Life in Chains: Del Taco

Written for an series on fast food chains.

This was written to a prompt — has a series about experiences in fast food chains. They didn’t want this one, but I had fun anyway.

Del Taco has no beginning, no end. It is a continuous haze of orange.

It appears in my memory without clear origin and then slips away, slowly disintegrating over the years like a photograph bleaching in the harsh sunlight of adulthood until it is gone again.

Everything in the Del Taco of my memory is orange, the tables, the booths, the floor, the signs, the mop bucket tucked back behind the racks of orange trays, the mottled tile in the bathroom, even the grease leaking out the back of the burritos. All of it glowing like a sunburnt George Hamilton.

I think of that orange whenever I’m home for a holiday, walking the gauntlet of fading family photos flanking the hallway walls on my way to the bathroom at my parents’ house. I wonder if the photos look as strangely tinted to my children as they do to me, or if the novel notion that I was once a child overshadows the rest of the picture.

My childhood shimmers like a dry desert lake washed in heat, but it is still capable of rushing up out of that wavering indistinct haze with a startling immediacy at the slightest provocation. R.E.M.’s Radio Free Europe, the original “Hib Tone” version, catapults me instantly back to Corey’s puke green VW Fastback lurching and backfiring its way into the parking lot at Cappy’s diner where we sought greasy yellow omelets awash in a sea of pinto beans and cheese. The smell of a highlighter still lives back behind the shelving cart in the library where Shelly first kissed me, her blond hair brushing lightly against my neck as my fingers let go of the book I’d been pulling out. And the orange photo wash of faded Kodachrome 64 summons a vision of Del Taco on a Saturday afternoon, ice skating the tile floor in scuffed Adidas soccer cleats.

Del Taco’s tables were pale orange, with molded plastic bench seats. There were three along the side by the drive thru, beneath the window. This was before SUVs, even the longest line at the drive thru could not block the view of the planes taking off from the airport, whose runway ended across the road. The notion of building anything next to a runway sounds quaint now, but there they were, giant lumbering planes roaring up into the sky while we sat in the molded white plastic and watched them.

The booths themselves were slick from countless pairs of jeans sliding in and out of them. When the dry Santa Ana winds blew in from the desert the static electricity would build up as I fidgeted in the booth, a fuzzy softness against the plastic. When I had enough I would discharge it against the metal window sill with a satisfying pop and surge of adrenaline, like the sweaty, metallic jolt you got from sucking hot sauce straight out of the packet.

Back then my father and I were burrito men. Burritos with fries. It sounds odd to me now, this notion of fries with a burrito. But it was California in the 1980s, many things from then sound odd to me now. David Lee Roth, Valley girls saying “like”, the rat tail, New Coke, dolphin shorts.

Occasionally my dad would get tacos, but neither of us really liked hard shell tacos. This was the first sort of food elitism I can remember, this vague unspoken notion that whatever a taco might be, it was not something that came in a hard, molded shell that crunched. Tacos did not crunch.

I don’t know what ever propelled my family to Del Taco. My father says it was proximity. When I was very young I liked to watch the planes take off and land at John Wayne airport. Del Taco happened to be near the airport. We were hungry. We went once. We went again. A habit was formed.

I am not a particularly sentimental man, but I won’t lie, I’d hoped for more meaning, some import to it all, which is a little odd since when I was younger I was fond of spitting Wallace Stevens’ sentiment: “Sentimentality is a failure of feeling.” I said this at parties for years without ever bothering to wonder, not why sentimentality is a failure, but why I used this statement as shield. Stevens was railing against the syrupy banality of so much Victorian poetry, but me? I was avoiding something. When I said it, what I meant was “feeling is a failure to evade the past.”

Why do I shrink from the past, preferring the standoffish distance, hiding behind a sarcasm I wear like dark sunglasses? I’m not sure. I do know that I would like for there to be more than proximity behind something that figures so large in my memory. But the world can be a monster. Who wants to walk around with naked feelings in a place like this?

The late 1990s. The Del Taco by the airport is still there, but it’s remodeled, there’s hardly any orange oil leaking out of the burritos. We’ve moved on. Corey sells the fastback. Shelly left town years ago. The world feels somehow smaller, diminished.

Another decade passes. There is no orange oil left in LA. All I can find near the airport is a Chipotle. The burritos do not drip orange grease. They do not drip anything. Nothing in the entire place drips anything. There are no leaks, it is a white and glass world of perfection. There is no food here for the living, just some blue magic that began with Edward Bernays, passed through a brief phase of luminous orange, and ended in dry sawdust burritos, comfortable foam cushioned chairs, and a carefully engineered floor on which no cleats will ever slip.

I ducked and dodged my way east, moving across the country to a tiny town with no Del Taco, but completely steeped in orange oil. I arrived in the evening to watch a wall of humidity swallow the sun out of the western sky, leaving behind an orange haze that never faded, but glowed from the street lights until the orange dawn rose again. Home.

I let myself sink in to the orangeness of the place. I let JB’s red-orange comeback sauce keep pulling me back into the parking lot next to the 40 Watt to soak up the alcohol. I let the orange tater tots linger in the grease pooling beneath my burger at the diner downtown. I let Weaver pass me plates of thick, gravy-smothered friend pork chops, collard greens and macaroni with orange cheese. I layered memory on memory until the sound of Innervisions slid me back in the door of Jimmy’s ‘68 Falcon, jetting black through the humid night, sliver hood trim glinting in the streetlights of the university back roads where the cops and stops signs were fewer. I wrote at a table in the library, in front of a tall, narrow window looking out on the orange and red brick of downtown. I traded the Kodachrome for pixels. I drank coffee sitting on the rough pine porch of a converted church thinking at last I have a real religion.

Wallace Stevens never ate at Del Taco. It would have been sentimental somehow. Not sentimental in the way things were sentimental when he railed against it, but sentimental in the way things are now, when we have replaced sentimentality with irony, the only sentimentality we can stomach, but a failure of the imagination nonetheless. A failure to be out there, raw nerves prickling against the rough edges of world, the raw elements without which the world is reduced, small and mean.

We need orange grease leaking into the world. We need the dirt in the corner, a messy bathroom where we have to debate whether or not our hands will actually be cleaner after touching that sink. We need some modicum of risk to our lives, is this good for me? Does it need to be? We need wide open trays, vast arrays of jiggly food in badly lit underground cafeterias, not everything so neatly wrapped up and subdivided.

It’s been so long since the world was orange. Still those raw nerves are there. They tingle in the quiet spaces between, we seek them across parking lot oceans, wandering the stucco deserts of strip malls, thirsting for the feeling of cool water on our tongues.

I watched the world build a new world out of screens. They were blue, but somehow orange at first too.

Jimmy sold the Falcon. The coffee shop in the old church closed down. I drifted across town, sitting outside a different coffee shop in the warm summer evenings, watching a cloud of restless spring insects circling the street light above Waffle House, thinking that perhaps this digital oil can save us, give the rawness somewhere to exist, let us pull these things out again and look at them in the light. But that hope fades with time. The same forces that homogenized the real world, homogenize the screen world too. Soon all the raw edges are wrapped up in a scroll of blue and white easily digestible nuggets of nothingness without so much as an orange pixel to be seen.

Still the moths circle the light. Across the street a row of flycatchers sits, resting on the wire through which all these dreams pulse. It is easy pickings here, the birds so stuffed with moths they only watch now. Later, after the sun sets and the birds are asleep, what moths remain sometimes come to sip the salt from the tears lingering in the birds’ eyes.

It’s not a failure of feeling. It’s a failure to make room for feeling.

Last year I found myself passing time in a nameless suburb south of Oklahoma City, not unlike the one I grew up in south of Los Angeles. I went to do laundry one day and there it was, Del Taco.

I watched it while the washer ran, R.E.M. in my headphones. I stuffed the clothes in the dryer and walked down the street to see if it was in fact an endless sea of shimmering orange. I stood a moment on the sidewalk, looking at the black rimmed glass windows, thinking of the time I tracked down my great grandmother’s tiny house, still bleaching its bones somewhere in the Arizona desert. I felt the same hesitation I had felt then. It wasn’t my house. I was out of place, a stranger outside looking in. I backed up and turned around. I had time before the laundry was done. I went behind the stucco walls of the strip mall, down an alley and out another side street that led away from the chains, away from the clean bathrooms, the healthy burritos, the five star reviews, until eventually the street ended at a guard rail, the pavement gave way to open fields, and I kept walking, farther away, to some place where there is grass and sun and spring and green forever.


Please leave a reply:

All comments are moderated, so you won’t see it right away. And please remember Kurt Vonnegut's rule: “god damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” You can use Markdown or HTML to format your comments. The allowed tags are <b>, <i>, <em>, <strong>, <a>. To create a new paragraph hit return twice.