“Welcome to Ameriburger! One or two?” The perky teen girl behind the register smiled broadly. Her blond ponytail swished, powered solely by her desire her to serve rather than by her minimum wage salary. Or the speaker was an embittered, middle-aged person of color–maybe even an immigrant–who hated his job regardless of the exorbitant and undeserved $15 per hour he “earned.” It’s your choice. This is Ameriburger, after all.
Above the counter hung a pair of giant LCD screens, but rather than displaying the restaurant’s menu each projected a cable news show. On one screen a blonde pundit in a blue suit droned directly into the camera, eyes wide and face reddened. The other television featured a brunette pundit in a gray suit shouting at the home viewer, teeth bared. They appeared to be twins, or perhaps the same talking head in different outfits.
“Where’s the menu?” I asked.
“We don’t have those,” the cashier said. “Would you like a one or a two?”
“I’m sorry, I’m not following.” This was a rather embarrassing confession for a reasonably well-educated middle-aged man who has frequented more than his share of burger joints. The customer behind me seemed to think so, too, as he let loose the most theatrical sigh possible without the aid a fainting couch.
“A one is a cheeseburger, fries, and a Coke,” the cashier chirped. “A two is a chicken sandwich, tater tots, and a Pepsi. Are you a one or a two?”
“Can I get a chicken sandwich with fries?”
“A two comes with tots.”
“Tots are fine, but I’d rather have fries.”
“So you’re a one?”
“I guess, if that’s a chicken sandwich with fries.”
The cashier smiled, this time with apparent effort. “A one is a cheeseburger, fries, and a Coke,” she repeated.
“I don’t want a cheeseburger,” I said.
“What the hell, mayo! You just said you like fries! You damned unos have to complicate everything!”
I turned to find a red-faced man glaring at me. He wore a t-shirt with the word “Deuces” printed in an old English font across the chest. “Sorry,” I said. “This is my first time here.”
“This is my first time here,” Deuces repeated with an effeminate flair. “What are you, 50? Educate yourself, mayo!”
“Why do you you keep calling me that?” I asked, and a young woman poked her head out from behind the angry, fleshy wall that was Deuces. “Short for mayonnaise,” she said. “It’s, like, you’ll go with whatever sandwich. You’re noncommital. They use it as an epithet.”
“It’s not an epithet, it’s an insult,” Deuces said. “You unos are so stupid you don’t know an insult when you hear it. Course you can’t count past one so what do you expect.”
“I don’t think a baby eater should be hurling insults at anybody,” Uno said.
“That’s a goddamned lie!” Deuces sputtered, eyes bulging and jugular veins throbbing.
“If it was a lie then Ron Blonderson couldn’t have said it on his show, could he? ‘Tots’ is another word for toddlers. Number twos like tater tots. It’s a coded message for other baby eaters.”
“Then I guess you unos eat the French since you like French fries so much,” Deuces replied. His logic seemed sound.
“Number ones celebrate the enduring friendship between France and the United States. We wouldn’t have won the Revolutionary War without the French, you know.”
“Bullcrap,” Deuces snapped. “Americans won the war, nobody else. We don’t need nobody.”
While all of this was going on the line of hungry customers grew until it reached all the way to the front door. Mutters of “come on” and “let’s go” occasionally broke through the digital symphony of 25 cellphones blaring 25 different songs, podcasts, movies, and phone calls.
“Are you a one or two?” the cashier smiled again.
“I guess just give me both,” I said, and all of Ameriburger fell silent. The cashier looked at her register with an expression not unlike that of a dog hearing a distant, unfamiliar sound. Her index finger hung in mid-air, waiting for eyes and brain to identify a “both” button on the register’s keypad.
A figure emerged from the bowels of the restaurant and stood next to the baffled cashier. He wore a red necktie and a dirty yellow mustache along with a rectangular badge that read “Kevin-Manager.” This name tag, pinned to his shirt pocket, deputized Kevin as the sherriff of Ameriburger. “Is there a problem here?” he asked.
“This guy won’t order a one or two. He says he’s both,” the cashier said. “I can’t find a button for that.”
Kevin unfurled a thin-lipped smile beneath his dirty mustache that was equal parts sympathy and condescension. “There isn’t a button for that because that’s not possible. Sir, are you a one or a two?”
“I’d like a chicken sandwich with French fries,” I said.
“Well that doesn’t exist,” the manager replied.
“Which has been explained to me, which is why I’ll just buy both meals and take what I want from each.”
“That’s not possible,” Kevin oozed through his greasy smile. “You’re either a one or a two.”
“You mean I must choose a one or a two,” I clarified.
“No, you are a one or a two. What you choose is who you are.”
“That makes absolutely no sense. A choice in one small aspect of my life does not define me in my entirety. Besides, this is a false choice designed to sell products.” I was on a roll now. “Even with your limited menu I can think of a number of combinations. I can have chicken and fries or a burger and tots. Heck, I can have fries and tots or chicken and a burger. I can order just a Coke or just a Pepsi. I can even have you mix the two in one cup.”
“He has a point,” said someone near the door.
“How can he have a point? He doesn’t even have a podcast,” said another.
I turned to face the lobby full of ones and twos. “Or we can just go home and make our own lunches! We don’t have to fall victim to marketing that thrusts prepackaged identities onto us like ill-fitting Juicy sweatpants! We don’t have to hate each other just because somebody figured out that exploiting our emotions makes their cash registers ring! You two,” and I motioned to Deuces and Uno. “You don’t even know each other and look at you–hurling anger and insults at each other like pro wrestlers.”
“We’re related,” Deuces said.
“Yeah, he’s my cousin,” added Uno.
“Well there you go! Then you know he doesn’t eat babies!”
“I babysat for you last weekend, dumbass,” Deuces said.
“So how about it?” I said. “Who is with me here? Who has had enough of these false binary choices? Who is willing to admit that sometimes fries sound good and sometimes tots sound better?”
This must be how the great orators felt, I thought: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dr. Phil. I looked at the sea of faces bobbing across the Ameriburger lobby, the light of a new dawn glowing as my words warmed their faces. And then from somewhere deep in the crowd a lone voice. “Either pick a one or two or get the hell out of the way, mayo,” it said.
So I quietly made my exit, neither a one or a two but a man convinced that humans are capable of finding good in both tater tots and French fries; a man hellbent on not falling victim to false choice masquerading as identity. I drove home and made my own lunch, and it was delicious.