The Burger King Over by Popeye’s in Suisun (First-Person Fooding in Solano)

For three weeks in a row I visited the Burger King in Suisun after I got out of class. Before that I had been frequenting the nearby Popeye’s for my post-night-class stomach fulfillment, but—as any fried chicken fan is likely to concede—Popeye’s has a real problem.

Fresh Popeye’s—spicy, not mild—is some of the best damn fried chicken you will ever come across. It’s flaky, flavorful, and the chicken is of a different world of quality than the crap the KFCs around here put out.

But Popeye’s isn’t perfect. No, I’m not referring to their overtly racist commercials, the fact that they condescendingly welcome you to the drive-thru with a “Welcome back to Popeye’s, may I take your order?” or even the MSG-laden mystery that is “The Cajun Sparkle.”

So what could my problem possibly be? Simply put, those two-for-a-buck-and-change drumsticks and thighs aren’t worth wasting the jaw effort over when they aren’t fresh. And the food techs over at Popeye’s don’t seem to care how damn long that chicken is left under the heat lamp. Eating at Popeye’s is a complete gamble: you could win and eat delicious fresh floured chicken, or lose and gnaw at some miserable rubbery bits for half-an-hour.

I had grown sick and tired of the Popeye’s lottery after a spectacularly bad set of Tuesday specials, so I decided to give the ole BK a go.

Now, what could have possibly possessed me to actually want to try Burger King again? This I do not know. It was getting late, and I think most of my other options in the area were closed down. Maybe I was feeling a piece of my youth burn back up to life again after being told by my writing mentor that I needed to “take more risks.”  Take more risks? Like what? Unprotected sex with strangers? Cosplaying Frogger and running across traffic on Peabody? Or even…even…

Eating at Burger King? I was already wondering if I had made the correct choice as I pulled into the very empty drive-thru. The soulless minion on the other end of the menu speaker at no point said the words “welcome back,” which was a good start. I panicked instead of asking for extra time, the way I always do. Don’t want to waste his time. Don’t want to be that guy, the one the order-taker rolls his eyes over as his manager snickers her commiseration before returning her attention to the heavy metal tray she’s scrubbing with some diluted antiseptic she can’t pronounce.

I ordered the Texas Whopper. Oh shit, Cherry Coke Zero? Better order one of those too. Oh man. Even if the food was garbage, something I was pretty much counting on, I would at least have a Cherry Coke Zero to comfort myself with.

He gave me the total and I pulled up to the second window. (He didn’t tell me to pull up to a specific window, but the first was blocked with boxes visibly stacked up against the window’s side.)

And there, at the second window, he was waiting.

He wasn’t your normal Burger McFlippant, Esq.

See, fast food, like most minimum wage drudgery around here, tends to wear your soul down. It’s a very gradual erosion, more of a chafing at the parts that make you you than anything else. It happens to everyone in any line of work where they’re expected to do more inane bullshit than they should have to for less money than they deserve—all in no time flat. You start the job a genuine human being, but eventually the caustic environment, the coworkers, the unrealistic expectations, and the unholy stress of it all gets to you. The numbers which translate your blood pressure into human values go up while the numbers translating your value to the corporation on your check stay the same or even start to go down—optimization, they calls it, trimming the fat, they say, restructuring the ole company, m’boi.

And so we see a scab begin to form over the soul. The scab wraps up the wound and prevents further damage. Robotification sets in. Beep boop. You begin to unconsciously slip into a comfortable rhythm at work, and while at first you are proud of this, it eventually begins to terrify you. The customers streaming in and out change their faces around, but they can’t fool you—they’re the exact same consumption-based beings that came in earlier. Then the faces of the coworkers change, but they’re still the same automatons that greeted you yesterday.

And before you know it, you’re the one who’s worked there the longest, and you look in the mirror, and you see the tiredness there, and you wonder at how the asymmetrical wrinkles that start on the work shirt you’re wearing today—which you just picked up off the floor and threw on at twenty-till—extend up past the collar and continue on all the way up to your receding hairline.

But this guy was different. Big, soft eyes like that skunk from Bambi. He didn’t want to say too much to me, or even riposte my friendly speech attempts when I tried to make the experience less miserable for the either of us. Perhaps a recent immigrant to the ole US of A? A man long-shamed by a stuttering problem his parents couldn’t fix at the best speech centers in the area? Mental illness a likely possibility. He didn’t make eye contact or even say three words to me on that first visit. I was instantly interested in his backstory, which I began to create in my head. Already he was becoming a character in the pages of the not-so-great American novel of my memory.

A few minutes later I was driving off,  a very warm and very expensive bag of burgers and fries on my passenger-side seat. I put my hand underneath the bag and reveled in the bursts of heat coming off of the unnecessarily warm food. I love unnecessarily warm food. Then I drove over to my buddy’s place and dug in.

Shockingly, it was the best Burger King of my life. The fries—allegedly “medium-sized,” but by what king’s measurements, pray tell—were better than the ole reliable fare McDonald’s pumps out, and very fresh. The frying oil probably wasn’t even two weeks old. The Whopper itself had a singular, lonely onion ring on it, and some jalapenos or something. Apparently, that makes it Texan. Yee-howdy. It was surprisingly tasty.

And the soda? Some of the best fountain swill I’ve ever had, no joke. Far superior to bottled Cherry Coke Zero, which has that strange plastic artificiality to it which hardly makes it suitable for good old-fashioned and excessive patriotic consumption.

My friend was also shocked by the results. Both of us had been previously burned by the extremely diverse interpretations of the word “quality” employed by each BK store. After the meal, my buddy and I vigorously discussed the merits of the mightily-fallen Chicken Tendercrisp sandwich. Wait, was it even on the menu anymore? All I’d seen advertised was the charred oblong patty-chunk of mechanically processed scrapings known as “The Original Chicken Sandwich.”

Truly, the world will be at a loss if indeed the Tendercrisp has gone the way of the dodo. When first introduced, this magnificent sandwich harkened back to the crumbier, breadier days of Chick Fil-A. Of course, neither of us had experienced a good, quality Tendercrisp in some time. The chicken was always overcooked or undercooked or maybe they just changed the recipe? Well, perhaps the loss will not be so profound.

When I returned the next week, my experience was roughly the same. However, this time, the young man of thoroughly indeterminate age—like some twenty-something wielder of both spatula and philosopher’s stone—was more talkative, much to my delight.

Under his breath he muttered the word “sheisty” no less than six times as he handed me my Cherry Coke Zero and tossed over my bag of food. He pointed to my drink and said, “Cherry Coke Zero.” I thanked him profusely and drove off, elated as I began to ruminate over the nature of his mumblings.

Who was being sheisty to him? Were they cutting his hours? Was he working overtime? Missing his family back in Liechtenstein? His story ballooned in my mind, and I filled in every blank with a Mad-Lib-like glee as I drove over to my pal’s house. I wasn’t sure of much, but one thing I did know—as the warm bag filled with muted, trademarked smells assured me—was that I would be seeing him next week.

Only, I didn’t. He wasn’t at the drive-thru window that third week. It was some girl—a professional burger slinger, too—and probably the manager. Had the company had too many complaints about his anti-social behavior? I grew despondent the moment I heard a female voice greet me, and as she took my card at the second window I sincerely began to hope that the food would not suck butt again the way Burger King typically does. Slowly, it began to dawn on me that I had begun to connect his presence with the decency of the Burger King I had been consuming. He was my good luck charm for thoroughly edible BK, and I’d lost him. Hopefully they hadn’t fired him.

Burger-Pro: Lady Edition mock-sheepishly informed me that the promotional 99-cent sauced slab of sawdust I had ordered was going to need a little extra time to cook, and that I would need to pull around to the other side of the restaurant and park. I agreed in proprietous fashion and pulled around to the side of the store—where I saw, through the window, the hero of our fable wiping down the day’s dine-in tables.

I longed to wave at him or shout my undying devotion to his tight-lipped acerbic brand of customer service, but I settled on a silent prayer of thanks to any gods who cared to listen as he picked up a rag and threw it across the store at the futuristic rocket-shaped drink dispenser.

He proceeded to unleash a string of harsh-looking words under his breath as he grabbed a broom. His practiced, methodical strokes across the floor revealed more of his character than his words ever would.

Eventually somebody placed a bag in his hand and pointed over at the weird guy in the even weirder economy Toyota outside. He picked up the bag, stomped through the door, and walked over to my car.

He handed me the bag. I told him thank you. He kind of nodded.

Then I went over to my friend’s and ate it and got some of the worst food poisoning of my life.

Fuck you, Burger King.

-Bearshaman