I. The Yearning
The yearning came swiftly, with no traceable origin.
Growing up in the suburbs of northern New Jersey, one becomes accustomed to certain luxuries. For every KFC, there’s a Roy Rogers somewhere nearby. For every McDonald’s there’s a Wendy’s within walking distance, a Burger King not too far away, and if you lived in one of those lucky towns sensible enough to allow a row – no, a stretch of fast food restaurants – you also had a couple more obscure choices like Checkers or Popeye’s.
Certain chains never made it into town though. They were the kind of places you’d find at rest stops along I-95, or on the edges of towns, cast off like leper colonies, or insane asylums. For me, Taco Bell was one such place.
Over the years, I’d met a few people who swore by Taco Bell, crowning it superior to all other fast food chains, the notion of which you can see actualized in the movie Demolition Man, wherein Taco Bell is the sole remaining restaurant in the film’s futuristic utopia (Which, now that I’m older, I realize was totally just a commercial).
Finding a Taco Bell was easy – there was one just West of Union Square – but my half-decade long indoctrination into the so-called New York creative class had all but eradicated any willingness to consume, or more aptly, be seen consuming Taco Bell. My friends bought food from farmer’s markets, joined CSAs, or shopped at the Park Slope co-op. In their eyes, my eating lunch at Taco Bell would be a point of concern – a sign that my depression about work had gotten the best of me (Yes, things have been rough around the office lately. And yes, I did consider just sort of casually never showing up to work ever again.). But the Taco Bell thing was about freedom, not depression.
For so long, I’d been pretending to be this thing I wasn’t – working ten hour days on something I hardly cared about, partying with people who never seemed to remember me, and eating all kinds of avocado paninis that really shouldn’t have been as expensive as they were. This Taco Bell trip was about repudiating all that. It was about reclaiming my true self.
From the moment I entered the restaurant, a Taco Bell/Pizza Hut combo, I felt a little sick. An aromatic curtain of cow parts, chicken grease, wet mop, and tomato sauce greeted me as I sashayed to avoid the worker absentmindedly waltzing her mop along the floor. I attached myself to the back of the line and marveled at the speed and precision of the Taco Bell/Pizza Hut cashiers. (Can you imagine what it must be like to work in a joint restaurant? You have to be familiar with two whole menus, including the specials deals, and possibilities of combinations, which would be especially hard in a Taco Bell joint restaurant, because despite its uniformity of ingredients, the Taco Bell menu is arguably the most complex menu ever conceived: from the basic dollar menu, with its Cheese Roll-ups, Triple Layer Nachos, and Caramel Apple Empanadas; up through its vast Taco and Burrito section; and on to the things that don’t sound Mexican at all, but rather seemed to have been thought up in focus groups, things with names like Gordita and Chalupa; and then there are the insane Taco Bell specialties, whose names could very well have been the names of Transformers: Your Enchirito’s, Meximelts, and Crunchwrap Supremes. Just Imagine having to memorize that menu, as well as a completely unrelated menu of Pizzas with equally ridiculous names. I’m pretty sure there’s an entrance exam.).
Carefully, I surveyed the menu marquee whose soothing glow of amber and purple nearly moved me to tears. Chards of chicken never looked so good. Melted cheese so melted. They were photographed in what appeared to be a black hole, each item emanating the same calming purple. I can’t explain why but I got the same feeling I get when I see photographs of parents hugging their children. Whatever it was, these tacos really spoke to me.
I ordered a Crunchwrap Supreme, a beef hard-shell taco, a chicken soft-shell taco and a bottled water.
II. The Eating
I unwrapped the beef taco and took a healthy bite, nearly cross-sectioning the thing. Beef oozed out the hand side and oil dripped into the plastic tray. The taste conjured memories of grammar school, pint-sized milk cartons, lunch lines, all four food groups, and that feeling of not quite knowing what you’re eating, but being grateful, because everyone around you is eating it too and that makes you feel special and a part of something bigger than yourself.
I basked in the genial beefy glow.
With one taco down, I had to choose between the Crunchwrap Supreme and the chicken. I figured if I ate the chicken first there’d be enough room for the Crunchwrap Supreme. But what if I filled up on the chicken and couldn’t finish the entire Crunchwrap Supreme? It would be a travesty, considering the Crunchwrap Supreme is a Taco Bell specialty, and the ostentation of its naming alone presupposes its superiority and thus its need to be devoured wholly.
It was decided.
I carefully unfurled the wrapping, flattening the edges to get a good look at this marvel of Pan-American delights. It looked nothing like the Crunchwrap Supreme I’d seen on the menu. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t expect a warm purple glow, or anything, but I would imagine the shape being at least somewhat similar. The Crunchwarp Supreme on the menu was snuggly wrapped, a perfectly hexagonal tortilla, while the one on my tray was a circle with glandular dysfunction.
I picked it up and held it in my hand. Just beneath the perfectly grilled outer tortilla layer, a tough inner shell was holding everything together. This, I submit, is the genius of the Crunchwrap Supreme. It’s essentially a hard taco, wrapped in a soft taco, only prepared like a Quesadilla.
On my first bite, I came up with what I surmised was the supreme part, a saucy mixture of lettuce and sour cream. I was, personally, more invested in the crunch, so I promptly took another bite. Not half bad. It wasn’t half good, either, but I could see the appeal.
I ate happily for a while, but three-quarters in, something happened. A woman in a white lab coat sat at my table. She said nothing but as she sat, she looked first at my face, then at my tray, then back at my face. I could see the disgust in her eyes. The beef and sour cream, now a monochrome goo, formed a tiny puddle in my tray, drowning bits of half-eaten lettuce and broken taco shell. I probably had some of this puddle in my beard.
I smiled and she responded by looking at her pizza.
I want to tell you I didn’t take it personally, that I had somehow discovered self-worth and deep inner peace in that Taco Bell. But what really happened is that I was seized with dread. I realized how deeply alone I had been since I moved to New York. I realized I had to quit my job. Most of all, as I felt the bile rising in my throat, on a trajectory that would no doubt end in this woman’s tray, I realized I had made a grave mistake in ordering the Crunchwrap Supreme.
I closed my eyes, held my breath, and prayed.
*This story is an excerpt from an untitled and unfinished novel about working in New York City.*
Fiction – Published in Third Place Magazine, 2014