Three of my pet peeves intersected last night: fast food, car culture, and petty authority.
As my family has blended we've all adapted. Koni has been excellent with the Wal-Mart non-shopping and knows the ins and outs of recycling and composting. But I lost the fast food war before I ever met my wife and kids. Left to my own devices, I'd never go near a franchise joint (why would you when you live in the same town as the Hamburg Inn?), but we have to choose our battles, and I've reluctantly accepted that the drive thru is part of our life.
Some of you know that the Smallest Farm is located a couple blocks from a good-sized commercial strip, rotten with fast food joints. So I got home on my late night at work and was faced with competing needs: the need to feed, boys who wanted to play outside in perfect weather, and a request for a certain brand of nearby fast food. The multitask hit me: "let's ride the scooters to the Junkfood Joint!"
So the boys scootered while I walked and the three of us arrived in one piece, despite the traffic and the limited attention spans ("WATCH FOR CAAAAARS!" I screamed in my best loving father voice.) Then Ethan, my six year old, asked an impish but innocent question: "Daddy, can we ride our scooters through the drive thru?"
Why the heck not, I thought. I've walked or biked through the drive thru at countless banks and a few fast food joints, and reactions have ranged from at worst mild irritation at my hippie quirkiness and more often friendly chuckles. This is, after all, Iowa City. The boys giggled as we went around to the drive-thru line, where we wound up next behind the person currently ordering.
As we heard the staticy voice over the speaker I sensed that this wasn't going to go over well. "I'm sorry, ma'am, I can't hear you, those people standing behind you are too loud." I tried to shush the boys, who were still giggling. The car behind me pulled forward and I got ready to order. But before I could:
"Sir! You're going to have to get out of the way of our customers."
"We are customers." (with a big "look at me, I'm so cool walking through the drive thru" smile on my face.)
"No, you can't come through here."
"Huh?!?" (Smile vanishes)
"You have to go inside."
Now I had a dilemma. Had I been on my own, I would have walked off without handing them my money. But I had children in tow who'd been prooooomised this particular brand of processed food-like product. If I was pure and living in Fantasy Land I could have fed them the organic sprouts, so figuring I'd already compromised enough and might as well sell out completely, I hauled the boys in, ready with the Ask For The Manager act.
But Mister Assistant Manager has seen the whole thing and made matters worse claiming: "It's against the law for us to serve you without a car."
I openly laughed at that one. Even though I didn't have the Code of Iowa handy to check, I'm reasonably certain that law's not on the books. At the laughter, Mister Assistant Manager acknowledged that it was just "our policy." Ooh, he waved the red cape of Policy. We've entered the Zone of Petty Authority.
"I walk up at the bank all the time."
"We're not a bank."
"I walk up at The Artery Clogger too."
"No. You have to have a car."
"You have to have a car." You just told the proud bike commuter, who nearly gets run over every day biking past The Artery Clogger's drive thru, "You have to have a car." A perfect spring day, two blocks from my house, and a six year old's idea of fun? Nope. "You have to have a car." American junk culture in a nutshell--or in this case a throw-away condiment pack. Clearly, the management of this particular fast food joint doesn't get why someone might want to take a walk for their health. (There's probably a negative correlation between this place's patrons and bike commuters, but you never know what year RAGBRAI might ride through.)
There's not a good dramatic ending to this story. The kids had made their minds up, and Petty Autocrat was getting ready to play his Reserve The Right To Refuse Service card. I was impotent and gave them money for treating me like crap. My revenge was small: I'd been on the cusp of indulging one of my occasional weaknesses, but instead I withheld that small portion of the order and made a batch of my famous pepper-spray fajitas. Like I said: not dramatic.
The thing was, they never gave me a verbal response to the question, "Why?" If you're a parent, you know the "Why?" question, repeated till it becomes existential. And I was on the spot with my kids: having to explain Those Are The Rules (already hard for a gut-level anti-authoritarian like me) when they could already tell the rules made no sense even without my open laughter. Of COURSE you can walk up to a drive thru; Daddy said it was OK. And Daddy is one of the highest authority figures there is (oh, the irony).
But without saying it explicitly, the fast food fascists made the answer clear. (Sorry for the Godwin's Law fail; the alliteration was irresistible)
Steve Martin had an old routine that everything at a fast food joint was really all the same substance scooped out of one vat: "Burger? SCCCHLURRRP. Fries? SCCCHLURRRP. Shake? SCCCHLURRRP. Change? SCCCHLURRRP." And in the fast food culture of mind-numbing nationwide sameness, me and my boys walking up were different. And that made them uncomfortable, to the point that they had no way to cope other than forbidding it. Scooters? No SCCCHLURRRP for you!
Even a six year old knows better than that.