Trapped in the Drive-Thru

I was headed home on the highway out of the city and wanted fast food real bad. But I did not stop; I never stop on that route. The problem is not the neighborhoods. It is the side roads with metal debris on them waiting to pop a tire or get kicked up through the windshield. It is the traffic, and the inconvenient locations and difficult access to the restaurants that make an accident more likely. Above all, it is the two-foot curbing used to trap customers in the drive-thru line, with no hope of escape, no matter how long the wait might turn out to be. I pulled off the highway and was soon trapped in a Steak ‘n Shake drive-thru.

In my disappointment I called Larry, who lives in LA, where the car culture has led to terrible inconveniences for the human culture.

“I literally fear for my car’s life,” Larry agreed. “Fast food is not fast food—it’s a terror now. That Burger King I go to all the time takes 20 minutes to fill my order, and I’ve scraped my rocker panels on their giant curbs several times.”

I told him I had started getting paranoid when I was in drive-thrus, thinking I might have an emergency and not be able to leave.

“Can you imagine?” I said. “I’m having a heart attack, but the guy in the F-250 ahead of me wants his McRib and refuses to move.”

“The paramedics are using the jaws of life to get you out of your car,” Larry said, “and the guy behind you is pissed because he can’t get his Popeye’s chicken sandwich,”—he was getting excited and mixed up the restaurants—“and he starts honking his horn.”

“Right. And the paramedics tell the truck dude to move, but he refuses, and the cops come but he won’t comply, so there’s an armed stand-off because freedom and Hot Apple Pies.”

“Taco Bell took my favorite 13 items off their menu!” Larry shouted.

I told him I thought the drive-thru concept was born in the Midwest, but as far as I can tell, it has played out. We need a new concept.

He said in LA the drive-thru lines often stretch into four-lane roads, so you literally risk your life for a burger. The Starbucks he goes to before auditions is in the curve of an entrance ramp to a highway.

“You instantly get the feeling that Starbucks is thrilled because they used the graft of city planners to put their store in a brilliant place for them,” he said, “but it snarls traffic on to the highway.” He said it was like that everywhere, due to space. His new favorite restaurant is a Korean-BBQ place in a strip mall on a corner, but the lot for the entire mall holds only 10 cars. The restaurant, which is down and dirty, has valet parking that people use even to grab carry-out, and that too backs up traffic.

Larry got nostalgic for Portillo’s, which he enjoyed in Chicago. There is a Portillo’s an hour from his apartment in LA, but while he has driven much farther than that for food, many times, he will not do so in LA.

“Remember?” he said wistfully. “In Chicago they had two drive-thru lanes, and no curbs, and they stationed workers outside to take your order and accept your payment. They handled the whole transaction before you even got to a window.

“Portillo’s is a horrifying example of how it can be done,” he said. “A delicious, affordable burger, served quickly. Every place else should be that good. There’s no reason they shouldn’t be.”

He wondered if it was because Portillo’s used to be owned by one person, who had obviously made the decision to put systems in place, and competent people behind the counter, and to take some profit out of the business, not all of it. He figured the big chains just did not care, and he talked about the awful things he would do if he worked for them, making minimum wage.

By that time I had finally gotten my double cheeseburger all the way, cheese fries, and chocolate shake. Safe for now from heart attack and the drive-thru, I was free to move on.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.