Never Break The Chain

Chain…keeps us together
– Fleetwood Mac

Not too long ago, my nephew and two of my nieces were in the city, visiting the Gardner. As it’s a brief trolley ride down the street from my office, I arranged to meet them and their mother (my sister) for lunch…at UNO’s.

Now, I’m not going to lie and say that I’m one of those clean-eating/Whole30/Paleo/raw milk/only shop-around-the-perimeter-of-the-grocery-store types, because I absolutely am not. Mainly because I do believe that there is some Better Living Through Chemistry, principally in the form of Birthday Cake Oreos and Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, even as I completely comprehend that my neocortex is being manipulated, by a whole bunch of stuff I can’t pronounce, into wanting more and more of this crap. But, seriously – have you had one of those Birthday Cake Oreos? Those things are frigging delicious.

But generally speaking, I eat pretty healthily, and when I do get lunch somewhere in the neighborhood, it’s typically sushi, Pho, or Persian. All from locally-owned-and-operated joints. But I figured that my nieces and nephew were not up to having their palates challenged that day, so UNO’s it was.

Next time I go there, I think I’ll just ask for a brick of lard and a salt lick, and save them the trouble of preparing my meal. Lord, the BLOAT. Heinous. I came back to the office and loudly announced that the next time I mentioned that I was going to eat at a chain restaurant, I was to be forcibly prevented from leaving the building. (Everyone kind of grunted, but it’s been busy around here lately so I’ll assume that someone will follow through, eventually.)

The truth of the matter is that I’m getting older, and I simply can’t eat like a 22-year-old stoner anymore. There was a time when I could toke up, eat a family-sized bag of Doritos while watching Ren & Stimpy, and be the none the worse for wear the next morning. THOSE DAYS ARE OVER.

This was going to be a post about how awful chain restaurants are. How every dish on their menu is a virtual Sodium Bomb, even the stuff with the little carrot icon or whatever denoting its appropriateness for them what are watching their figures. I was going to decry the décor of these places (you’re made to feel like you’re eating in someone’s barn, full of distressed Radio Flyer wagons and framed photos of Elvis and/or hockey players). I was really going to be an utter shit about the whole thing, until I sat down and realized how much these places are a part of my personal history.

I think back to my childhood, when the BIGGEST TREAT IN THE WORLD was when my dad took me to Ground Round, which in the 70s was known for having peanut shells all over the floor, sundaes served in tiny little plastic Red Sox hats, and a “treasure chest” full of cheap toys by the register. And while I don’t think this particular chain features these things anymore, I have to say that whenever I pass one, my inner 7-year-old goes APESHIT.

As I got older, family outings were at The 99. Merlot-colored leatherette booths under faux-Tiffany lamps. I knew that I could order the same thing, every time, and it would come out the same way, every time, and this was enormously comforting to me as an adolescent, when everything in my immediate orbit was fraught with uncertainty. I was bullied at school, there were myriad troubles at home, but my burger always arrived cooked exactly the way I wanted it, accompanied by just the right amount of scalding hot steak fries.

By the time I reached high school, the place to go was Bickford’s. I have no idea why. As chains went, Bickford’s was sort of a low-rent Denny’s (I’ll get into my relationship with that place later), but it was open late, and grumpily accommodated a table full of obnoxious, smarty-pants high schoolers such as myself and my friends, where we’d invariably leave a huge mess of dog-eared sugar packets and soggy straw wrappers. The morning after my senior prom? I was at Bickford’s. I didn’t actually GO to my prom, but I knew – somehow – that being at Bickford’s at 5:30 the next morning was going to make me feel better about the whole thing, and it did.

I distinctly remember the big deal that was the first Chili’s in the area. My friend Jude got a job there our senior year in high school. The night before it opened, every staff member was allowed to bring two guests to experience the Chili’s, um, experience. Jude brought me and Raziel. It should be noted that Raziel and I were deep into our Robert-Smith-meets-Lene-Lovich style of dressing at the time. We ordered fajitas (so exotic!) and enjoyed being stared at by Jude’s coworkers and their families.

I went to college in Florida. Central Florida. Pasco County. Not a Bickford’s to be had. But I quickly found friends who shared my penchant for spending ridiculous amounts of time in these places, and the Bickford’s equivalent in those days, and in that area, was the Village Inn in Dade City. I picked up a nasty pie-and-coffee habit there. God, I loved the Village Inn.

But I was not faithful, alas. My senior year in college I began a disastrous affair with the Denny’s on State Road 52 in San Antonio, Florida. I was in a production of The Odd Couple (the one that Neil Simon reconfigured for the ladies), and me and my bitches would hit the Denny’s EVERY SINGLE NIGHT after rehearsal. Always – I got the same thing: grilled cheese and tomato sandwich, fries, and a side of guacamole. And shit tons of coffee.

I won’t even get into my sordid history with the Waffle House.

I came back to the Boston area for graduate school. I mostly avoided these places because I didn’t want all my new, intellectual, flannel-clad friends to think I was tacky and uninformed, gustatorially-speaking. But occasionally I’d cave and wind up drinking at the bar in UNO’s after work (the very same UNO’s I was at a few weeks ago). Should I admit it? Kevin and I had our first kiss at that UNO’s. Oh god oh god oh god.

So, you see? I can’t hate on these places. I try not to eat at them, but I can’t hate on them. So many nights spent in them, giggling and crying and discussing. I am a product of my times, and of my environment. They dot the landscape of my psyche, their glowing signs rising high above the interstates of my very soul, late at night, when nothing else is open.

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