Wednesday, March 06, 2002

ALL I WANTED was a Single, mustard and pickles only, and a small chili. There were only two cars in front of me. About five minutes later it was just one car.

I stayed one car away from the barely functioning speaker at that Wendy's drive-through for about 20 minutes. For reasons I'll get into in a much longer entry, I'm feeling less guilty these days about the beefy, fatty side of life's menu, and the minor detour to the open-late Wendy's has become a tradition when I know there's nothing suitable to eat waiting for me at home.

To the east and west of the U.S. Capitol lie beauty; to the north and the south, well, something more gritty. The picturesque East Capitol Street bisects the Capitol Hill neighborhood, from the Capitol itself to RFK Stadium and the Anacostia River, and it separates the District of Columbia's Northeast and Southeast quadrants. Northeast is "the Senate side"; Southeast is "the House side." There is no West Capitol Street, for west of the Capitol lies the Mall: the Smithsonian museums, then the Washington Monument and a growing list of memorials between that obelisk and the Lincoln Memorial and finally the Potomac River.

North Capitol Street starts with the Union Station vicinity, which features a some nice buildings, including a historic post office complete with museum, and some good hotels and Irish bars. It quickly deteriorates into some of the most dangerous real estate you'll ever hear of. Charlton Heston did a fear-mongering NRA ad from an underpass not far from North Capitol, the dome in the background, a few years back.

That dome was in my rearview mirror as I waited, and waited and waited, at this Wendy's off South Capitol Street. South Capitol is more commercial than North Capitol; it's dominated by fast-food places and gas stations. There's a Best Western hotel on the Southwest side, not far from a major post office and the city's main vehicle-inspection station. The Wendy's is less than half a mile from my house, but it's part of another world. A block or two south of the Wendy's are some reputedly hard-core gay bars and a straight strip club that shows up on HBO's "Real Sex" as the home of the Miss Black Nude pageant. A block east is a very large strip club. This one showed up on E!'s "Wild On"; it's not your friendly neighborhood strip club. It's more like the kind of place where NBA players get into trouble. Or so I imagine.

You might be getting the picture that I wouldn't necessarily be comfortable sitting in this location for half an hour, and you'd be right. On this night I wasn't quite so concerned, because the next car in line was a police car. So I cranked my cassette tape — the Blake Babies' "Sunburn" backed with Juliana Hatfield's "Hey Babe" — and I waited, annoyed but a little amused. I enjoyed the music and I enjoyed looking at the Chevrolet Monte Carlo in front of me, a semi-creative revival of a nameplate introduced in 1970. The guy in the Monte Carlo was like me, annoyed but with a facade of patience. You don't want to get too cross with the people who'll be handling your food. He finally started to say "Hello? Hello?" Eventually he placed his order.

He, too, wanted a Single and a small chili, though his Single would have cheese and mayonnaise and onions. Ewww!

I heard something that sounded like "One moment, please" when I got to the speaker, but I couldn't be sure. I stayed polite for about five minutes before launching into my own "Hello? Hello?" I heard another "One moment, please," I think, and then something I couldn't make out. After another "Hello?," I heard the word "order," and so I ordered. Mustard and pickles. No cheese. You can say you want only what you want till you're blue in the face, but the cheese question cannot be avoided.

"Mustard and pickles only."

"With or without cheese?"

Things went quite quickly after that. I'll never know what the problem was. Monte Carlo Guy got his food, I got my food, no sweat.

I got home and visited with the missus, then settled in for the after-work routine. A little blogging, plus a good night of Tivo'd TV. "Watching Ellie," "Undeclared," "A Cook's Tour," "The Real World," "Frasier." I've never really understood the chili burger — or "goddamn chili hamburger," as James Caan said to Marsha Mason in "Chapter Two." In Arizona they call it by the puzzling term "chili size," a name redeemed only by a Green on Red lyric (from "Black River": "Foreign diner / Chili size / I hope that Tabasco sauce don't / Burn me up inside"). But the idea has grown on me, and the mustard and the pickles provide the perfect tangy accompaniment to the hearty heat of the chili.

So it was with great anticipation that I opened the wrapper to find — cheese and mayo and onions.


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