Every summer our little family spends a week down at the beach in Cape May, New Jersey. It’s great. Everyone has their favorite activities: Gloria plays in the sand and looks for “crabbies,” Shereen has a Victorian style tea party at the Emlen Physick Estate, and I unhinge my jaw and stuff my bloated face with greasy meat products. There’s one establishment in particular, a small hole-in-the-wall lunch joint (which I won’t name for reasons), which I must visit at least once every year. It’s great. Super cheap burgers and hot dogs and cold bottles of Stewarts Root Beer. Wonderful garbage food (for my wonderful garbage body).
The owner of the place is also its public face and its only server. He runs the whole show. Let’s call him “Hamburger Harry.” Hamburger Harry is a wacky, grinning man wearing a colorful apron and a very silly hat. Everything about him screams “fun!,” and his smiling face is the eatery’s logo and mascot. Trolley ads, maps, and tourism brochures all prominently feature Hamburger Harry’s toothy smile, and they all promise one thing: come to Harry’s and you’ll have THE MOST FUN OF ALL, EVER. It’s irresistible.
Until you go. To be sure, the food is great and Hamburger Harry is as smiley and wacky as advertised. But to enter his restaurant is to breach a domain of anxiety and impossible expectation that undercuts “fun” in a thousand ways. Doors open at 11:58 precisely, no earlier, no later. Line up here. Stay behind the line. Have your money ready. Use only the approved nomenclature. In fact, here’s a chart of the official, acceptable ways to refer to our menu items. Deviate and you will be loudly corrected. Do not pause too long between topping requests (I swear to you there is a sign on the wall that actually says this). Stand here to wait for your food. Stay behind this other line. Take exactly two napkins. And so it goes at Hamburger Harry’s.
The truth is that I find this all endlessly hilarious (and I like cheap food), so I still go to Harry’s every summer. I was there last week, and thank God it was still the same wacky, tense, angsty, eye-twitching wonderland. Speaking of God (tacky blog transition!), it occurred to me on this visit just how much Hamburger Harry’s reminds me of the American God and his church. Behind a facade of smiles and a pretense of open welcome lies a world of ritual and expectation, of rules and repression. You’ll have a great time for the rest of eternity, as long as you stand behind this line and use only the approved nomenclature and don’t deviate or be yourself. And for heaven’s sake, never, EVER pause between topping requests.