As soon as we stepped inside the Taco Bell, the taste of catchpenny tacos and half-filled burritos already on our tongues, we could tell something was amiss.
The decision to stop here was spur-of-the-moment and came down between this particular fast-food establishment and snagging something sizzling beneath the warmers at the gas station next door. As soon as we were inside, we realized we’d chosen poorly.
The mood inside the restaurant, the location of which I won’t divulge, had that awkward “what next” air of an interrupted bank robbery. People were milling around the dining area with forlorn expressions on their faces like they were waiting in an ICU for their favorite family members to kick their respective buckets. The counter, however, was empty. That should have been another sign.
The employee greeted my family’s order with the kind of enthusiasm usually exhibited by the comatose. Because I’m that idiot who likes to pretend he has the power to somehow alter fast food so that its not destroying his system, I requested my tacos be made “fresco style,” which is meant to signal to the Taco Bell employee I’d like to replace the half-gallon of sour cream and fistful of shredded cheese they dump on each one with pico de gallo. After allowing the cashier to stare blankly at the restaurant’s point of sale system for several endless moments, then make a quintet of unanswered monotone calls for help from a manager, I told her not to worry about personalizing my order. I’d just take the stock taco. Stockos, as I call them. Her gratitude was boundless.
The self-serve drink machine was non-operational, so the cashier actually took our drink order. She forgot my daughter’s, and when I reminded her, she graciously informed me that she was “getting to it.”
I carried the trio of drinks to the table Mandy, my wife, had picked out at the back of the restaurant. It was near an exit, which was probably good thinking on her part. It looked like someone had scattered half the menu across the restaurant floor, forcing me to step across a valley of spilled lettuce, cheese, and bits of taco shell as I approached the table.
I said something along the lines of, “I’m not sure about this particular Taco Bell.”
“I wanted to eat at the gas station,” she replied.
We both took sips of our drinks and grimaced. The balance between viscous, Aspartame-flavored syrup and bitter soda water in the Diet Pepsis I’d ordered was all out-of-whack.
“That’s undrinkable,” Mandy said. “Oh, definitely,” I responded, then took another drink.
Based on the vociferous conversation with the roughly 900-year-old woman I assumed was his mother, the patron at the table adjacent to our was equally unimpressed with the service. Throughout our meal, we couldn’t help but overhear his profanity-laced ranting about the cost of the food, the meandering speed with which it was served, and how social norms wouldn’t permit him to yell inside the eatery even though he really, really wanted to. His mother sat quietly through most of this, her spirit no doubt crushed by whatever unfortunate series of events had led her here.
Our order was placed on the front counter some 15 minutes after we ordered it. To call the shells of my tacos cold would be like referring to your mother’s funeral as “kind of a bummer.” I suspected they’d been pulled from the freezer just moments after I ordered them and then left to defrost in the open air. The meat inside was hot, though.
As we ate, Mandy and I (my three-year-old daughter, Arlie, was too preoccupied dissecting the soft shell taco we’d ordered her to take notice of anything else) soaked in the ambiance of misery, disbelief and disappointment. Not that those characteristics are unique to the Taco Bell eating experience. But here, they were taken to a potent new level. I wish you could have experienced firsthand the manager’s contempt for a customer who politely asked for a refund for the order he’d waited 20 minutes not to receive, or the apologetic pleas of the teen at a table near ours to the girl he’d brought there. I genuinely hope it wasn’t a date; that’s the kind of experience that crush a budding relationship instantly.
Approximately 45 minutes after we’d entered it, we left the restaurant, stepping out into the miserable, soggy Saturday afternoon. My wife turned to me. We were both grinning from ear-to-ear.
“Dinner and entertainment,” she said.
And to think, we almost ate at a gas station.