Chick’s Drive In was a hot dog, hamburger, and fried seafood restaurant on the beach in my hometown. It was not, in fact, a drive-in restaurant, at least it wasn’t when I started working there in the late 1980’s. I was 16, and if you don’t count delivering papers for a few years before that, it was the site of my first job.
I started working there in the summer before my senior year of high school. I arrived at 9:00 AM and spent the weekend mornings serving coffee to bikers who gathered there for coffee and conversation. The weekday mornings had me in the back room breading onion rings, fish fillets, shrimp, scallops, whole-bellied clams, clam strips, and the occasional soft-shelled crab.
Forever after that experience, I will never eat a whole-bellied clam. Not for a million dollars. (Okay, maybe for a million dollars.)
Once I got a little more time in at Chick’s I was able to operate the hot dog slicer.
Then I would take a quick break with the other workers. Counter staff, cooks, and the Italian ladies who ran the kitchen. I can’t remember their names but I can see them. One of them reminded me of an Ewok. She was the loud one. The other, silent and smiling, looked like she belonged on a marinara sauce jar label.
I spent the afternoons serving people at the counter. The high-tech system we had in place was to take someone’s order and then shout it back to the cooks in code. “Two up and an order!” That’s two hot dogs and an order of fries. Ketchup was served in Heinz packets that must have been purchased at a discount because one of our side jobs was to take a box of packets and separate them from each other and then wipe off the excess glue.
But it was.
My favorite thing to eat there was a cheeseburger with bacon. Jack the cook would melt the cheese on top of the bacon for me. I watched as he placed the crispy bacon on top of an almost-done cheeseburger on the grill, then carefully laid a slice of American cheese over the pile, then squirt some water from a bottle on to the grill and cover the whole thing with a pot lid. The cheese melted almost instantly.
That was how I learned how to quickly melt cheese over something I’m cooking.
One morning during a break, we were all lounging about outside on the cement benches and tables meant for guests. There weren’t any guests yet. People tended to mosey in around 11:00 and then there’d be a steady stream all day. Judy and the rest of the older group were talking about their weekend plans. She leaned over to me, her red curls hanging down and reflecting the sun, and asked in a low voice “Do you party?”
And that’s how I learned that that question means “Do you do drugs?”
I also learned how to mix a milkshake, not to wear white pants when my period was due, to always wear a helmet if I was a passenger on a motorcycle, and several Malaysian phrases, including “awak gila,” which means “you are crazy.”
Joe, the manager of the restaurant, was the owner’s son. He was funny and kind and older than I was but still young enough that I had a crush on him.
Chick’s Drive In was disgusting all the time. We were always cleaning the messes people left with their sandy feet, their snotty children, and their terrible table manners. There were fights in the parking lot and bad drivers almost running people over and intermittent mysterious smells.
But it was magical, and even though the prices climbed higher and higher as the years went by, I went back there from time to time out of nostalgia. I brought my kids and paid too much for hot dogs they’d never finish. I blinked and saw my big-haired Catholic school girl self behind the counter.
Two years ago the owner, Chick himself, passed away. One of his dying wishes was that without him, Chick’s Drive In would close and the land would go to the highest bidder. That person or company has not yet come forward.
Chick’s is closed forever. I can’t quite recreate that perfect bacon cheeseburger. My friend Joe has emerged as her true self, Jill.
Things have changed.