“Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch.”
― Orson Welles
Omar’s Food Mart
After a long morning of soul-sucking meetings and conference calls where he felt this IQ dropped ten points after each one, Craig decided to go out for lunch. He needed something non-corporate so he decided to go to Omar’s Food Mart.
OMAR’S FOOD MART was a little place at the end of a strip of auto repair shops on a corner of bad asphalt not far from where Craig worked. It was a monument to capitalism. Operated by five brothers from Syria, it crammed an impressive array of services into what looked from the outside to be a tiny gas station.
There was no place that served bigger, nastier, or greasier hamburgers than Omar’s.
Craig hadn’t been in there for a couple years but it hadn’t changed. They had a bewildering array of exotic food (Craig used to buy Semolina flour there when he still had time to make his own pasta). Crammed into the tiny space were aisles of gewgaws, a display of Hookahs, chewing gum and motor oil. Plenty of merchandise looked pathetic: obsolete cleaning supplies, faded greeting cards, suspect canned goods, and a single tiny green cardboard cylinder of Parmesan cheese with a thick coating of greasy dust.
The only active merchandise was an entire glass wall of cold drinks, a couple rotating racks selling candy, Slim Jims and beef jerky (Slim Jims are NOT beef jerky), and a wooden stand holding a generous selection of pornographic magazines.
A full array of financial services was offered: a Pick-Six machine and several Plexiglas Scratch-N-Win lottery ticket dispensers, a private ATM with astronomical service fees, money orders, and two slot machines. They were video multi-line bandits, Cherry Master and Fruit Bonus. The slots had stools in front of them so the customers could sit in comfort as they stuffed the dollar bill slot.
Even though it looked like a gas station or convenience store Omar’s biggest business was food. The narrow space behind the front counter was crammed with grills and fryers. There was an extensive menu on the overhead plastic lighted sign: eight different kinds of hamburgers, including the Texas Jumbo Cheeseburger (Craig ate one of those once, he felt like he’d swallowed a football) BBQ, BLT, Chicken Breast, Grilled Chicken, Chicken Fried Steak, Fish, Extra Bacon $1.00.
There was a long list of “Specials” which come with a drink and fries, and “Baskets” which include a salad: Chicken Strip, Catfish, Hot Wings, Shrimp, Gyros, Grilled Cheese, Ham and Cheese, Tuna Salad, Chicken Salad, Corn Dogs, Burritos, and Hot Dogs (small and jumbo). Side orders of: Fries, Onion Rings, Tater Tots, Hot Wings, Chili, Jalapenos, Stuffed Jalapenos, Toast. A breakfast menu of sausages, eggs, bacon, cheese, and ham in all sorts of combinations.
Craig had no idea how they could cook all that stuff in such a tiny space; but he’d never seen anyone order anything other than Hamburgers or Gyros. Three or four guys worked back there, one taking orders and the others scurrying around gesticulating and shouting in some unknown language. The only word Craig could understand was “Cheeseburger! Cheeseburger!” It sounded exactly like the old skit on Saturday Night Live. The meat and cheese sizzle on the griddle; clouds of blue smoke were sucked out overhead. One guy stands in front of a sizzling, dripping brown vertical rotating cylinder of some mysterious meat, constantly slicing off strips for Gyros. These were served in fat pitas with onions so strong you can smell them a block away.
At lunchtime there was always a line at the register. The customer in front of Craig had a graduated plastic bag Velcroed to his ankle and a tube running up his leg. Dingy yellow urine was filling the bag, it had a little valve on the bottom. It wasn’t that hot and Craig wished that guy wouldn’t wear shorts.
A guy was sitting next to the line playing the slots. An older man, thin, short, unsteady and using a cane, came in; they knew each other. They exchanged loud pleasantries, then the man with the cane leaned over and showed the slot machine guy the top of his head.
“Look,” he said, “I’ve got a couple new plates, here and here.”
“Jeez! Did you get your license back?”
“Nope, after a head trauma, they send you to a New-Rologist for an E-Val-U-Ation,” he replied slowly. “Then you have to take the tests.”
It was Craig’s turn to order. They gave him a numbered slip and he stood off to the side while the grease flew. After awhile they called his number out but handed an order to someone else.
“I though I was 256?” Craig asked.
“Oh, we had two orders with the same number, what did you have? Cheeseburger basket?”
He immediately reached down and stuffed a burger and fries into a brown paper bag and handed them to Craig. Craig noticed that practically nobody ever received exactly what they ordered the first time.
The baskets come with large drinks, which you fill yourself from a fountain in the back. There was a big sign that says, “Pay for your Refills!” Craig decided to eat in, he was in no hurry to return to the corporate rat-race. That he considered this to be a tiny vacation depressed him even more. They had some wood-grained plastic booths scattered around a back corner, a place to sit down. Craig still had his lab coat on, somehow it seemed appropriate there; almost every customer had some sort of uniform, many had metal chains between their wallets and belts.
It seemed like everyone there knew each other. The seating was close, which made conversations between patrons inevitable. A lot of asking for directions, “How do you get to Arapaho from here?” At the next booth some guy was smoking and ranting about fast food.
“I dunno why anyone ever goes to McDonalds! They can come here and get better food cheaper. That Damned McDonalds! The only thing that puts them over is advertising. I dunno why anyone ever goes to McDonalds! Costs more – Get less. People don’t think about stuff! You can’t tell them anything! The only thing I ever buy is senior coffee and maybe an egg McMuffin.”
The general conversation then turned to the extensive menu.
“They have Catfish?”
“Yeah, but it’s no good.”
The McDonalds hater added his two cents, “How can it be no good? Either it’s Catfish or it isn’t!”
“I don’t know,” another guy piped up, ” but it’s no good.”
“How about the shrimp?”
“I don’t know, I can’t eat shrimp. I’m allergic.”
The other diners then began talking about folks they had known that were allergic to shrimp and had eaten some by mistake. Tales of swelling necks, choking, hives, and respiratory distress.
Craig finished his cheeseburger and noticed there wasn’t anyone at the front. On his way out he ordered a bag of gyro sandwiches to take home for dinner. Back at the office, he stashed them into his desk drawer.
All afternoon folks walked through Craig’s wing of the building and complained about the smell. It was those powerful Omar’s onions hidden away in Craig’s desk. He never said anything.