When I was a kid, I used to eat tacos top-down. I would start on one side and bite off all the pieces of shell that towered over the filling until the layers were flush. After doing this on both sides, I’d tongue up the tinsel of cheese like a frog. By the time I’d cleared it all away, I would need to prune back the shell again to get at the shredded lettuce. Lather, rinse, repeat. When I finally got down to the bedrock of beef, I would angle my head to the side and devour the rest like a sword swallower.
At the Taco Bell at 1905 Pocahontas Drive, Williamsburg, Virginia 23185, it took me much longer to eat than the rest of my family because of this ritual. We often stopped there on the way back from Busch Gardens Europe or Water Country USA, and, this being in the pre-cell phone days, by the time everyone else was done dining, there was really only one option they had for entertainment: watch me eat.
My brothers and sisters, my mom and my dad, nine bodies around three tables, stared, heads propped on elbows or swivel-chair backs, as I categorically strip-mined the taco with my teeth. On slow days, even the employees gathered at the counter to watch my dinner theatre. It hypnotized them with the cracking of corn, the vanishing act of ingredients. I suppose, for them, there was a kind of self-destructive satisfaction to it: step by step, I reversed the process of making a taco as opposed to the usual side-on pound-down.
Fun fact. I share a birth year with Gidget, the chihuahua employed as the Taco Bell spokesdog from 1997 to 2000. Fun fact. 1997 is also the birth year of my little sister. Fun fact. Taco Bell began their kids’ meal line just when my baby teeth erupted from my gums. Fun fact. They discontinued the product the same year I became an adult.
I read significance in insignificant things. I think, because I was the star of those summer meals, that my history must be bound by invisible thread to the history of a fast food chain. My fate is Taco Bell’s fate, and vice versa.
I scan the pages of the Taco Bell Wiki (a real thing) for time stamps I can link to events from my own life. I remember the rumors that the chihuahua ad campaign ended when Gidget died—and the subsequent rumor that the corporation honored her memory by grinding up her body and sprinkling the remains in with the beef at select locations. That would have been kindergarten for me. But was I even a person yet by kindergarten?
I recall, too, the 2006 E. coli outbreak in the lettuce they used, the first case reported on November 20, only one day after—and here I crosscheck my notes, because there must be more to this, it can’t be something so existentially trivial as—the release date of the Nintendo Wii.
So, I fight to make it mean something. According to the Wiki, Taco Bell’s founder died in 2010, or, in egocentric terms, my 10th grade. And that, certainly, must be important, because 10th grade was the year I stopped believing in God, the year of my last trick-or-treat (due to having a shotgun pointed at me by a candy-giver for being too old), the year I stopped talking and started writing poetry instead, the year I stopped eating lunch because my crush laughed at my mouth’s chewing motions, the year I got a cell phone, the year I broke down and threw that cell phone against a dressing room window on the opening night of a school play, the year I first needed to delete my browsing history to hide the various methods of self-harm the internet is so generous to suggest.
Or maybe it was just the year my best friend ate a bad steak quesadilla from Taco Bell and projectile vomited in my house.
Sometimes Taco Bell has these box deals that I get a real kick out of. Get this: fiveish bucks procures you (to name a few) a toasted cheddar chalupa with two tacos, or a chalupa supreme with a beefy 5-layer burrito, a taco, and cinnamon twists, or a crunchwrap supreme with a beefy crunch burrito (also with a taco and cinnamon twists). It’s a revolving door of menu items with genuinely confusing marketing and availability since no two Taco Bells seem to carry the same boxes at any given time, to say nothing of the fact that they may not even be consistently named. A thread at r/tacobell attempting to compile a master list of all past and present boxes clarifies for the concerned consumer that the Cheesy Gordita Crunch Box, Cheesy Double Decker Taco Buck Box, and Gordita Remixed Box are all the same thing. I am reminded of Gottlob Frege’s famous puzzle: “morning star” and “evening star” both refer to Venus, but in giving them different names are they cognitively distinct?
I think about this as I bring my Five Buck Box to the lake near my house after work. On a teaching assistant’s paltry stipend, it’s a blessing to have access to a meal that will make me full for the same price as a fifth of a tank of gas, but I still squirrel myself away to the remotest picnic tables, ashamed to corrupt my projected image as a stoic nature-lover with my spread of cardboard, paper, and plastic, all branded with that purple and magenta logo.
I eat and watch the sunset and usually listen to music but sometimes go budless to enjoy the silence. Unsuccessfully I try to calm my mind. I feel myself detach like a plucked hangnail, as if I’m watching from a distance. My eyes take in the swish of the cattails while my brain, separate, supervises my eyes, the way a lazy student in a group project purports to supervise the real workers. My tongue detects the flavors of the food, but my brain finds it unnecessary to actually taste them. Sour cream clings to my mustache.
A middle-aged Japanese man walks down to the water’s edge with his pet bichon. He is watching game shows on his phone, the kind where contestants have to climb soapy stairs or contort their body into impossible geometries to fit through the sawed-out gaps of an advancing wall. He laughs when the laugh track encourages him to.
In the meantime, the dog notices me and waddles on up. It’s caked in months of dirt, so my fingers catch in cloddy tangles of hair when I reach down to pet it. The dog doesn’t react to my touch whatsoever but merely watches me eat. Its owner, noticing his pet is not at heel, turns and spots us. I worry he will whistle the dog away and leave. Instead, he comes up to the picnic table and sits across from me, and he, too, watches me eat. Whatever came before or will come after, they are right now counting on me.
What a gift it is to be attended. So, I make a real cabaret of it.
C. Michael Mincks is a surrealist writer and wannabe punk rocker currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction from George Mason University, where he also teaches Creative Writing. His one-act comedy Dominoes has been performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. You better watch out–he knows about timed hits. Follow on Twitter at @KerfMerf.