Shangh[a]i

After high school, I attended college at Appalachian State University. It's a 3 hour drive west from Raleigh, where I grew up. As you near the quaint mountain college town of Boone, just before highway 421 sends you up a gas-guzzling incline into what locals call the high country, you pass through an even smaller town in the foothills called Wilkesboro.

The only part of Wilkesboro I ever saw was a two-mile stretch of highway that cuts right through its middle, dotted with big chain stores and restaurants that amount to a “real town” starter kit. A Lowe’s Hardware, Ruby Tuesdays, Olive Garden, Walmart, Petco. As you drive past, you’re greeted by the usual collection of corporate logos that arise in the distance on America’s highways like an oasis of capitalism.

There were some small local businesses too. The most memorable was a chinese restaurant called “Shanghai” or “Shanghi”. It all depended on which direction you were traveling. The north-facing half of their sign displayed the correct spelling of the chinese municipality, but on the south-facing side the second “a” was absent. It’s not like it had fallen off and there was a weird gap before the final “i”. On either side, the name was painted in beautiful cursive, each letter seamlessly connected to the one that came before and after. It was a commercial-grade, illuminated plastic sign. How this manufacturing hiccup occurred is beyond me but it may have been for the best. Shangh[a]i’s signage discrepancy was the second most interesting thing about Wilkesboro. The most interesting thing is that it’s the hometown of comedian Zach Galifianakis.

 My mini-van; a 1996 Mercury Villager.

My mini-van; a 1996 Mercury Villager.

Just before you leave Wilkesboro on the way to Boone, you pass a Chick Fil A on the left hand side of the road. Once when I was driving back to school in my mini-van after a weekend trip home I decided to stop for some food. I pulled into the drive-thru lane and when I got to the speaker I ordered a grilled chicken sandwich.

 Hanging out in a friend's dorm room during my freshman year of college with a flushed babyface. 2007.

Hanging out in a friend's dorm room during my freshman year of college with a flushed babyface. 2007.

This was at some point in 2007 and I was watching my carbs for fear that my six pack abs would be lost forever should bread touch my lips. My precious abdominals were all I had going for me with the ladies. Not specific ladies, mind you, as I had no real prospects. I mean “the ladies” as an abstract concept. Even though I was 18, I still had the babyface of a 14 year old. I had no experience, and therefore no confidence, when hitting on women and I didn’t even drink, which would have at least put me in situations where flirting felt more organic. Between all of this, and the aforementioned mini van, the shallow trenches that criss-crossed my midsection were the only thing about myself that I knew women liked for certain. They were my opener and my closer. Again, this was theoretical. They never actually “opened”, or “closed”, anything.

So I ordered my grilled chicken sandwich the same as I always did in those days; without a bun. Most places didn’t bat an eye when I asked for this minor modification. At this point low carb diets had been popular for several years and the notion of a bun-less burger or sandwich wasn’t exactly mind blowing. But the Chick Fil A employee at the other end of the crackling speakerbox seemed unsure.

“Wait, so you don’t want a bun?” they asked.

Not wanting to cause an all-out panic in the Chick Fil A kitchen, I thought it would be best if I gave detailed instructions for how I would like to receive my sandwich. My words were clear, specific and succinct.

I said, “Nope. Just take all the sandwich ingredients and put them in a container. I’ll eat them with a fork and knife.”

There you have it. I told them what I wanted, how I wanted it and I even told them how I would eat it, which was frankly none of their business. But in the interest of a thorough explanation I included it.

I drove around to the next window, anticipating my guilt-free chicken “sandwich”. They handed over a paper bag and I remember thinking “Wow. This feels really full for just one sandwich.” It wasn’t heavy, but the volume of the bag was almost totally occupied, like a trash bag filled with styrofoam.

After pulling into a parking spot, I opened it. Nothing could prepare me for the insanity that was waiting inside. I reached into the bag and began removing one black clamshell container after another, each holding a single aspect of the sandwich. A lonely tomato slice occupied it’s very own vessel. Same for a wilted piece of lettuce. The two pickle slices seemed less isolated because at least they had each other. Finally, the chicken breast waited for me at the bottom of the bag.

A sandwich without a bun is not that crazy. But this, this was lunacy. It was surely the most bonkers possible interpretation of my request. Is this really what they thought I wanted? Surely this was a prank; the result of a bored Wilkesboronian teenager spicing things up during a monotonous afternoon on the job. My head was swirling with questions. What kind of aggressive OCD behavior was this staff accustomed to accommodating? Did they run this by a manager before they fulfilled the order?

“Excuse me, Marcy. We’ve got some guy who wants us to package all the sandwich stuff separately. Can we even… do that?”

“We can, and we will” Marcy must have replied. “And it will be our pleasure.”

What sort of a serial killer wants to assemble their own sandwich, sans bun, piece by piece? I began imagining the type of person they must think I was. Maybe someone who is overwhelmed at the notion of eating an entire sandwich, but less intimidated by the idea of breaking it down into its constituent pieces and eating them one by one, crossing them off a list as I go. “Tomato? Done. Lettuce? Check. Chicken breast? Got it. Wow! By golly, I did it again. No matter how many times I pull this off, I never cease to be amazed by the power of persistence.”

All I could do was laugh as I migrated the makings of my meal all into one box. The chicken breast was the most important piece, so I decided its clamshell should host the gathering. I began eating and thought of a quote from from General George S. Patton.

Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.

I told that Chick Fil A employee what I wanted under the small-minded assumption that there was only one possible way to deliver on what I’d asked. But, holy shit, was I surprised with those results.

/