She came through the door with what looked like a Big Gulp in the crook of her right arm and a greasy paper sack in her left hand. Along with her friend, she made her way in and found a table where she proceeded to plop down, placing the limp brown bag in front of her, and taking a pull off the massive white Styrofoam cup.
Now that she was closer, I could read the red words on her drink. “Sonic” is what it said. Sonic.
If we had been in a food court or perhaps in a bus station or, I don’t know, at Sonic, I probably wouldn’t have thought twice about this woman and her sack of Sonic.
But we were in a restaurant. A Vietnamese restaurant. My Vietnamese restaurant.
Now by “my restaurant” I don’t mean that I own the business. But it’s mine in the sense that I’ve been going there religiously for more than twenty years. I watched their son graduate from high school and go to college. They’ve watched my son graduate from eating plain rice in a highchair to eating hot chili paste in his phở to going right off to college himself.
We’re on a first name basis.
It’s mine because it was the first place I ever ate Vietnamese food. Growing up in small-town south Alabama, all I knew of Asian food was the occasional trip into Mobile where we’d dine at the House of Chin. There, the food came on platters covered by stainless steel domes that were lifted to reveal the exotic dishes hidden underneath. Daddy always got shrimp fried rice. I always got the Moo Goo Gai Pan. I was well into my twenties before I found out that what I thought was big celery in the Moo Goo was actually a whole different vegetable. Something called bok choy. That explained why my home celery never tasted that way.
It never occurred to me that there were other, different kinds of Asian food. So when I was introduced to Vietnamese food at a little hole-in-the-wall place located in a seedy strip mall near a suspect part of town, I was floored by how different it was. Not greasy and heavy and drowning in gloppy sauces, but light and fresh and pungent. Some of it was served at room temperature, and that was considered a good thing.
I couldn’t get enough of it! I went back and ultimately tried just about everything on the menu. Now I can’t really get behind eating tendons, but I’ve tasted them. And I appreciate that others find them good. Same with tripe. But there are plenty of other options right down to what amounts to a plain old chicken noodle soup. The aromatic phở with it’s rich broth and vaguely licorice-y taste. The bun bowls with crisp, cool lettuce, slightly warm noodles, pickled carrots and daikon radish. Crispy fried spring rolls and wontons stuffed with seasoned pork and served with a dipping sauce that smells of fish and hot peppers. They even have shrimp fried rice.
This restaurant is mine because we’ve seen each other through the hard times. I was right by their side during a renovation that took longer than expected but ultimately turned out well. And they made me feel at home and not so alone after I divorced. I would go there and sit by myself in the corner booth, but there was always a friendly face to chat with. What are you reading? How’s your boy? Do you want your usual?
And they were happy for me when I remarried. My husband and I eat lunch there now at least once a week, if not twice, and sometimes even three times. And we have for years. Our drinks come without being ordered. Full to-go cups magically appear when we finish eating. They saw us coming and already put in our order of summer rolls. No pork just like you like them. Do you want your usual?
I’ve never been to their house, and they’ve never been to mine. But we’ve shared a lot in this simple storefront over the years. And while I might be just another customer to them, although I’d like to think I’m not, they are special people to me.
So when I saw this … this … this woman come all up in my restaurant with her sack of Sonic, it made me mad! How could she insult my friends this way? What an affront to bring this so-called fast food into another dining establishment!
And I began to wonder what was wrong with her. Because something just had to be wrong with her … really wrong with her … to cause her to be so rude.
Maybe her parents neglected her. I’ll just bet she was so unloved and unwanted they never taught her anything at all, much less basic etiquette. That’s when she turned to the drive-in for comfort. Maybe there she found her soulmate in the soft glow of Sonic’s neon sign. But after a brief and passionate romance over a shared soft serve cone, he skated off into the sunset with her heart on his tray. Now she carries this sack around to remind her that she was once loved and will be loved again.
Maybe she is afraid. Maybe she’s never eaten anything in her life but Sonic burgers and she’s paralyzed with fear at the very thought of branching out to try something — anything — that doesn’t present itself through her car window draped in brown paper. I mean that chicken noodle soup does come in a bowl. A big deep bowl that you might fall into and drown, turning blue and gagging and strangling and generally flailing around and causing a scene. And on the side of that deadly bowl is a plate that contains a few strange green leaves (Could it be marajuana?? Are they trying to drug me and sell me into slavery??), some nearly-clear stalks of what must be a poison plant, and a wedge of some green fruit-looking thing that might be too close to nutritious for her own personal comfort. But she didn’t run shrieking from the room when they set down her friend’s bowl of steaming phở and its companion plate of garnishes.
Maybe she has bad allergies. Real bad allergies. Of course, it can’t be to beef or cheese or wheat or potatoes or lettuce or tomato or mustard or pickles or whatever chemicals are found in soft drinks. It can’t be paper or plastic or Styrofoam. It can’t be to eating with your hands or shoving big, awkward bites of slippery food stuff into your gaping maw and having parts of it slide back down onto the waxed paper or run down your arms and drip off your elbows. It might be to stainless steel or wood, though, because I never saw her use a tool like most humanoids do. Maybe that’s it. Allergies.
But I’m not convinced.
I tried to think what would cause me to do such a thing as to bring the food from one restaurant into another. Could I ever be that brazen? What would make me be so hell-bent on eating a limp, flat burger that I would parade it into a place that offered fresh and reasonably healthy fare for not much more than the cost of the fast food?
It would have to be that I cared more about my selfish wants than I cared about embarrassing my friend, offending my fellow diners, and insulting the restaurant’s proprietors. It might be that I think this American fast food burger seeping grease through the sides of the sack is way better than any little old thing you could ever bring me no matter how fresh, good, hot, plain and/or un-ethnic it is. Could it be that I want to unabashedly proclaim my dislike for this food, this place, this culture, and these people? That sounds about right.
I have to admit to y’all right now that when I saw her walk in with that massive white cup and clutching that sack in her greasy fist, I wanted to bolt from my chair and smack it right out of her hand spraying cherry limeade and ketchup packets in a great wave across the wall. I wanted to tell her that all her taste was in her mouth, but obviously that wasn’t the case. I wanted to usher her back to her car and shove that sack straight back through the window and down her throat.
But I didn’t. I just sat there and glared at her back through the steam that was rising up from my bowl of phở as I slurped up my noodles and breathed in the fresh (and strangely soothing) aroma of basil and anise. Maybe she felt the daggers that flew from my eyes, but probably not. She probably just thought it was gas.
NOTE: Since I published this post, many of you have asked me where I was eating. It was Phở Quê Hương in Birmingham, Alabama.
(It should be noted that I have nothing but love in my heart for Sonic. I have eaten my weight in foot-long Coneys and washed them down with rivers of cherry limeade followed by mountains of freezing cold, creamy Butterfinger Blast. I’ve driven miles out of my way to obtain these delicacies and relished every mile and mouthful. It’s not Sonic’s fault if some people don’t have any sense.)