In my recurring dream, I’m on a late-night bus, a Greyhound, somewhere between here and there, but most definitely somewhere in the South – the southern United States, that is. Apart from the occasional cough or the faint sound of someone snoring, all is still. Outside the windows, all is dark. But you know the country is there, you can sense it; and some times, far-off, you catch a glimpse of the lights in some farmhouse, or an un-lit billboard flashes by. And by and by, you lose yourself, lose all track of time and distance. And just when you’re on the verge of tipping into sleep yourself, the driver comes on the squawk box to say that the bus will be making its scheduled stop soon, and you have 45 minutes to get something to eat or drink, and go to the toilet and strtech your legs. And suddenly you’re wide awake again and alert and happy in anticipation of temporary freedom.
I was always happily nourished as the bus pulled into the station in the middle of the night to see all the activity. After miles of nothing, yjere was something beautific about the life and lights. And all around you on the buses, people became jovial, joking with one another in the way old friends might talk talk and laugh, pleased with each other’s compnay. And all of this at midnight or later.
Stepping off the bus, a whiff of diesel fume tells you where you are, even if you’re blind and deaf. You shuffle with the other travellers inside the “clean, well-lighted place” to where the lino and laminex hold out hope of some respite from the seemingly interminable marathon of ashphalt and miles.
What separates the dream from the reality is that in the dream I never eat. I seldom ate in the reality either, except one place. And that’s when I remember HOUSTON. Look past the homeless man deliberately coughing on cars as they drive past, or the cabbie yelling at the drug dealers, and you’ll see it: the bright blue sign that reads “Best Burgers in Midtown.” I still have a hard time believing that the same place which produced thrice-daily fistfights outside its front doors was also turning out the best burgers my 12-year-old self had ever tasted. Was it possible?
Back in the late 1990s, enroute from Mexico to New York, I decided to find out – to see if my young imagination had been playing tricks on my ageing mind and memory. Could it be that the feast of youth was as real and tastable now as it was then, or had the last great burger of childhood gone the way of everything else in America?
My travelling companion wasn’t a burger fan – in fact she was a vegetarian – but noticing my obvious excitement, she decided to come along. Ordinarily she would’ve stayed on the bus, or hung around outside taking the air, but her curiosity had gotten the better of her.
After placing my order at the 24-hour restaurant-cum-gift shop tucked inside the terminal, I looked around. The place had obviously been remodelled, but seating was still very much at a premieum, making the restaurant’s few chairs and tables hot real estate. As I waited for my burger, I watched the cashier chasing off a couple of unlikely looking intellectuals lingering over laptops as they snapped their fingers to whatever was coming through their iPods.
Over at another table, sitting by herslef, a dreadlocked young woman of about 16, who looked as if she’d just come off a three-day rave, read a battered copy of American Psycho.
Finally, without ceremony, my burger arrived. For all the time it took, I had dared to believe that it might actually be as good – if not better – than I remembered. Maybe they were hand-forming the patties back there behind the swining door! But, alas! The meat was obviously frozen, with no flavor whatsoever, and was barely warm enough to melt the cheese on top. And the jalapeños I’d requested were nowhere to be seen. But that was only the half of it. The bun reminded me of an old-school Wendy’s hamburger, with a dusting of cornmeal on top, and a distinctive two- or three-day old staleness that rivalled the crunchy remains of yesterday’s last lettice. In short, it was terrible. Seeing the look on my vegatarian partner’s face made it even worse. I ate the burger and felt sorry for myself, felt sorry for the cow, felt sorry for America. The best burger in Midtown was no more. Then I realised the sign wasn’t there either. Trying to stave off ruination, I humoured myself with the thought that the Greyhound cheeseburger I was eating was probably better than what I’d have gotten if I’d gone to McDonald’s. But I wasn’t convinced. Which only goes to show, some times you just can’t go back. There’s no back to go back to. And some things are better left in one’s memories.