Harold and Kumar have nothing on this.
I found salvation in a White Castle, when I was a freshman driving through central Ohio. These were the days when Spotify classified me as in “the top one percent of Kanye West listeners.” The days when I kept a copy of “Infinite Jest” and polaroid of myself in my backpack at all times. Stravinsky on my stereo: the solipsism of a loner.
Then, as at all times, fast food was on my mind. I had just discovered that oil and grease are the Midwest’s greatest assets. It boasts Culver’s, Steak ’n Shake, and — for those hardy and inscrutable Nebraskans — Runza®. And now, as I was passing through Columbus, I found the Big Baby Jesus of fast food. White Castle.
Now of course, White Castle is a classic, the classic fast food chain. It’s been around since 1916, when Walter Anderson open his first burger stand in Wichita, Kansas. Its distinct blue and white packaging and assembly line-style preparation methods helped restore American faith in ground beef — after Upton Sinclair threatened to destroy hamburgers forever with the publication of “The Jungle” — and paved the way for bigger chain like McDonald’s and Burger King conquer the nation.
Sure, it’s fallen off in quality since the second World War, but the raincoat drunks of every American city still love White Castle — when nightly, they load up on its grease packages in vain attempts to stave off the all-day hangover.
That is, except in Washington, D.C. My hometown is not a fast food city. We have no White Castles, no Culver’s, and certainly no Steak ’n Shakes. We don’t even have a measly Sonic. Which meant that as I was driving back to Hillsdale from my freshman year Christmas break, I had to visit the first White Castle I saw.
It wasn’t at all what I expected. White Castle may be based out of Columbus, but that doesn’t except the homebase locations from the squalor for which the chain is famous. The Big Lots across the street had closed from what appeared to be fire damage. Blank-faced women and their children lolled about near empty shopping carts in the parking lot as the slow procession of cars rolled by.
I pulled at my bowtie and nervously twisted my cufflinks. My clothes felt inappropriate, dirty.
The walls inside were covered with spitballs. Four guys in do rags and grey sweatpants — immaculate white Hanes hanging off their backsides — were listening to trap beats on a boombox that would have made Radio Raheem choke in envy. The menu posted above the cash register was mostly hand written, in a script I found hard to decipher.
I bolted to the bathroom to wash my hands. Its appearance was no better: a broken mirror, the n-word scrawled on the wall, and a pile of something unmentionable on the floor near the toilet. Maybe the staff scheduled its cleaning for later in the day.
Back in front of the menu, I was tried to figure out how (much less what) to order in my first White Castle experience. A middle-aged man with rotted teeth and wearing a Kool-Aid-colored t-shirt approached me.
“Hey, you drive out here all alone?” he asked.
“Uh, yeah,” I said.
“Is that your car?” He pointed to the convertible red Jeep outside. “You lock that thing up?”
“Um, no. I hadn’t thought to.”
“Well, you gotta be careful. When you’re out here all alone no one looks after you.”
I nodded. He seemed homeless, one of the half-lucid jabberers from a street corner or the metro platform.
“All alone,” he said. “Don’t you have someone to hold onto at night — don’t you got a wife?”
“Well … no,” I said, thinking about how I had just turned 17, and wasn’t even thinking about girls; there’s no money in that.
He looked at me sideways: “Yeah, but you got kids, right?”
“Well,” I said, trying to restrain my contempt. “I can’t have kids if I don’t have a wife.”
He chuckled and gestured over at the guys with the boombox.
“They don’t think about they kids,” he said. “They sit there all day and go crazy when OSU wins and set the place on fire.”
He shifted his weight.
“You too old for that. You think about your kids. And you go home now,” he said.
What else could I do? The world is bigger than a bow tied boy and his bag of burgers. I still don’t have kids and I don’t have a wife, but that burn-out in the Columbus White Castle was right. Without love, life is a ghetto of loneliness.