Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Nectar of the Gods: A last meal

Photos from the Internet

If I was on death row (falsely accused, of course), I would have no doubt of what I would choose for a last meal: 6 White Castle cheeseburgers with pickles and ketchup, and a bottle of Manhattan Special Espresso Coffee Soda.

My love affair with the diminutive burgers probably started in high school. About a block away from the school was a White Castle (WC), where all the kids went when cutting out for lunch. I did that once, which became one of the few positive high school memories.

In the depressing and institutional lunchroom the first really beautiful day of spring, I sat with Bernie Kugel. It was in the basement level, and was highly confined. And guarded: at the one open door sat the school’s cafeteria security guard. She was a tiny woman at around 5 foot-3 inches, but was as fierce as they came. Everyone was afraid of her, from the nerds to the football players, to the gangsters. She never smiled, but merely sneered. Evil emanated from her, as she seems to love her job of control just a bit too much.

Bernie looked around at the same bland surroundings, the same bland food, and the sun shining through the grates over the windows high above. “Wanna get some White Castle?” Bernie asked.

“Hell, yeah,” I replied, “But how are we gonna get past the Nazi Kommandant?” I asked, nodding my head toward the direction of the single entrance/exit.

“Follow me, and whatever you do, don’t say anything and don’t smile.”

At the time, I was a toothpick at 5 foot-8 inches and 110 lbs. Bernie was my height and chubby, and looked about 12 years old. I was nervous as we approached the security woman, and she smirked, looking at the two of us like “I eat tougher kids than this for breakfast…this should be fun,” and she sarcastically said, with both her hands on her hips self-righteously, “And where do YOU two think you’re going?”

Bernie whips his little boy head around, and said, in a loud voice dripping with venom, “Do YOU know what kind of DAY I’ve HAD!?” and storms past her, with me a foot behind him. She jumped back about a foot as we sailed through. He didn’t have to worry about me laughing, because I wasn’t expecting that any more than she was.

The next day, we walked into the cafeteria and just said hello to her as we passed in, as we did every day, as if nothing had happened the day before. She, or anyone else official never brought it up to us in the school ever.

Back then, in the ‘70s, there was something different about WC than now. After the burgers were cooked on the grill and placed on the bun, they were put into a large steamer that was hand-pumped, which perfectly melted the cheese-bun-burger combo. This stopped this process in the ‘80s, I believe. The burgers would literally just melt in your mouth. It was glorious.

Through the ‘70s, when we’d go there regularly, WC would distribute their corporate magazine inside the chains, which were thick, in black & white, and on highly glossy paper. We’d read about all the different stores and employees throughout the country (though mostly in the northeast quarter). The mag was cheesy (pun intended) and fun to read through in a kitschy way; it also seemed like a bizarre thing to share with the patrons. I never kept any of them, though.

White Castle burgers have a few nicknames, and nothing cutesy that starts with a “Mc”. We called them Belly Bombers. Or we called them Murder Burgers. But my favorite was Sliders, because they would slide in to you, and soon slide right out again. I think it’s the onions they are cooked with on the grill that enforces that activity.

In high school, WC was a neutral zone, where the highly self-segregated students would cautiously mingle. During my last year there, a McDonald’s opened nearby, and the kids of color stayed and the white ones gravitated to the McDonald’s. I think part of the reason is not necessarily that the WC burgers are less expensive as it sat closer the Marboro Projects, which is where many of the African-American and Latino students in the school lived, and they had proprietorship.

When Bernie and I started to hang out at places like CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City, we’d come home really late. There weren’t many all night diners in our neighborhood back then, and besides, we didn’t want to sit at a restaurant at daybreak to eat a $2 burger, so we went to WC for the 15-cent ones. We were tired and it was so much quicker to do WC. We would eat as the sun came up, and then I would drive Bernie home, and then head to my place for some sleep.

In 1975, the Dictators came out with their first album, “Go Girl Crazy.” The inner sleeve had a couple of photos of the band in a WC. We had a big smile about that. It felt like some kind of affirmation, and a non-realistic association to the band, that made them seem more like “one of us.”

On Halloween in 1977, I went to one of the infamous “Blue Whale” parties (I still have memories of the garbage can with the iridescent blue liquid) at the Fleshtones’ house in Whitestone, Queens. It was in the basement that I witnessed the first performance of the Zantees. Some time in the evening afterwards, I drove to a local WC with Miriam Linna, Billy Miller, and a very young Todd Abramson. It was quite late, and we came still in costume. We got some intense looks by some of the locals, as if we were dressed that way for a statement rather than the holiday. Needless to say, we ate and left shortly after. After dropping them off at a subway entrance, I drove home (so no, I did not try the blue whale).

The first time we took Bernie’s wife, Tink, to WC, she did something I had never thought of doing before: she took the lid of the bun off, and looked at the burger topless. “Why is the meat GRAY?!” she asked. I explained that most burger chains but in food dye to make the meat red, because the national color of bloodless meat is supposed to be gray. The grayness of the WC meat shows that it has no color additives, which is a good thing. We explained this after we stopped laughing, of course.

Since the ‘80s, and the ubiquitousness and rapaciousness of the two or three major burger chains, WC closed down the two branches closest to me, including the one near the high school (it is now a CVS Pharmacy/Store). I don’t eat there as often as I used to, but I definitely still imbibe every couple of months, which is more often than I dine at the other major burger chains, on of which is just a few short blocks from where I live.

I don’t have as many stories about Manhattan Special Espresso Coffee Soda (MSECS), and didn’t actually start drinking it until well into my twenties. My earliest memory of it are a series of television commercials in the ‘70s, which had then-relatively unknown comedian Jackie Mason as its spokesperson. For those uninitiated, MSECS is strong coffee carbonated soda/pop that is also highly sweetened (ingredients are pure coffee, carbonated water, sugar, caramel color & preserved with potassium sorbate & sodium benzoate), so you get both the bitter and sweet taste together.

MSECS is also quite regional. I have never seen it outside the tri-state area. Hell, it’s hard enough to find WITHIN the city, through it is manufactured in Brooklyn (on Manhattan Ave, hence the name). It comes in two sizes, the 10 oz bottle and the 28 oz bottle, both of which seem to have slightly different tastes. I like them both, but my pal Alan will only drink the smaller one. I don’t know anyone who drinks the diet one (on purpose), as it has a strong chemical taste, so I will ignore it.

They are relatively expensive. The small bottle tends to run $1.50-2.00, and the large $2.50-3.00, depending on the store.

At my last job, I offered some MSECS to a co-worker, Carrie. She was hesitant, to put it mildly. “I don’t know…carbonated coffee…” I brought in a bottle and gave her a couple fingers worth in a cup, and said, “Well, if you wanna try it, fine; if you don’t, that’s fine, too.”

Hesitantly, she took a sip, and her eyes opened wide. “Oh my,” she said surprised, “This is yummy!” A new fan is born.

Okay, I’m aware enough to know that White Castle and Manhattan Special Espresso Coffee Soda are both more vices than food, when looked at nutritionally. The obvious joke would be, “It would be your last meal because it’ll kill ya!” Hasn’t yet, but if it did, they would have trouble wiping the smile off my face.

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