March 29, 2009

Planning ahead, repeating: A series of vignettes

I always wanted to go to summer camp, but my family was broke, broke, broke. So I slept in the backyard and ate clover, pretending they were special wild mushrooms I'd found that would give me the power to fly away if I just ate enough. I wonder what the neighbors thought--see the wild-haired little girl in the yard with her pillow, gobbling down grass, desperately wanting it to be enough.


I used to keep a small bag packed in case our house caught on fire. I wanted my most treasured items at arm’s reach at all times in case I needed to flee fast. I remember one incarnation of my emergency kit was a little plastic suitcase that included my grandmother’s obituary, a quarter my grandpa gave me for good luck before my 4th grade spelling bee, a little red metal truck—not much bigger than one of the Hot Wheels—that came from my dead great grandfather in the event I was born a boy, a rubber mermaid with blue hair that I loved, and a piece of my mother’s lingerie because it smelled like her perfume.

Looking back I’m quite impressed with my emergency kit’s thoroughness because, at present, my emergency earthquake kit only contains a few bottles of water.


Repetition has always comforted me. As a child, one way I fulfilled this need was by pretending to sell hot dogs. It's still not clear to me why I did this because, for as long as I can remember, I've loathed hot dogs. But when I was upset and alone I would regularly gather up the raw hot-dog-making materials and pretend to sell them for hours.

The green waxy rhododendron leaves from the bush in our front yard made perfect buns. Broken sticks served as the actual "meat" (if any part of a hot dog can be called such). Freshly mown grass played the part of multiple toppings, including relish and sauerkraut. But my personal favorites were the onions. I would scrape white paint chips off our house that badly needed re-painting--and if I were ever to have been caught for this there would have been hell to pay--and break them up into bits for chopped onions. In my neighbor's yard a small dried up well with a lid made a perfect drive thru window.

I prided myself on the quality of my ingredients (each one hand gathered!), the value of my hot dogs (only pennies apiece!), and my unfailingly courteous service. Every once in awhile, though, a customer would get snippy with me. At my hot dog stand, the customer was not always right. When I was unable to reason with them I would take their order, throw it through the drive-thru window into their car, and tell them to go fuck themselves as I’d heard my mother do with various real and imaginary people. Then I would brush the chopped onions off my hands while muttering, "Some people are never happy," and put on a big smile for the next customer pulling up for their order.


My grandpa and I spent a lot of time together when I was very young. On weekends we often went out to breakfast. We would eat in silence, mostly looking out the window or at the other diners; occasionally we would comment on the quality of the food.

My favorite weekends were those when we went to Shoney’s. If you’re not familiar with Shoney’s, it’s a sit-down family restaurant that has breakfast, lunch, and dinner. On the weekends they were known for their breakfast bar with its endless supply of steak fingers and bacon. I enjoyed the food, but what I really loved was filling out the comment cards.

Part of my excitement was that I was even allowed to fill one out in the first place. My mother never would have allowed this, but my grandpa patiently loaned me his pen and answered my questions about the spelling and meaning of words like “accuracy” and “promptness.” If asked, he would also describe to me his own assessment of the meal.

I was also excited because it was so rare that anyone wanted to hear what I had to say, and here was a restaurant—a corporation—who wanted to know in detail about how my dining experience had been. So I told them. Over and over. I filled a card out each and every time we went to Shoney’s. I related the details of our order down to who had ranch dressing on the side. I carefully and truthfully rated our service and meal and overall dining experience. I reported on the server’s cheerfulness and the cleanliness of our table. I was convinced I was providing an important service. The Shoney’s company had a reliable source on the operations of their store in Bridgeport, WV and, because I loved Shoney’s, my comment cards were invariably glowing.

One day an official-looking letter arrived for me at my grandpa’s house. I squealed with glee when I saw that it was from Shoney’s. I just knew they were writing to thank me for all my efforts, and to encourage me to continue providing them with feedback! I ripped it open excitedly and my grandpa and I read it together:

Dear Miss Ashcraft, it began. How thrilling! How official! We at Shoney’s thank you for your business and your feedback via our comment cards. I knew they were paying attention! We value the feedback of our other customers, too, and ask that you do not complete any more comment cards. Please continue to enjoy our restaurants. Sincerely, Shoney’s

I was crushed and began to cry. I had thought they wanted to hear what I had to say, even if I ate the same meal every visit. I never did fill out any more comment cards at Shoney’s. I was filled with terror that—as soon as I picked one up—gunmen would surround my grandpa and I and haul us off to jail. He was just an old man! He wouldn't be able to handle doing time like I would. I put on my stiff upper lip and fought the urge to comment, knowing in my heart I was protecting our futures.


I'm just me... said...

My childhood friend Beth and I also had a hotdog stand. Ours were made similarly. We lost many customers, I now understand why - the competition had onions. Damn! We should have had onions.

Toad's Lair said...

Were either of your houses a color other than white? 'Cause they could have been particularly interesting onions if! pink! green!

Toad's Lair said...

We probably lived far enough apart that we weren't in direct competition too much. :)

Bree said...

I love the details in the hot dog stand story. The "green waxy rhododendron leaves" and the dry chips of paint.

When I was a kid, I sold "snow cones" for a dime a piece. They were made of ice that I scraped off the inside walls of our extra freezer in the garage and flavored with Lipton instant iced tea. Pretty disgusting to think about in retrospect, but hey, you can't beat ten cents!