The air outside the building is heavy with the smell of cooking meat. It is smoky and gray and long wafts of smoke protrude from the chimney sixteen hours a day. The sweet smell of barbecue sauce lingers on the wind. It too, presses down on the air, keeping the wind full of thick charcoal gusts. But the heaviness does not invade the building, it just hovers on the outside, waiting just beyond the closed doors and windows, a tangible promise of what waits within.
Inside, the smell of smoke does not penetrate. The walls, both solid concrete and glass, are thick and insulated. Inside, there is the feel of military order. Everything has its place. The trash cans are bolted securely to the wall, framed pictures of men playing golf decorate the walls above. The tables are lined up in rows that vary just enough to give off a slightly human touch.
This is a tightly controlled environment and only specific smells, sounds, and tastes can exist here. There are two walls adjacent to each other. They are almost entirely made of plexi glass except for the bottom two feet, which are standard wall material but covered in brown tiles. The glass walls are covered in huge pictures of burgers that are 6 ft by 4 ft. One after the other line the glass walls, with a small 4 inch gap separating each poster from the other. Images of juicy hamburgers are printed on all the posters. Double patties with oozing ketchup and mustard. A picture of a creamy Oreo milkshake, bigger than life. The images are stark, there is no hiding the leering attempt at physical seduction…a hamburger, a picture of a cartoon of French fries. BAM.
The floor is composed of smooth brown bricks laid in a lattice/geometric pattern. There is a family of Latin descent. An overweight mother, a slightly overweight father, a boy twelve years old, a little girl wearing a gold paper crown. They sit in silence, at their square table, each facing in, reaching for the French fries in the middle of the table. White circular fans whirl lazily above. Against the wall dividing the two glass side walls are more faded prints of golf courses. There are three, each at exactly the same height and held together by a white wooden picture frame.
Directly across from the solid wall, about 30 feet away, is the central hub. A teenage girl stands behind the register. She is slightly disheveled, long wisps of her thick, dirty hair have fallen from the confines of her blue visor, the same hat which some health advisor devised to prevent hair from mixing with food. She mumbles something unrecognizable into a thin, bendable chrome microphone that is attached to the register. Her command is lost in the dull murmur that vibrates and holds like the thick smoke outside.
There are beeps that go off every minute, different sounds for different meanings. They signal cars approaching, perfectly cooked meat patties, heating times accomplished. A small crew of uniformed workers, all looking like they came from the south pacific, busy themselves behind the wall dividing the registers from the kitchen. One is at the grill, flipping meat patties amid lapping yellow flames. She squints her eyes against the barrage of smoke. Another small man to her right prepares the buns with condiments, mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, lettuce, he piles them on the little buns.
The glow from the heat lamps, directly above the French fryer, emits a beam of yellow light. The sound of a door creaking and closing keeps disrupting the space. The light sound of music is just barely recognizable. A young Samoan woman sings along to the lyrics, she gazes at her 1 year old daughter as she sings. She is curvy, wearing jeans and a black sweatshirt, her long thick hair is piled high atop her head with a rubber band. The baby girl is wearing a gold paper crown, it barely fits on her little head. There are three generations of Samoan woman, each with big slightly slanted eyes and big brown lips and golden skin. They sit at the booth sharing a pile of French fries. Each has a paper cup full of a sugary liquid. They laugh and talk, delighting in the simple closeness of family. The baby stares, she stares directly at me, looking as if she knows.