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Home: The Toast

TB2It was with great – perhaps disproportionate – sadness that I learned of the demolition of my hometown’s Taco Bell last spring. It had been years since I’d been there and even longer since I’d done so without regret. It had, in fact, been almost a year since the franchise inside the outdated and increasingly creepy amalgam of stucco and fake clay tiles had even been open at all, but I was still pulling for the old place. I wanted it to thrive. And if it couldn’t thrive in such indifferent times in such an indifferent city, I at least wanted it to be treated like any other historical landmark there: left to rot until bored teenagers with few entertainment options beyond arson gave it a half-hearted Viking funeral.

I realize that it was just a Taco Bell, just a franchise restaurant that sold gastrointestinally devastating tacos filled with disputable levels of low-grade beef and fillers. I’m certainly not going to pretend that it was any more special or groundbreaking than that. But it was located in a city that was just Welland, just a forgotten relic is Southern Ontario, Canada where life was as monotonous and uninspired as the steady stream of generic burger chains that lined our main drag. And I was just a small town girl whose own inspiration and creative vision didn’t extend far beyond such weak similes.

Welland and its current residents may have moved on to shiny new things like Target and the much-ballyhooed Starbucks inside of the Target, but I’ll never forget the promise, innovation, potential, rebirth, abundance, mirth and joy that Taco Bell once inspired.

Promise

“Nothing ever happens here” is a common refrain among small town teenagers, but it was particularly accurate for those of us stranded in Welland in the ‘90s.

It hadn’t always been that way. Back in the day, Welland was a bustling little town with an economy, nightlife, culture, a future and scandals of both the church Bingo embezzlement and public bathroom sex ring varieties. But they were all long gone by the time I was old enough to appreciate them.

What I did have, though, was a mystery roof with faux-clay tiles that appeared in the parking lot of our Seaway Mall one morning seemingly out of nowhere, and the rapturous speculation it inspired.

“What’s happening at the mall?” I would ask myself and anyone else who would listen (so mostly myself). “The design of the roof appears almost residential in nature, but surely no one would build a home in the middle of the mall’s parking lot! That can only mean one thing: we are getting a new business of some sort. Progress is coming to Welland!”

I watched the construction of the building’s walls and the literal raising of the roof on top of them with a giddy delight that could not be diminished by the revelation that it was all leading up to another fast food restaurant on a street filled with fast food restaurants, because a Taco Bell was still the most exciting thing to happen to my home in my lifetime.

Innovation

Before Taco Bell, restaurants in Welland came in three distinct forms: fast food burger joints, Italian dining rooms and bars and grills with painfully punny names like M.T. Bellies, Don Coyote’s and I.P. Knightley’s.  You couldn’t find a single place to eat after 11 pm. Dr. Pepper was a semi-rare commodity that you could occasionally find at 7-11 or the corner store. The closest thing that we had to Mexican food was “Italian Fried Ice Cream,” a dish that the owners of one of our Italian dining establishments apparently invented after eating fried ice cream on a trip to Mexico (and I always kind of suspected that “Mexico” was actually code for “a Chi Chi’s in Buffalo”). One sect of my extended family was so xenophobic that they couldn’t get through Thanksgiving dinner without some tirade about how much they hated French people.

After Taco Bell, Welland had “Mexican” food. Which we could order until 1 am. With Dr. Pepper. My xenophobic family members added the occasional Mexican joke to their French tirades.

Potential

Once – and only once – the staff manning the drive-thru forgot my fries. Because I was an undiagnosed and unmedicated depressive, I handled this development with the same sense of perspective and proportion with which I handled everything.

“This is the universe telling me that I don’t deserve anything,” I concluded. “Of course they couldn’t forget these stupid cinnamon things, I don’t even like them. I wanted those fries. I was looking forward to those fries. But I can’t hope for anything.”

In an effort to prove that my destiny would not be defined by a neglected sack of frozen and lightly-battered potato chunks, my mom took my incomplete kids meal back to the Bell and asked if it would be possible to get a replacement order of fries. The server behind the counter apologized profusely for the mistake, and sent my mom home with a meal, a large fry, multiple promo packages of Reese peanut butter cups and a complete refund.

I was overwhelmed and I spent the rest of my adolescence hoping that Taco Bell would screw up my order again in the way that other people might wish for anything else.

Rebirth

When I was a straight-edge 15-year-old, I managed to catch some sort of lung-eviscerating illness that required narcotic cough syrup. I was too busy dying to medicate myself, so my usually conscientious and rule-abiding parents took charge of the measuring process and somehow wound up giving me three times the maximum recommended dose. They realized what they’d done shortly after I realized that I could walk around the house while swaddled in my sleeping bag.

Eventually, they managed to put an end to my lumbering, sausage-encased peregrinations by sitting me in front of the TV and turning it to CBC Newsworld, Canada’s first 24 hour news channel. I was immediately mesmerized by Newsworld’s series of late afternoon newsmagazines and infotainment shows because I was on three times the maximum recommended dose of cough syrup and I happily and silently watched Evan Solomon discuss smart drinks for quite some time.

My absent-minded peace eventually gave way to single-minded hunger, though, and, like any good stoner, I craved Taco Bell. My mom, clearly still feeling guilty about the part she’d played my accidental ball-tripping, set out to procure some atonement tacos.

Unfortunately, my perception of time swiftly deteriorated in her absence. I went from “Boy, this Evan Solomon must really love smart drinks, because he’s totally been talking about ginkgo biloba forever,” to “How long has Mom been gone? It’s been well over an hour and I can’t come up with a single reason that a trip to Taco Bell would take that long except if some sort of accident was involved. Which is what must have happened. Oh god, that’s what must have happened. Mom got in an accident. And she’s probably dead. And it’s all my fault. My desire for Taco Bell killed my mom and I will live with this guilt for the rest of my life” all in the course of a few real-life minutes. Then I started sobbing.

When Mom returned alive and bearing tacos two days later – or less than 10 minutes later in actual, real life time – I experienced, briefly, a high more outlandish and exhilarating than any cough and time-suppressing narcotic OD could provide: the feeling that everything might actually be OK.

Abundance

By the dawn of the new millennium, fancy things like “career opportunities,” “living wages,” and “paying work” had joined “culture,” “entertainment” and “stuff to do,” on the long list of Things Other Cities Have. The plants continued to close. Some schools went with them. The only thing that took their place was a shady call centre in a hollowed-out and infested department store carcass on the rough(er) side of town.

TB3As such, Welland’s collective munchies and the ability to fund them plummeted, which had a terrible impact on the plucky little stucco upstart at the end of the fast food strip. In a desperate effort to combat this trend, the franchise owners were forced to do more than think outside the bun. Extending their vision beyond both bread and the head office-mandated Value Menu, they began offering a rogue deal: 25 tacos for $5. They posted the bargain on their towering brown sign with the old school logo and then cut their operating costs by never changing it again.

Mirth

My own fortunes, for once, were not quite so dire. I landed a couple of media-related internships in Toronto and started to build some sort of life for myself in the big city. I still came home every weekend to visit my parents and grandparents, though. At first, these visits were my way of lending moral support to my grandfather as he faced a series of surgeries and physio programs to recover from what we thought was a series of curable ailments. And, when none of those measures worked, those visits became my way of saying goodbye.

So every weekend, my family would pick me up from the bus station. And every time, they’d ask me what we should have for dinner that night. I’d say some variation of “What about Family Taco Bell? I hear you can get, like, a million tacos for a dollar there.”  And then we’d all laugh.

It was a dumb joke. It was tired the first time I said it. And, ultimately, it was about as successful as the deal that inspired it. But it was the closest thing to permanence that any of us had.

SK1

Pure Joy

When I could spare the time during my weekends home, I’d hang out with my friend Sarah. When I could spare the funds, I’d go out to dinner with her.

Sarah and I were born exactly two months apart and became friends not long after that. We grew up across the street from each other. We had little in common except location, loneliness and a Kids in the Hall obsession, but we had at least another decade until we’d let things like class, politics, morals and musical taste come between us permanently.

One night, in the middle of a low-grade blizzard, we decided that we should have dinner at one of the punny bars in the mall. Her dad dropped us off because neither of us drove (she hadn’t gotten around to it; I wanted to be in a struggling indie rock band  and figured not having a license would be the best way to get out of van-driving duty). We would call my dad from the bank of payphones next to the restaurant when we were finished because payphones still existed back then and neither of us had cell phones (her parents didn’t want to spoil her; mine couldn’t afford one).

This seemingly simple and foolproof plan was thwarted when a pair of mall security officers who were just following orders denied us access to the phones and sent us out into the bitter and blustery night.

“It’s OK,” I told Sarah as we shivered in thin and seasonally inappropriate coats. “We’ll just walk over to Taco Bell. They’re open until one! And I’m sure they have a phone!”

After a brief sprint through a series of rapidly forming snow drifts, we discovered that I was thoroughly wrong. Taco Bell did not have a phone. And while we were able to walk into the dining area, it was only open in the sense that the staff had forgotten to lock the doors, a mistake they remedied as soon as they’d sent us back into the cruel night.

Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 3.26.03 PMWe wandered around the parking lot aimlessly in search of a phone, slipping in snow and giggling as we compared our quest to Mary and Joseph’s search for a birthing room, until we saw it at the far end of the property: one lone phone booth loitering outside the Burger King. We sprinted toward it and launched ourselves inside, grateful to be sheltered from the wind, even if it meant sharing a cramped and piss-stained booth.

But as I lifted the receiver from its hook, feeling like Frodo tossing the ring into the fire, the bottom half flopped flaccidly into my frozen hands. According to my records, we thought this was hilarious. All was not lost, though. The bits of phone were still held together by the most important wires and we managed, through apparent squealing laughter, to hold those pieces together long enough to call my dad and tell him, through even bigger squeals of unadulterated joy, that we needed a ride home.

He promptly rescued us from the booth and I went home to document the whole adventure, complete with diagrams, in my diary. “I’ll never forget the laughter at that floppy phone,” I wrote with the kind of “we’ll be friends forever!!!” bravado that certain joy I’d seen in teen movies and social groups that didn’t include me but that I’d never felt sure or secure enough to try myself.

I can’t say that I miss Sarah, or that I have many regrets about the way things ended between us, but I really wish I’d been right about that.

Sarah Kurchak is a music and MMA writer and a former professional pillow fighter. Her work has appeared in The Huffington Post, Fightland, Flavorwire, and The National Post. She tweets at @fodderfigure.

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