laura’s mouth dropped, and so did Ben. Never in her life has she had a waiter so brazenly try food upon serving it.
After that, the day just wasn’t the same. I mean, how could it be??
But they continued on down Route 9 toward Amherst and that’s when Laura saw the Burger King
, still there after all these years. She had told Ben about it many times — how she worked one drive-thru shift on one winter day years and years ago; how she had to wear the disgusting Burger King uniform which was a brown polyester tunic and elastic-waist pants with one red stripe (ketchup) and one yellow stripe (mustard); how at the end of the long day learning the drive thru thing and manning the “flame-broiler” (a giant toaster oven with moving heat belt that the frozen hockey-puck burgers rode) she had to help clean the entire kitchen area — a place where every single stainless-steel machine and counter and hood came apart and got hosed down; and how after all of that she had to mop the entire restaurant — you know, with one of those giant heavy wet mops and metal buckets –and how it was a work-shift that almost killed her.
(Note: Laura had endured and even flourished during her tenure at the International House of Pancakes near Cambridge working weekends and the graveyard shift during high school and college vacations so readers shouldn’t assume that she was a puss when it came to hard labor.)
Anyway, after pointing it out to Ben who was long past his love of Burger King kid’s meals, they finally arrived in Amherst. They parked, found the museums on the Amherst College campus, thought they both kind of sucked, and got back in the car and drove home.