Tomatoes and Cheeseburgers
An old and sorry tale
It’s Christmas time, so naturally I think back to my college days when mixed blessings felt so totally disruptive that I surely didn’t handle much of anything well.
On the one hand, I’d be so happy to get home for the break, warm, and nestled in the bosom of family where every need I had — of the wholesome variety — was met. Food, double-sized bed, a car at my disposal, regularly enough. And the love of parents who maybe didn’t understand me so well and why I loved literature and wanted to make a career of it, but at least they never stood in my way and sometimes even listened to me try to explain why I loved Faulkner.
Plus, at home, my childhood friends would be gathering, and recalling those nights driving, or heading to clubs, or to our married friends’ basement apartment still hold their own somewhat illicit appeal.
On the other hand, my college friends were such unique rovers, seeing me in that non-childhood way of our almost respectable adulthood. Almost. I could do what I wanted with them at night, because no one posted a curfew, and I finished all homework by 7. Yeah, that was me in the corner, losing my religion.
Or losing my sanity to girls like Shelia whom I never understood, but waited too many nights by random phones to see if she’d ever be available. How many miles did I drive for girls like her? How many further miles in my diminishing self-respect did I lose?
So, Christmas yin and Christmas yang.
One thing leads to another (doesn’t it always?) and as I listen to Lana Del Rey’s 2021 Chemtrails Over the Country Club, and maybe because of listening to it, I move from Christmas girls to the glories of another kind of love — those late night food runs in college, after developing organically, herbally, mammoth munchie mysteries.
In our college town we had a place called Jitney Jr., a fast-food version of that old grocery chain, Jitney Jungle. I have no explanations for the Jr, the chain itself, how they got to our little town, or why the chain ceased to exist at some point out of my reference points. What I do know is that after 11:00 PM, at their hot counter, it was possible and completely desirable to buy and consume in one or two gulps a barbecued chicken sandwich, on some form of mini-hamburger roll.
I would have never thought beforehand that I’d like, much less yearn for such a compressed sandwich, whose sauce — I can’t mention the meat — came from some bottle somewhere, and likely not even Kraft.
But it was so damn good that what started as only a munchie-whim turned into a necessary fix at least four nights a week (and yes, I smoked that much pot). It would have been more nights but my income/allowance was too meagre for eating such words.
And just in case you’re feeling envious of 19–20 year-old me, let me assure you that once you walked out of the Jitney Jr, you carried with you a certain aroma, somewhere between ammonia and fried chicken. Neither of which, singly, bothers me. Together, however, they’re lethal, but not lethal enough to prevent another midnight run.
And now you must be wondering about my story’s title.
As a kid, I hated tomatoes, as I’m sure is true for many kids, because while beautifully red with a nice heft, when they were cut open, I couldn’t process how or why anyone would want to touch, much less eat one.
If there is any theme to this piece, surely it’s that my naivety prevented me from trying many things, and definitely kept me from understanding more. So for nineteen years, I was a sexual virgin and a tomato virgin, too.
And I can’t remember anymore which undoing came first.
But I do remember that our college town had two other locally-owned fast food joints: Jolly Cholly, with its giant burgers, and Dari-Delite, whose red neon only barely offset the seediness of its two takeout windows.
Jolly Cholly’s food was pretty plain and bland, but its exterior was the more inviting, and so while I chose it for trying, after two or three burgers, I gave up, for $1.19 was too much for my budget and for my developing taste buds.
I don’t know what finally got me to the windows of the Delite, but late one evening, likely tired of BBQ chicken and ammonia smells, there I was, ordering a cheeseburger.
Growing up, I ate cheeseburgers plain, with mustard and ketchup…always. I didn’t know, actually, that I could order that item any other way, and so parroted my mother’s voice from all my life:
“Cheeseburger, hold the tomato and onions.”
Why my mother always ordered without onions was due to her own digestive issues, and so she assumed they must/should be mine as well.
But standing at the Dari-Delite counter, and likely floating outside myself, when the server asked if i wanted the deluxe burger, I said,
Not thinking of what that meant, not really thinking at all.
And certainly not expecting with that first bite to get both tomatoes and onions.
However, these things usually go a certain way, and after not the first, but the third bite, even in my state, I made a remarkable discovery:
“Oh My God! that tastes…GREAT!”
And when I looked to see why, I understood.
I can think of only one other thing that surprised my sensations as much as this one did.
While I can’t say that ever since that night I’ve eaten tomatoes, or onions, on every cheeseburger, still, I usually do. The world looked a different place after that night — a night when all my inhibitions got tested, as they surely would in other night moves.
A night when I wondered what else I was missing and how I could change all that.
No cheeseburgers for our Christmas, but I’ll be thinking, remembering, and dreaming of them — dressed, undressed — throughout the holidays and the not-so-silent nights.
Thank you for reading, and may your holidays be joyous, Covid-free and…FULL.
And in case you’re missing Chanukah…