by Michael Martone
When you were in college, at Butler, you would drive out Michigan Pike to eat at the Steak ‘n Shake there. It looked like a Steak ‘n Shake but it wasn’t quite right. It looked the same as other Steak ‘n Shakes—black and white with the chromium fixtures and the enameled tiled walls and ceramic tile floor. The staff wore the paper hats and the checkered pants, the white aprons and the red bow ties. But often you were the only customer. You sat at a table, not the counter, and scanned the menu while as many as a dozen waiters and waitresses waited for you to order. This was a training restaurant for the restaurant chain, self-conscious of its self-consciousness, a hamburger university. There were waiters and waitresses-in-training watching how your waiter would take your order and there were waiter and waitress trainers who were being followed by other waiters and waitresses-in-training watching the waiter and the waiters and waitresses watching the waiter taking your order after he brought you several glasses of welcoming water. They crowded around the table in their spotless uniforms like hospital interns around your bed waiting, taking notes on their checkered clipboards. There were television cameras everywhere and television monitors everywhere displaying what the television cameras were recording. There, the grill and the dozen or so trainee grill cooks pressed with the fork and spatula the meat puck into a perfect steak burger. There, one after the other flipped each patty once, crossed the instruments at right angles and pressed down again forming the perfect circles of meat, the evidence of this broadcast on snowy monitors next to those displaying the scoops of ice cream falling perfectly and endlessly into a parade of mixers. There was even a monitor that showed the bank of monitors and one that showed the monitor showing that monitor and, in it the endless regression of televisions within televisions, the black and white clad waiters and waitresses and the grill cooks and prep chefs moving like a chorus line, constructing your two doubles that you had ordered some time ago. And the caterpillar of service snaked with your plates of perfectly plated food held by the waiter at the head-end trailed by a conga line of identical servers back to your perfect table where the television cameras panned to focus on you eating your two doubles and showing you eating your two doubles in the monitor that showed the monitor of the double you eating. And everyone in the place made sure you had everything you needed and said they’d be back to check and then came back to check and asked you if you wouldn’t mind filling out the survey about the service and food and a survey about the survey and the survey about the survey’s survey. The sandwiches were perfect. And the milkshake. The French-fries were all exactly the same length and arranged in a pleasing random jumble. The real stainless steel cutlery gleamed and the real dishes and the glass glasses gleamed. As you left, at every empty table an employee wiped and polished the Formica tabletop, watched over by two or three others, nodding unconsciously in what you took to be approval.
She would meet him when he was in town, when he was going through town, at the Steak ‘n Shake right off I-69 on 96th Street. They both remembered when this part of the city had not been part of the city, had been nothing but farm land, nothing but woods. She grew up in the city. He grew up in another part of the state. They met later after both their lives were settled. Now 96th Street was all strip malls and box stores and freestanding drive-ins. Sometimes, after they would meet at the Steak ‘n Shake, they would decide to drive separately to one of the motels nearby and spend a few hours there before she would go back to work, her family, her home, and he would get back on the road to drive back to his home, his family. Or he would stay the night, call his wife to say he was too tired to keep driving, would get an early start the next day. On the nights he stayed over, he drove back to the Steak ‘n Shake and had dinner, trying to get the table they had shared hours before. In the parking lots outside, as the parking lots’ lights came on, teenagers gathered in crowds of cars. Everyone out there milled about, switching rides, changing places, slamming the doors, flashing the car lights. Some of the kids would come inside to order shakes and fries, take the order back out between the pools of light to pass around the drinks and the bag of fries to their friends in the shadows. He watched through the plate glass with its camouflage of advertisement the purposeful loitering in the lots outside. Earlier that day at the same table, they had talked about how things had changed and how they wanted them to stay the same. She always ordered a Coke, but Steak ‘n Shake had its own brand of pop. King Cola. It tasted the same, she always said, but it was different. He always ordered chili, and as they talked he crushed each oyster cracker separately in the plastic bag, one at a time, turning the crackers into finer and finer crumbs, a dust of crumbs, before he would tear open the bag and pour the cracker crumbs into the bowl of chili. That day when she ordered the King Cola she was told that Steak ‘n Shake now served regular Coca-Cola. The waitress waited while she considered. There was a Diet Coke now, too, and that’s what she ordered after she thought about it. When the waitress came back with the drink, she dropped off the bags of crackers, and without thinking, he began to pinch and pop the crackers inside the bag. He asked her how the new cola tasted. She used a straw. The same, she said, and different.
Bob called. I had been out of town. I just walked in. I was hungry after the trip. The phone rang. It was Bob.
“If any body asks where you were Saturday night, you were with me,” he said.
“Okay,” I said. “Where were we?”
Bob thought for a second. “We were at the old Steak ‘n Shake on Keystone.”
“What did I eat,” I said.
“What? What did you have to eat?”
“At the Steak ‘n Shake. If someone asks.” Bob thought again.
“You had Chili 4-Way.”
He hung up, and I went back out to find something to eat in earnest. The car was still warm. I drove over to the Steak ‘n Shake on Emerson Avenue. I looked at the menu. There was Chili, there was Chili Mac, there was Chili 3-Way, and there was Chili 5-way. I had remembered incorrectly.
We visited Normal to eat at the original Steak ‘n Shake. The chain was founded in Normal in 1934, and the first restaurant was still standing after all these years. We liked to eat at the Steak ‘n Shakes in Indianapolis, where we are from, that are all modern and new but retain, by design, what we believed was the look and feel of the original. We especially liked the trademarked logo of the disk with wings and the slogan that graced the actual restaurant china: In Sight It Must Be Right. The company history online has pictures of the original Steak ‘n Shake in Normal that looks even more retro than the retro restaurants they are building now. We could see how they were trying to retain, in the present, a suggestion of the past. Then, there were car hops, too, and marquee lighting with signs that swooped and curved into streamlined decorations on the roof. It was all very modern for its time, and now, in the pictures it looked like the past’s idea of the future. And here we were in that future looking back to a past that, for us, never was. Turns out that “In Sight It Must Be Right” meant something specific back then. We could see, if we were customers then, the cooks grind the steaks into ground meat right before our eyes. The fine cuts of meat being turned into the ropey cables of meat as the cooks in immaculate white aprons turned the old-fashioned cranks of the machines. We guess, back then, people didn’t trust what went into things like that, and that eating out, then, was more of an adventure. So we wanted to see for ourselves, the past, go back in time, we thought, to see the real past in Normal instead of what was left of the past today in Indianapolis. Turns out we were too late. By the time we got there—driving through the farmlands of Indiana, Illinois, the fields dotted with cattle gazing on the green grass of the gently rolling pastures passing by—the original Steak ‘n Shake had been demolished, or was in the process of being demolished, the yellow bulldozers still moving the ruins around into neat piles of rubble. We parked the car and watched them tidy up. We mixed into the crowd of onlookers watching. The setting sun, shining through the arch of water being sprayed on the debris to keep the dust in check, created a miniature diminished rainbow over what we had come looking for.