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Monday, April 17, 2006

At least since "Happy Days" hamburgers have been associated with rock and roll. Hamburgers in their fast-food incarnation got going right about the same time that rock and roll became teen pop. The first McDonald's franchise got started in 1954, the same year as Elvis's first recordings.

Seattle has two local burger chains. Kidd Valley keeps guitars and other corny rock signifiers on the walls and constantly plays Oldies from the late '50s and early '60s. The last time I was there I heard a white guy a few years older than me pontificating to his son and daughter, aged about 8 or 9, about Booker T & the MG's "Green Onions," which was playing on the speakers. "That's Jr. Walker and the All-Stars," he said. The kids looked bored. I didn't intervene.

Kidd Valley cultivates a twice- or thrice-removed sense of early '60s nostalgia in a way that makes me dislike a lot of music I otherwise like.

The other local chain, Dick's Drive-In, doesn't cultivate anything "rock and roll," but I've actually had "Happy Days"-type experiences there.

The last time it happened was last week. I was standing at the open-air covered eating counter with a group of strangers, including two young mothers, one with an 8-year-old and one with a 2-year-old. The mother of the 2-year-old was way-out pregnant. Due in a couple weeks.

They had taken the bus from Auburn, a suburb of Tacoma, 25 or 30 miles away, because the pregnant woman had had a craving for a Dick's burger. They weren't sure if it had taken them an hour or an hour and a half to get there. They had no regrets; they were really happy.

My first "Happy Days"-type experience happened 13 or 14 years ago. I had just gotten off work, swing shift, and a bunch of the guys were piling into someone's pick-up truck to go to a bar. I had my bike, so I threw that in the pick-up and rode with it in back, which is now, alas, illegal.* Instead of ending up at a bar, the truck surprised me by pulling into Dick's for a midnight burger. And who could it be standing there but my housemate and another good friend, having come from a rock club.

The best "Happy Days"-type experience was a year or so ago. My spouse and I had had good friends over for dinner the night before, a super sweet couple we had both known independently before we knew each other. S- is vegan and L- is not, though she eats veggie at their house. We served a vegan dinner. The next day, I was getting some fries at Dick's and who should be in her car, about to drive away, but L-. "We love S- very dearly but sometimes we have to have a burger," she said.

Dick's opened in 1954 and the founder still owns the whole chain of five stores. Dick offers full health benefits to all full-time employees and college scholarships to full-time employees who work there for a year or so, he pays better than the national chains, and he gives a lot of money to anti-poverty programs. It's a cheerier place to go than most. You never know whom you'll meet there.

* 2 back-of-pickup stories. 1983, the spring after sophomore year of college, hitchhiking across the country with a friend from the university in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We're in western North Dakota, maybe 75 miles from the Montana border. We get picked up by 3 young guys in a pick-up who are driving an hour or two across the state line to go to a bar, because it's Sunday night in a dry county. It's April and freezing; we're huddled in the dark under our sleeping bags, and the 3 guys open the back window when something they think we like comes on the radio. "You guys are from Michigan, right? Here's some Bob Seger!" My friend and I both hate Bob Seger, but we appreciate the gesture. (I've since grown to like some of his songs.)

1986, visiting a friend in Houston. He's just gotten back from an elopement, having married far away from friends and family, and now his and his wife's friends are throwing them a party in a country house an hour east of Houston. A nice party, I only know my friends and their family members. The host has hired the nephew of somebody's cleaning lady to wash dishes. He's 20 and from the Houston slums, a real sweet guy. After the party he and I ride back to town together in the back of my friends' pickup, lying on our backs looking at the stars. He says, sweetly, "I've never seen stars like that before," and I realize -- he's probably never been outside of Houston in his life. We both fall asleep and wake up a while later in a Houston midnight highway traffic jam, amidst all the noise and concrete and glare. It occurs to me that windshields protect us from more than the wind -- it's nice to have a buffer from the ugliness of the big city.
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