Our buddy Vince Mancini, editor of the the always entertaining filmdrunk.com wrote this awesome story for us. We love sweet potato fries too.
I wasn’t planning for every story I write for this site to be about strange encounters I’ve had in restaurants, but what can I say, living in San Francisco, sometimes inspiration just sneaks up and unplugs your Macbook.
So there I am, having just ordered my food at a place called Roam. It’s a quick-service burger joint in San Francisco, but everything about the place screams LA. It has “artisan burgers’ just below the title. Everything on the menu has fancy-cute names. You can’t order without being asked 12 different options – do you want to make that a double? would you like cheese on that? is house sauce alright or do you want herbed mayo? egg brioche bun or multi-seed? would you like to add an organic free-range egg for another $1.50? And everyone who works there seems to think that “providing friendly service” – I guarantee you this phrase is used in the handbook – involves calling you “bro.” You order at the register, where bored cashiers in brimmed ski beanies pride themselves on ploughing through your personal boundaries and making cutesy off-hand comments about every detail of the unnecessarily-personalized interaction – “okay… Vince, I’ll just swipe your… mastercard, and here you go – we’ll have that Tejano turkey burger on traditional sesame right out for you! You have a great day now, alright, bro?”
Then they hand you your receipt and you slink back to your communal table with your organic soda and chalk-written number stand shaped like a buffalo. It’s like the world’s worst speed date. But God help me, I love sweet potato fries.
I suspect Starbucks is mostly to blame for this. I know from having worked there that the rule of thumb according to the handbook is, you’re supposed to use the customer’s name no less than three times during any given transaction. Three times! For someone you’ll talk to for less than twenty seconds! “What’s your name? Joe? Okay, thanks, Joe. We’ll have that half-caf macchiato right out for you, okay, Joe! See you later, Joe!”
Maybe there’s some lady in Nebraska with a teddy bear on her sweater still charmed by that level of friendliness, but for the rest of us it’s like forced small talk with an obsessed stalker ex every time you try to order coffee.
In any case, I’m sitting there at the communal table in Roam, waiting for my classic American with a side of truffled brussel sprouts, still within earshot of the register. Just in my periphery I see a pair of awkward-looking Germans – yes, Germans, Germans have a look – pause from studying the menu to look over at my bro, Blake. I’ve decided the cashier’s name is Blake. Blake is eager to help as always, because he has absolutely nothing else to do.
“Excuse me,” the taller German asks tentatively. “What is ‘ostrich’?”
“Haha! Well, it’s like a giant, six-foot-tall bird,” Blake says cheerily. “Basically, the dinosaur’s closest living relative on Earth.”
Okay, now a few things.
At this point, I hadn’t yet noticed that the special burger option that day was locally-raised ostrich. So before I looked over, as my brain was still trying to understand the interaction that was taking place bestride me, the story that flashed through my mind was that a foreign man had been wandering the streets, confused, tortured, plagued by the very question of what an ostrich was. Seeing the restaurant glow like an oasis in the distance, he’d wandered inside, found a friendly-looking stranger, grabbing him by the lapels and screaming “FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, MAN, TELL ME ABOUT THE OSTRICHES!” And, without missing a beat, the friendly burger clerk, like an oracle, had explained exactly what an ostrich was, complete with a breezy lesson in evolutionary taxonomy. I actually prefer this version of events. People helping people, no ulterior motives.
As I turned to fully take in the scene with my eyes, I saw ostrich on the menu, and I understood for the first time the basis for the German’s question. Suddenly, the explanation took on a whole new meaning. I had to shake away the first story I’d created like an Etch-a Sketch.
“It’s like a giant bird, basically the dinosaur’s closest living relative on Earth,” the description reverberated through my skull.
This is how Blake had described something that the Germans were hoping to eat. Ooh, a giant bird, that sounds yummy! Hmm, but what does it taste like? Oh right, A DINOSAUR. But before I pull the trigger on this, tell me: do they run fast? How would you describe their mating practices? Feet – prehensile, or no? Ancestry in the pre-cambrian era?
Hearing this, Hans and Franz, who I was unapologetically staring at by then, turned back to the menu, confused as ever. Eventually they just left without ordering, walking slowly away, no doubt still hungry, but with a strange story to tell their friends about San Francisco’s zoning practices. “It ist true, een San Franschizko zey haff place zat look like eine reschtaurant, vair you must order een code, by saying za name uff schtrange beast.”
Blake just went back to his iPhone, a vacuous smirk on his face, no doubt taking pride in a job well done.