Our high school mascot was the Blue Devils. Painted on the exterior wall of the football stadium, facing the town, was an enormous devil’s face. He looked sinister and unfriendly, sort of like a big blue Vincent Price. It was impossible to avoid looking into his eyes as you drove down Eighth Street on your way to the mall. At some point, some of the churches in town got together and tried to change the mascot’s name. It was unchristian for our town’s most prominent mural to showcase a representation of Satan. People on the other side argued that the Blue Devils referred to the 88th regiment of the U.S. Army, the first unit of infantry to be created from scratch in 1940 to fight in Northern Italy during World War Two, and the name had nothing to do with devil worship. The compromise they reached was that the mascot would remain Blue Devils, but the giant face on the side of the stadium would be painted over. In its place, they painted a big blue football helmet with a white “T” on the side, which stood for Tift County. The devil mural had been done all in long, two-dimensional lines. For instance: the devil’s goatee was a single curly stroke just off a thicker line that formed the devil’s chin. But the big blue football helmet that replaced it used perspective and looked three-dimensional. It had shading and a shadow and everything.
Tift County was a dry county, so you couldn’t buy liquor, only beer or wine. To get liquor, you had to go to the county line, which was half an hour away in every direction. There, just over the county border, you would find a squat cinderblock building as long as a schoolbus planted on the side of the highway with nothing but fields and woods behind it. There would be three or four pickups parked crookedly around it in the yellow light that spilled out through the barred windows.
Every few years someone would drum up enough support to get an initiative on the ballot to make Tift County wet, and there would be a debate in the Gazette, the local paper, between the protestant churches and the forces of capitalism, as to whether the law banning liquor ought to be lifted. Even if you didn’t read the paper, you could tell if there was a ballot initiative in any given year due to the signs in the yards of all the houses in town. The signs were red or blue. Red signs would say VOTE NO! in big letters and then underneath in small letters: to liquor. Blue ones would say VOTE YES! in big letters and then underneath in small letters: to prop 2, or whatever number it was that year.
One year, the wife of the choir director for one of the most prominent churches got arrested — or just caught, I can’t remember — for driving around at night and ripping VOTE YES signs out of people’s yards and throwing them in the back of her truck. This damaged the reputation of the teetotalers, but not enough to swing the vote the other way, and Tifton remained dry.
The compromise that resolved the endless question, and which still holds to this day, was to introduce and pass a “liquor by the drink” initiative, allowing liquor to be served within county lines, but only one drink at a time. Soon thereafter, we got our first Red Lobster, and then an Applebee’s. A few years after that, a Chili’s, a Ruby Tuesday, a Longhorn’s, and an Olive Garden.
Tifton is right on I-75, a 6-lane interstate trafficked frequently by “snow diggers,” my father’s derogatory term for northerners traveling to Florida for vacation.
When Bill Clinton was campaigning for the White House in 1992, he stumped at the Agrirama, our town’s finest interstate attraction. The Agrirama still exists today, and features the trappings of a mostly-working village as it would have been in the 1840’s. It’s part tourist trap, part living history museum, part event venue. Growing up, I was forced to visit the Agrirama many times on trips with various churches and schools. You could ride a little steam engine around a glimmering pond, buy sticks of candy for a nickel in an all-wood general store, and get corn ground into cornmeal at a mill powered by a water wheel. They even had a working turpentine still (no longer in operation). All the employees at the Agrirama wear overalls, bonnets, and the like.
My dad was a die-hard Republican, so it perplexed me that he was making me go see Bill Clinton. I also didn’t want to go because I didn’t care about the election. I liked reading books about politics but hated current events, which to me epitomized everything that is futile to care about. I never knew what any candidate was even talking about; “foreign policy,” “spending,” “the budget,” “welfare,” “war on drugs” were just empty words people on TV repeated ad nauseam. All I wanted to do was play video games, not see some dumb old guy talk, especially not at the Agrirama, which epitomized everything that was boring about Tifton, too.
On stage flanked by hay bales, wearing jeans and, I think, a pink button-down shirt, Bill Clinton told us his message. I vaguely remember Hillary being there, standing at his side, wearing something pale blue — from my distance, they both seemed about the size of the figures they put on top of wedding cakes — but she might not have been there. It seems now like the sort of detail one might fabricate in the process of remembering.
I don’t remember anything Bill Clinton said, but the two-hundred or so people on hand seemed neither to like nor hate it. I remember finding a sticker for Bush/Quayle on the ground and proudly putting it on. My dad thought it was funny. After it was over, I asked him what he’d thought, and he said he didn’t think much of it. I asked him why we’d even gone then. He replied, “Because my mother took me to see Eisenhower.”
I was in the back seat of my mom’s car. She was stopped at a stop sign, trying to turn left, but too many cars were coming, so she was trying to scooch out and get someone to let her in, but no one would.
I remember looking out the back window out of boredom, seeing Interstate-75 and just beyond it, through the trees, what seemed to me to be a strangely revolutionary billboard for McDonald’s: just a huge red box of fries, and the fries shot up past what would have been the top border of the billboard, like the billboard border couldn’t even contain them. The sky was blue behind the fries.
It seemed like something new that was happening in billboards at the time—images escaping their frame. But since I was only four or five, I probably noticed something new every day.
Something about the fries bursting over the top of the billboard made me uneasy. It was like the sign or its designers had cheated, transgressing some unspoken boundary. What kept the fries from going even higher? From stretching to the clouds? Once the other businesses saw this, how big would signs become? What would keep Pizza Hut from blocking the sun with giant pizza? How long before the moon, the clouds, the trees, everything that predated people, were just memories we couldn’t even see through all the layers of our signs concealing them?
The Golden Arches, in the center of the big red box of fries, then drew my attention. I knew from commercials and from going there whenever I could badger my mom into taking me that the “M” meant McDonald’s. But this wasn’t actual reading. I was just recalling what I already knew about what that stylized “M” represented. It could’ve been a squiggle and I would have understood it the same way.
Off to the side of all that, however, were two words I had never previously encountered. They were stacked on top of each other in a blocky black font, set against a white-painted plywood panel which had been an ad hoc addition to the otherwise artfully designed billboard:
I stared at this paring, and, for the first time, without thinking, thought about what the letters sounded like at the same time as what the words meant. Wait a minute, I wondered, am I reading? I looked again. I felt like someone beholding their heart’s desire in a dream, so excited that they didn’t want to ruin it by believing in it too eagerly.
I thought about what “exit” meant, looked again at the word, then thought about about what “now” meant, and looked again at the word. Then, there in the back seat of my mom’s car, twisted in the seatbelt with the sun on my face and arms, I thought about what they meant together.
This what was all those songs about the alphabet, those books with pictures next to big words, and all the handwriting exercises in those notebooks with wispy paper, and all the endless sounding out, had been about. This was it. I was reading!
Then, as soon it had peaked, the elation died. I fell into a state of melancholy.
I stared at the words, unextraordinary on their cheaply painted plywood backdrop, and thought about what they meant, not in general, but to me: “Exit” referred to getting off the interstate my mom and me weren’t on. We were in town, at a stop sign; the billboard wasn’t even meant for us. I’d merely intercepted a message not meant for me.
The melancholy became paranoia. Worse than having intruded on a message, I now felt the sky whose borders had been transgressed by the fries. It felt wrong that this sign was pointing at everyone, not just the people it was talking to. What if I didn’t want to read something I only happened to see? What recourse existed?
I tried to see the ‘E’ and the ‘X,’ the ‘I’ and the ‘T’ and the ‘N’ and the ‘O’ and the ‘W’ as separate letters—just as I had for every word I’d ever encountered until this moment. But no matter how hard I tried to unread the words, they held together in a meaning I could only not think by closing my eyes or turning away.
I turned around in my seatbelt. I stared straight ahead at the big plush pocket on the back of my mom’s driver seat.
How come the teachers in pre-school never mentioned this aspect of reading? That it’s a threshold that’s impossible to uncross once you cross it? And that what you read, and end up having to think about, isn’t even for you. It’s written by a stranger, and it’s written for other people.
I leaned forward and tried to share some of this consternation with my mother, but she was still trying to make the tough turn and told me to sit back and be still. Through the windshield in front of her, all the other words on all the other signs for all the other hotels and restaurants and convenience stores in my hometown were all now impossible not to read.
My high school best friend and I were cooks at a Sonic Drive-in, a fast-food restaurant with a skinny sign stretching into the clouds to entice travelers on the interstate into exiting. The kitchen we worked in had two sides, the grill-side where the burgers were cooked and the buns were dressed, and the fry-side where the fries and tater tots and onion rings and fish sandwiches were fried. He was grill-side, and I was fry-side.
One night we made a meat ashtray by pressing several thawed hamburger patties into an ashtray-shape and then searing it on the grill by surrounding it with grill presses. Then we dunked it in the fryers to char so that it wouldn’t continue to cook when we stubbed cigarettes out in the meat. We also believed that by grilling it to the point of charcoal, and then frying it, it wouldn’t rot, and we could leave it in the back where we smoked and it wouldn’t start to stink.
There were plenty of already acceptable places to ash—cups, trash cans, actual ash trays, the floor, the toilet, out the back door, in the parking lot—so there is no real reason we needed to make a meat ashtray. But as I’ve since learned many times over, sometimes the compulsion to create, even terrifying things, seizes you and doesn’t let go.
Is it going too far to say that gruesome and unnecessary acts of creation are one of the few methods through which we plebs are able to resist the endless commodification of our reality?
The meat ashtray smelled nasty, in any case—not unexpectedly like cigarettes and burnt, rotten meat—and we stopped using it regularly within a day or two. We couldn’t, however, bring ourselves to throw it away.
We hid it behind the oldest box of frozen meat in the farthest corner of the walk-in, to keep it secret from the managers, which there was always a revolving door of, since the compensation for managing this Sonic was incommensurate with the toll of stress and anxiety it exacted. And of those in Tifton qualified for the job, almost none were desperate enough to want it, or do it for very long.
We’d bring the meat ashtray out as a ritual when we trained new cooks, ashing in it with them as a sort of initiation.
Eventually a manager found it during a deep cleaning that the franchise office in Oklahoma required yearly of all stores.
Luckily, it was a cool manager who asked us about it before she threw it away.
My best friend and I smoked a cigarette with her—Gennifer—and Gennifer laughed so hard at the nature of the object that she cried while smoking and delicately ashing into it. We thought she was going to let us keep it, but when she finished her cigarette, she looked at us seriously and said, “Get rid of it.”
I respected her decision, but my friend was furious. He had been cooking there for ten times longer than Gennifer had been managing, and he viewed her decision as disrespectful of our cooks’ traditions. I defended Gennifer, though, because I liked her, and could see that from her perspective it made sense. If the franchise inspected the store and found it, she might have been fired, or worse, and we might have been forced to do even more deep cleaning.
Me and my best friend had known each other since pre-school, and it was the first time we had ever really disagreed on anything. It was also the first time I felt guilt for empathizing more with management than labor—an awful feeling I still feel sometimes.
My friend and I gave the meat ashtray a kind of Viking funeral. Instead of just tossing it into the green dumpster with the main trash, we put it in the smaller, squatter cast-iron oubliette we called the “grease bin,” which it was illegal to put anything other than used grease into.
To that end, the grease bin had a grate along the top, so that when you pumped used grease into it, only liquid would go through. The grate caught all the charred foodstuff that ended up in bottom of the fryers.
In the shadow of the streetlights in the back lot of the Sonic, we lay the meat ashtray on the ground and took turns stomping it to pieces with our shoes. Then we picked up the pieces and forced them through the grate. We listened as each piece of charcoalized beef plinked into the dead grease within. My friend (this was why I loved him) said something like: “For a meat ashtray to be born at all is a terrible miracle. For it to live a full life, inspiring tears of joy in some, and terror in others, is a second terrible miracle. For it to be destroyed by its own creators at its peak, a third terrible miracle. And for it to enter the grease bin, not grease, but as grease, through that which grease alone is meant to pass, a fourth terrible miracle. But this miracle is the most holy.”
I nodded. “It’s like Valhalla for it,” I said, kicking the grease bin.