welcome to the jungle

Sometimes you just want fried pickles and beer. Maybe some bbq chicken.

But this isn’t Memphis. I can’t get barbecue served to me on a paper plate while I’m sitting at a picnic table like I’m in someone’s backyard and not a restaurant. I can’t go to a place where the smell of barbecue sticks to your clothes for hours after you’ve left the place.

I’m in the suburbs. We built the suburbs on chain restaurants. We turned the suburbs into a jungle where the trees are TGI Friday’s and Chili’s and Applebee’s and the lions and tigers are gargantuan SUVs built to climb mountains. But they’re aren’t any mountains around here. Just a flat jungle of pre-fabricated food, oversized cars and neon signs, signs that are beckoning in the same way the sad lights of off-strip Vegas are; “Cash For Gold” and “Liquor!” and “For Lease” give this neon jungle a vibe that you’re walking through a place civilization forgot. Or, civilization as we know it ruined.

But fried pickles and beer.

When in the jungle, act like the natives.

It’s 7:10 pm and we’re just being seated. We have a hockey game to watch at 8:00. I don’t want to watch it here, even though there are no less than 50 tv sets hanging from the wall, few of them tuned in to some pre-game stuff but most of them showing baseball or some kind of car racing. The place is packed; we had to wait twenty minutes for a table and normally we don’t wait for anything in this jungle because there’s alway another tree to swing to that has no waiting. But I wanted those damn pickles. So we waited. We waited outside with that antiquated beeper in our hands and while I was waiting for it to buzz me the message that our table was ready, we watched the habitants of this jungle.

“Did he just say ‘where have you been, bitch?’ to that girl?”

There’s a dangerously overweight man in an ill-fitting collared shirt smoking a cigarette. A young girl, most likely his daughter, is approaching him. She stops in her tracks as he stares at her.

“No. No way did he say that.”

But the girl starts crying, whips out her cell phone and cries into it to someone. She turns away, starts walking back to her car.

“Where are you going, Eileen?” the man asks in a way that says he’s pretty disinterested in the answer. He stubs his cigarette out on the brick wall of the restaurant. “I’m going home,” she sobs. He opens the door, doesn’t look back at her while mumbling “Don’t be like that, Eileen.” But Eileen is being like that. She still crying into her phone as she gets back into her car.

Prey. Killer. Jungle.

So 7:10, at our table, ordering fried pickles and a 22 oz. Blue Moon. We both order some kind of chicken. They call it barbecue chicken but it’s not like any barbecue chicken we really want. We tell the waitress we’re in a rush and she says “Everyone’s in a rush tonight! Must be the hockey game!” and maybe it is or maybe they just want to get in and out of this place as fast as possible because the barely legal teen waitresses in their micro shorts are doing a line dance, whooping and clapping and spinning along to some country song I never heard of and never want to hear again and really, it’s kind of uncomfortable.

My daughter used to work here. Maybe two, three years ago. We came here a lot then because it’s always fun to have your daughter wait on you.

“The service here is terrible,” I’d tell her.
“That’s because everyone who works here is perpetually stoned.”

I’m guessing from the looks on the faces of the plodding busboys that’s still true.

The fried pickles come out and three or four of them placate me. I’m good for another year or so before I get a craving for this basket of grease. I ask the waitress to take them away. The chicken comes out. I eat, try to have some dinner conversation but it mostly consists of “What? What did you say?” because the music is too loud and the tables are too close together and the conversation from the table of ladies next to us who all belong to what must be the LET’S EAT EVERYTHING ON THE MENU club is making it difficult to carry on any conversation longer than “I hope the Kings win tonight” because all I can hear is “If we each order a different thing, we can all switch plates and taste everything. OH MY GOD YEA WE WILL DO THE SAME WITH DESSERT!”

The dancing girls are back. The busboy with the dead eyes takes our plates off the table. The perky waitress brings our check. 7:43. We’re done. We’re out.

We go outside and Eileen is out there again, still crying into her phone. The parking lot is a maze of Lincoln Navigators and Ford F150s, monstrous animals that dwarf my little Mazda so it’s hard to find. I eye the strip mall across the street. Tattoos. Pawn Shop. Chinese Food. For Rent. Cash for Gold.

I hear the roar of hungry animals on the turnpike. I see the buzzing neon signs, the rows and rows of stores and restaurants all offering the same variations of different things. For a moment I’m lost in a place that’s my home but has become so unfamiliar to me. I don’t know how to navigate through this treeless forest of despair anymore.

We get home, turn on the hockey game. By the third period the fried pickles and beer have become sticks poking the bear of my acid reflux. The Kings are losing. I hear sirens and racing engines off in the distance.

You’re in the jungle, baby. You’re gonna die.