White Castle, around since 1916, first opened in Wichita, Kansas. | Wiki­media Commons
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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.