It Tastes like the End of the World
I somehow managed to make it to the age of 23 without ever tasting a curly fry.
It wasn’t a conscious decision; I didn’t even know they were a thing. By that I mean I knew they existed and that people sometimes ate them, but I didn’t know how popular they were.
Admittedly, keeping up with popularity was never my best skill. Popular music, books, movies, or food are all equally elusive to me in adulthood. I am often as ignorant of popularity as I am of the reasons why something might be popular to begin with.
Do not misconstrue this as some sort of brag. It sucks. A lot of people take pride in embracing only the most obscure and most arcane. As a teenager, that’s what I did. I’d actively shun what I thought was popular and seek out less lauded music and books and culture as if it somehow made me smarter or better than everyone else.
It didn’t. It never does.
The truth is, you want to relate to people. If you are truly out of touch with popularity, you are prone to making social errors in ALL cultural arenas, popular or not. This is what I do now.
Let’s say I’m talking to someone about a particular song. Because I do not know how popular this song is, I just assume they’ve never heard of it. The person I’m talking to will be like “yeah, I know that song…” and then I’m surprised that the person knows it. Then I get a look. It’s not a good look. My surprise always comes off as condescension. It always turns out that the song was in a TV commercial that everyone on Earth saw and I somehow missed. It was like I was surprised that somebody knew how to tie their own shoes.
Where I grew up, we didn’t have an Arby’s. For our fast food roast beef, we had Roy Rogers.
Roy’s was the first real job I ever had. It was the first exposure to the stench of a grease trap. It was my first exposure to being yelled at for leaning against a counter instead of working. The food there was all familiar. There were no firsts in that department.
I’d heard people talk about curly fries from time to time. They’d get a passing mention on TV or by a school friend, but that was the limit of my knowledge. I didn’t realize they were a common thing that basically everyone had experienced. I also didn’t know that they were an attraction at Arby’s. I’d never been to an Arby’s.
I remember seeing Arby’s restaurants pass by when I sat in the back seat of my dad’s car. There was one on route 40 near Laurel that had a big brown-and-orange cowboy hat sign. Brown and orange: the color pairing retailers universally agreed upon in the 1970’s.
I remember passing by one outside of Salisbury where my older brother went to college in the late 80’s. A silhouette of a cartoon Stetson glowed neon orange in the evening sky.
That very Arby’s was the first one I’d ever go to, but it wouldn’t be for many years.
Our senses of smell and taste deeply map upon our memories. They’re literally visceral sensations. When you smell or taste pop culture, you remember. You remember the smell of Drakkar Noir on the boy you liked when you first spent all night dancing together. You remember the taste of Orange Julius from those delinquent nights at the shopping mall.
In my case, the confusing revelation that curly fries did not taste like regular french fries became an instant memory.
I was sitting behind the wheel of a Jeep Wrangler with a girl I was dating. The Jeep was hers. I didn’t have a car. We’d just gotten drive-thru at the very Arby’s I mentioned earlier. We were leaving Maryland’s Eastern Shore and sat in the parking lot eating our lunch.
I took the bag and dipped my hand in, bringing out a fistful of warm-ish curly fries. Their touch on my lips was a shock. They were slightly spicy, kind of crispy and soft on the inside without being limp and over-greeezy.
“Oh…” I blurted, “What…?”
She looked over at me. She was listening closely to the radio.
“Hm?” she intoned, thinking I was referring to the news she was listening to.
“I’ve never had these before,” I said, peering into the bag with one finger pulling it open.
“You’ve never had curly fries?” She asked, with a half smile replacing her prior look of concern.
She and I both had off from work and we went to Ocean City for an impromptu weekend getaway. We’d stayed in a hundred-dollar-a-night hotel and swam in the outdoor pool even though it was not at all warm outside. Summer was over.
Though I was very smitten with her, our relationship was a sham. I never learned exactly why she and I ended up together, but I learned she was using me to get back at her ex-boyfriend who happened to be my roommate and bandmate and close friend. I didn’t know. I honestly had no idea. I was blinded by her animism and both of them were playing some kind of game that neither one was telling me about. The whole thing ended quietly and quickly after six months. I wasn’t hurt, and hopefully I didn’t hurt either of them. Though I never spoke to her again, my relationship with my friend continued unchanged even after he ended up getting back with her.
We are capable of such strange relationships in our early twenties.
She was the first time I felt a tangible “spark” between two people. It happened when she was sitting in the front seat of my friend’s car when he was driving…I made some joking remark from the back seat about something long forgotten, and she turned around and gave me a look that sent an electrical jolt through my body. I felt that look hard. There weren’t any accompanying words. Within a week, the two of us found ourselves acting on that spark.
“Good, huh?” She chuckled as I stuffed my face.
She shook her head and smiled, turning her eyes straight ahead again. We listened to the radio in silence, waiting for the news that it would be okay to drive across the Bay Bridge and head home.
That’s something a lot of people don’t remember about 9/11. The entire country shut down. The four mile-long bridge across the Chesapeake Bay had defensively closed while the terror threat was at max. We were stranded on the wrong side of the Bay while the twin towers were crumbling into cancerous ash on the radio. I was having curly fries for the first time.
I sipped on my bucket-sized cup of Dr. Pepper, looking at her smooth face and its distinct First Nation contours. She could roll out of bed and be gorgeous. That’s precisely what she had done that morning.
We’d woken up to enjoy the day, and turned on the television in our hotel room. We watched the second plane hit and we immediately terminated the vacation. Neither of us had a mobile phone. Neither of us could be sure nobody we knew had been killed.
We didn’t expect to have to rush home as black Hummers appeared from nowhere to patrol the empty beach highway. We didn’t expect a police barricade at the coastal side of the bridge. We didn’t expect to be so afraid to see a single airplane streaking through the sky after the radio told us every single airline was down.
We didn’t expect it could all somehow be paused by introducing one of us to curly fries for the first time.