I had quite an experience yesterday. I ate a hamburger. This may not seem novel to you, but it was for me. It was my first hamburger in about three years.
For many sound reasons (rationalizations?) I started eating meat again last month. I didn't think I would ever add beef back to the menu, especially ground-up, dripping fast-food beef. And it wasn't any sound reasoning that had me craving it. I did it for Tommy and Shari.
Tommy was the founder of Tommy's Burger, a southern California pre-McDonald's burger joint with locations strategically placed near all the neighborhoods I lived in or frequented, and chili on everything. My dear friend Erica and I used to eat there. I'm partial to the one on Topanga Canyon, which would reel us in on our way to Chatsworth Park, and the one in my sometime hometown of Van Nuys, which happens to be next to a very strange mural where a child is holding something that looks like a ray gun. Here's the mural on Google maps so you know what to look for, behind the 7-11 sign. Turn around behind you and there's burger eaters sitting outside. (Maybe that's why burgers are not so great in Chicago. They don't taste good sitting in the snow.)
It wasn't just Tommy's that gave me my nostalgia for California burgers. It was the road trip. I can't imagine how many miles I drove in that state, but Erica and I tore up the highways. One time after a camping trip near Sequoia National Forest (we didn't actually go to the forest, but to a giant rock pile in a dry lakebed near it), we stopped in Kernville (of Kern County, of course) and had burgers from a little stand attached to the back of the general store. There we sat on the bank of a little sparkling churning river while kayakers bobbed by. We ate our burgers, drank our Royal Crown colas, and became a scene out of a 1960s picture book. The kind with the expertly gouached pine trees and children in striped shirts and ballcaps.
I almost forgot about Shari. Her Tucsonan burgers were my first inspiration for writing about burgers at all today, and for taking yesterday's greasy plunge. I talked to Erica last week and we shot the shit about life in Tucson (we were lucky enough to live in both Tucson and LA together, at almost the same times, thanks to several twists of fate), and somehow we got on the subject of things in quotation marks that shouldn't be. I'd seen a movie that had used them around its Spanish disclaimer for the interview portion of the DVD. The other languages did not use quotation marks. I got to thinking it might be a Spanish language thing, that it actually means something ("listen"? "this is an announcement"?) to put portions of advertising or notifications and announcements inside quotation marks in that language. Then it unfortunately got horribly translated into English, and everyplace from Long Beach laundromats ("DRYERS FREE!") to midwest farmer's markets ("CASH ONLY") to Tucson burger stands (..."HAMBURGER") began using the quotation mark, as if there were no other way to tell someone something in writing and have them know you are talking to them.
Shari's is the best example, because the quotes weren't even around announcements. They were hand-painted onto the entire menu, item by item. "HAMBURGER" "CORN DOG" "FRIES" Then dot dot dot.... and the price, not in quotes. It's not really a hamburger, but we definitely want your $3 for it. I'd gotten used to unnecessary announcement quotes ("FORM ONE LINE") and had come to enjoy the humor in the many signs that offer something "FREE" (um, is it really free, or just..."free"?) but Shari's was really something to talk about. If I didn't hate air quotes so much, I would have ordered everything with them. I'll have a "milkshake." After 53 years of outdoor and drive-in burgering, Shari's closed in 2008. Maybe beacuse of the In and Out Burger that moved in down the street. Maybe because of the quotation marks. Perhaps people just couldn't be sure of what they were eating anymore, or perhaps they thought someone was shouting the menu items into their ear. Hmm, what do I want? "HAMBURGER!" Alright alright, hamburger!
We live with these quotes all around and mostly ignore them, like poor spelling. It seems like there's something more to them though. The first time I remember noticing them was that Long Beach laundromat when I was about 18, and I spent the hour laughing at the "DRYERS FREE" banner, shoving clothes in and saying "Dryers freeeeee...Who said that!? Stop talking to me!" I think the friend I was with thought the problem was with me and not the signage, but it the quote problem stuck with me and I started noticing them everywhere.
Maybe it's just another common degeneration of written language, like plurals with apostrophes. Maybe it's just a tactic to cut through advertising and signage noise by attempting to make more noise. Maybe no one's ever read a novel or a story in English, so they don't even know what quotes are for. Whatever the reason for the quotation mark proliferation, it always reminds me of "HAMBURGER." And since yesterday, hamburgers make me happy again.
For more of me getting sappy and serious about food, see last year's Ode to a Greasy Muffin.