Wednesday, December 24, 2014

COLUMN: Taco Holidays

Just two days ago, a co-worker asked me what I was going to write about this week.

"Ugh," I replied. "I have absolutely no idea. I haven't done anything interesting at all lately. Truth be told, I'm kinda stumped."

"Well," she reminded me, "it IS Christmastime. Aren't you supposed to be writing heartwarming holiday stuff?"

Valid point. This IS the time of year when columnists around the world put pen to paper and churn out untold amounts of tear-jerky yuletide schlock. I guess I'm supposed to be writing about Christmas shoes and chestnuts roasting on open fires and tidings of comfort and joy and that kinda stuff. Honestly, though, I'm a little tapped out at the moment. The only Christmas shoes I have are the same orthopedic ones my doctor's had me wearing since I broke my ankle, and the one time I tried a roasted chestnut it tasted more like roasted dirt. I guess sappiness just doesn't come easy to my repertiore.

But hey, I'm a professional respected columnizer. It shouldn't be too hard to come up with something maudlin and cliche enough to bring a tear to everyone's eyes, right? I just had to sit down, stick a tap in the ol' sentimental tree, and start churning out the sap. And that was exactly my plan, just as soon as I went out and grabbed a burrito. That's when it all went to heck.

It's no secret that I love fast food. Without it, I'd be forced to eat healthy stuff all the time, and let's face it - life's too short for vegetables. Besides, history has proven time and again that fast-food drive-thru lanes are the magical vortices from which all comedy springs. Usually, I'm okay making the round trip around the outside of a restaurant, especially if French fries are the payoff. But last night, I wasn't up for pomp or circumstance. I just wanted a burrito, and quickly.

And because fate hates me, I pulled in to see a line about ten cars deep in the drive-thru lane. Not cool, but I still joined in. This wasn't my first time at the rodeo, and I knew I had a three-car window to bail out of line if we were truly stuck. Odds were good there was just a dude at the front of the line ordering a gross of tacos for his extended family and it was temporarily holding up the parade. Sure enough, we soon started moving and before I knew it, I was at the menu. Now let's see, what should I...

"WELKUMTACOBDLKJFEZZZGHH HIHOWAREYOU!?!?!?!?!?!" screamed the speaker as a wine glass shattered somewhere in Iceland.

Fast food places should really know better. Rule #1: Don't scare the regulars. Our blood runs thick with guacamole and sour cream. One rogue fright to the heart and you could lose a customer. And what's with the hi-how-are-you? I'm not here for idle chit-chat with a talking menu. I'm here for a burrito.

"I'm good, thanks," I socialized back to the inanimate speaker. "I need a smothered burrito with a Pepsi and a side of nachos."

Pause. Long pause. Too long of a pause.


"Nope. Smothered burrito. Pepsi. Side of nachos."


"Nope," I replied, other than whatever sauce one presumably smothers a burrito with.

Pause. Long pause. Infinite pause. Guess I'll pull around. Eventually I made it around to the window, where I was greeted with a blank stare from a rather vacant teenager. He looked at me. I looked at him. He looked at me some more. I looked at him back.

Prior to this moment, I thought I had mastered the basic art of the drive-thru. But never before had I encountered a fully motionless employee. What's protocol in this situation? Did I need to greet him in his native hi-how-are-you tongue? The only possible explanation to this scenario is that I had pulled to the window at the precise moment that Dr. Sam Beckett just happened to Quantum Leap into this kid's body and he was now adapting to the situation in order to sell me tacos without blowing his secret identity. But eventually he spoke.

"You had the three tacos, right?"

"Nope. Smothered burrito, Pepsi, nachos."

"Oh, right, right. Need any sauce?"

"No, man, I'm good, thanks," I replied as my helpful sales associate slammed the drive-thru window in my face.

Three minutes (not that I was counting) later, he re-appeared, bag in hand.

"Here you go. Need any sauce?"

"No. Man. I'm good."

"K," he said, shoving the bag and my drink at me all at once. Then he closed the window, turning around and leaving me holding the food, the drink... and my money, which I had yet to pay him.

I waited. And waited. And then the car behind me honked, because THAT guy had witnessed me procure my food and my drink and presumably now assumed I was just lounging in the drive-thru and enjoying the scenery. Eventually, I rapped on the outside of the window to get my new friend's attention.

"Ummm?" said he.

"You forgot to charge me for the food. I thought you might want some money?"

"DUDE," he said as if someone finally shook him awake. "I am SO sorry. Gosh, I'm just out of it tonight. Thank you so much, man. You could have driven off and then my drawer would have been off at the end of my shift and I would've been in serious trouble."

"No worries," I said as he handed me change. "Happens to the best of us."

"Seriously, I can't believe you were honest and waited to pay me. That's awesome. It's like a Christmas miracle."

And that right there, friends, is the sappiest thing I have to offer this holiday season. Christmas magic, with a side of nachos. Be nice to your fellow man, even if the voice inside your head is swearing and calling him names. We all have days when our drawer's going to be off at the end of the night without some help. One of these days, it just might be you. In our topsy-turvy world, a little patience can go a long way. Christmas isn't the only time of the year to find some inner kindness, but can you think of a better time to start?

You may begin your sentimental yuletide weeping... now. And that's exactly what I did when I got home last night and opened my bag to find four tacos, a Mountain Dew, and twelve packets of sauce.

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