Pass the antacids. This little project has been a pleasure for the taste buds, but hard on my waistline. At the quarter pole, I gave my thoughts on the food and some advise on the best combinations. In the second quarter the food never failed to deliver, but I started to wonder if there was something more to all this than just tortillas and corn salsa.
In the second leg of this weird, calorie laden exercise, I noticed the food taking a back seat. Sitting in a familiar setting, with the same friends (give or take), eating the same food, I should have been bored. At the very least I should have been a little tired of pinto beans and chips with guacamole. Needless to say, driving all around the beltway has given me plenty of laughs, and lots of time to think.
Recently I picked up an old favorite, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. There’s a lot going on in that book, Sumerian languages, an infocaplypse, third-world refugees, and Pentecostalism parading as a religious virus. But most persistent, is Stephenson’s vision of a future America run through small, voluntary governments, and large corporations. Of all the big-corporate scare jobs, Snow Crash has always been the most realistic. It’s characters are ambivalent about their world; there are good things and bad things about living as a member of a nation-state franchise, there’s less social safety but more personal safety, there’s adventure and freedom and desperate poverty and danger and religion, but there isn’t a heavy-handed authorial voice decrying the failure of freedom or technology or some other idiocy. Instead, Hiro Protagonist and Y.T. have a very recognizable relationship with an unrecognizable world. One part in particular stuck in my memory, sitting under the metal dragons and sipping iced tea:
In olden times, you’d wander down to Mom’s Cafe for a bite to eat and a cup of joe, and you would feel right at home. It worked just fine if you never left your hometown. But if you went to the next town over, everyone would look up and stare at you when you came in the door, and the Blue Plate Special would be something you didn’t recognize. If you did enough traveling, you’d never feel at home anywhere.
But when a businessman from New Jersey goes to Dubuque, he knows he can walk into a McDonald’s and no one will stare at him. He can order without having to look at the menu, and the food will always taste the same. McDonald’s is home, condensed into a three-ring binder and xeroxed. “No Surprises” is the motto of the franchise ghetto, its Good Housekeeping seal, subliminally blazoned on every sign and logo that make up the curves and grids of light that outline the Basin.
I agree with the idea, but not the sentiment. On a trip as inane as this, it’d be easy to fall asleep amid the sea of corrugated metal, the bizarre wall art, and the relentless thumping bass soundtrack of chain restaurants. But that hasn’t been our experience thus far. Chipotle isn’t home the way Stephenson accuses. Each establishment, despite being rigorously uniform in decor, food preparation, style, and even music, still has a distinct feel of the neighborhood around it. Crystal City felt cold and soulless and businesslike, just like Crystal City is. Friendship Heights was relaxed, impeccably clean, and well-manicured, just like the trendy shopping district it abuts. Dupont, after America’s shining tournament moment, thrived with a drunken camaraderie.
My point is, these businesses aren’t places that are soaking up our city’s life and soul and sterilizing it down into a foil-wrapped culture enema, like corporate critics might have us believe. They’re another place where the life of the city comes to flux and thrive, whether it’s sorority girls in Georgetown or upper-class high school kids bored on a weekday summer night, or a bunch of bloggers sipping margaritas after a big softball game. Such places are what you make of them. I hope the rest of our trip is as enjoyable as my friends and companions have made the first half.