Please Note: The name of the city has been deleted.
Other names have been changed at the request of the author.
My classmates complain that (city) is
boring. Compared to a big city, it seems to have nothing: no art, no culture,
no variety, just warehouses, agriculture, and pale, cloudless summer skies.
But those who complain have obviously never been to Big Burgers. The
restaurant itself is not very inspiring: its three booths and eight buttons
aren’t covered with Monet and Picasso; the gum-smacking teenage waitresses
don’t recite Shakespeare when they take an order; the radio doesn’t play Miles
Davis or Rachmaninoff (“just old-time rrrrock and rolllll oldies…on Arrow
108”). But the people who enter Big Burgers make it as interesting as any
place I’ve ever been.
At any hour, a doctor and a state mathematician
could be having a quiet game of chess while a mentally disabled man is inviting
everyone to feel his biceps and demanding seriously, “Has a furry cat ever
rubbed up against your leg?” Or one of the three hippie-Deadhead-drunks could
be creating a napkin-cartoon and offering it to the respectable County District
Supervisor with the assurance, “It’s my best one yet,” while his friends howl
“OOOOHHHH!!!!” every time a chess piece is taken, and a gawky, flat-topped
teenager sporting three-dollar shades and a Doom II t-shirt hits on an
unwilling waitress who’s wishing to God that somebody, anybody will
order some food.
Of all Big Burgers’ customers, the regulars are
the most interesting. Ed Fisher is Big Burgers’ unofficial greeter, a pudgy,
50-ish balding man who sits on the third button from the door and welcomes each
customer with a smile and a “Hot enough for ya?” Currently living on worker’s
compensation, he leaves his lonely, empty house every day and comes down to Big
Burgers for five or six hours, spending every minute engaging customers in
friendly (if often one-sided) conversations about weather, politics, and
anything else he read in the Democrat.
In the mid-afternoon, Dan Martinez will stride
into Big Burgers grinning as though he’s figured out that life is a chess game
and he was born with two queens. But if his unusual intelligence is his extra
queen, an impenetrable pawn row of alcoholism, inertia, and stubbornness has
kept her ineffectual, forcing him to warehouse jobs and welfare lines. Big
Burgers is the only place that’s ever worked out for Dan, the little oasis
between Alcoholics Anonymous and his favorite local bar where he can reassure
himself that intelligence compensates for laziness by using his natural,
undeveloped chess talent to defeat inferior opponents.
From seven to seven, Big Burgers’ owner, Bob Johnson,
stands behind the counter in his white, sweat-soaked shirt, waiting for the
opportunity to ask “What can I do for you today?” and take his pencil from
behind his ear to write down “DBL DB w/ cheese, sm choc shake”. At his
restaurant he feels in control, free from the domineering mother he still lives
with at age 42. But occasionally, his mother will drop by to scold “Why are
you always playing chess?” or “When was this counter last washed?” reducing him
to a powerless child with a red, oily face and greasy, unwashed hands.
Over time, I’ve become a regular too, the high
school kid who blurts out a hopeful “Want a game?” every time a chess player
walks through the door. And after getting to know them, I now find the other
regulars even more complex and interesting than the games of chess I play with
them. (City) may be a boring place, but as long as it has characters
like these, it will always be interesting.