Saturday, February 27, 2010

Remembrance of Chimichangas Past


I barely gave it a second thought when Chi-Chi’s restaurant chain went out of business a few years ago. What can you do when the favorite restaurant of your adolescence causes an outbreak of Hepatitis A with its filthy, filthy scallions? Not a whole lot you can do, really. Shrug and be cynical. It’s not like the restaurant was so great in the first place. I hadn’t been there in years, and when we did manage to go it was typically done with irony. One more facet of innocent youth falls from grace like Milli Vanilli. And so it goes.

If it hadn’t been so crowded at Gorditos today, old Chi-Chi’s would probably still be the furthest thing from my mind. But as I was waiting in line, my eyes wandered behind the counter to a stack of taco salad shells on a shelf. I gave them a fond smirk. Remember when those were such a big deal? No? Well, I do. I remember being positively enchanted the first time I was served a salad in one of those things. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania in the 1970’s and 80’s, and such delicacies were not widely known about in our neck of the cornfield.


I first heard about Chi-Chi’s from the hairdressers at the salon where I got my perms. (Yes, yes, it was the 80’s. Shut up.) They were a fun-loving bunch of WTF-are-we-doing-being-single-in-Berks County, PA folks always in search of an adventure. Sometimes that quest took them to comparatively cosmopolitan Allentown, where Chi-Chi’s was a favorite hot spot. (You overhear a lot of conversations sitting around with that perm solution on your head.) So, my 15-year-old self was pretty excited to learn that our local strip mall was expanding into an adjacent field, adding a Chi-Chi’s of its own.

Mexican food! Our town didn’t even have a Taco Bell in those days, and our school cafeteria had only recently added “tacos” to its menu. This was a very big deal. Such a big deal, in fact, that our Spanish teacher arranged a field trip to Chi-Chi’s for all her honors classes. We were going to immerse ourselves in the rich, vibrant culture of authentic Mexican dining. Sort of.

I was absolutely charmed. The faux adobe exterior! Painted tiles on the tables! Non-alcoholic blender drinks that looked just like real blender drinks! Appetizers! In retrospect, Chi-Chi’s was to Mexican food what The Olive Garden is to Italian food. But at the time, when “nice restaurant” meant “steak house,” the menu seemed exotic and authentic. I was so naïve, I didn’t realize that the entrees were named after Mexican resort towns. I thought “Cancun” really was the Spanish name for seafood enchiladas. Oh dear.

I described every detail to my mom that afternoon with all the girlish enthusiasm of an 18th century epistolary novel. A few weeks later, she took my sisters and me to Chi-Chi’s to celebrate the last day of school. I remember feeling so sophisticated, all pastel-eyeshadowed up, sipping that Nada Colada.

And thus, a cultural bridge to adulthood of sorts was formed. Chi-Chi’s was our place; the fancy restaurant we kids had discovered for ourselves. That’s where we went for Big Serious Dates with our love interests or Big Serious Talks with our best friends; that’s where we went with a group of friends before a formal dance or after a day at the downtown library working on our term papers. We weren’t full-fledged adults yet, but we were trying it on.

By the time I was in college, Chi-Chi’s was already becoming a joke. Nevertheless, it was our favorite spot for our Sisters Nights Out when we were all back at our parents’ place for school breaks. We weren’t so wildly impressed with it anymore, but somehow it still carried an air of the old sophistication that blended nicely with nostalgia for a time when adulthood seemed shiny and carefree. I got a taste of the real “adult” Chi-Chi’s experience during that year I spent living with my parents between graduate school and Real Life, joining my fellow WTF-are-we-still-doing-in-Berks-County friends for happy hours.

I even had my bachelorette party at Chi-Chi’s. That’s right. It wasn’t one of those wild, swinging bachelorette parties you’ve seen on TV. It was the kind of bachelorette party you have when it’s one month after 9/11, you’re 32 and already own a house with the guy, just flew back to PA from Seattle to get married in the few vacation days you were able to scrape up, and spent the last two days running around getting your marriage certificate and finalizing wedding arrangements. In other words, it was something of an afterthought. But it was perfect. Between the last-minute wedding-planning madness and actually walking down the aisle, it was so wonderful to just sit in Chi-Chi’s – the place where, in many ways, I’d found my adult self – with my fiancé and the sisters who’d been there for me through thick and thin. Pass the chili con queso.


I’m pretty sure that’s the last time I ever went to Chi-Chi’s. I’d visit home as often as I could, but there were other restaurants now. My parents favored a fancy new Italian place where the waitresses couldn’t pronounce the dishes, but the tiramisu was incredible. Visiting Friendly’s became a bigger priority, as good Mexican food is plentiful in Seattle but classic ice cream sundaes are practically non-existent.

Two years after my bachelorette party came the Hepatitis A incident at a Pittsburgh-area Chi-Chi’s. It was horrifying, actually. Hundreds of people were sick. One man underwent a liver transplant. A few people died. I was anxiously pregnant with The Boy at the time and trying to avoid obsessing over news stories like that one, so I put it out of my mind as best I could. (Although I remember avoiding scallions with near-religious fervor.)

Just a few months ago, I drove past the old Chi-Chi’s while doing some last-minute Christmas shopping. I felt just the littlest bit sad to see the once-glorious faux adobe building standing empty like that . . . such a cultural epicenter in its day. Now the whole strip mall is bit of a ghost town, anchored by a gutted Circuit City and an Old Country Buffet. But it’s flanked by newer strip malls everywhere in the former cornfields, featuring the stores we used to travel to Allentown and even Philadelphia for – Borders, Pier 1 Imports, Old Navy.

On the one hand, it’s nice to see the comforts of suburbia in my old home town. I’m glad that my parents don’t have to lug themselves to the next county every time they want to visit a big bookstore or enjoy a Starbucks latte. But at the same time, there’s something very bittersweet about the loss of those fields and that one-time “fancy” Mexican restaurant. Just like the late teen years themselves, I don’t miss it. But I miss it. Hasta luego, old friend.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Chocolate-Covered Absurdity


In honor of Valentine's Day season, I've been posting some of my favorite dating mishap stories on Open Salon. Go on, check 'em out! Show your V-Day spirit by giving this blogger a little page-view love.

What We Did Before
In which a friend and I take a zany, sitcom-ish romp through the world of personal ads.

Older Guys: Still Just Not That Into You
In which I consider the benefits of dating an older guy . . . but what did he see in me?

All the Lonely People
It’s “Eleanor Rigby” meets When Harry Met Sally meets Punch Drunk Love. Sort of.

Monday, February 1, 2010



The balloon animal vendor captured my heart. Maybe it was just one of those days when you’re ripe for unconventional inspiration. Or comfort.

That’s why I went to The Gallery in the first place that day. My mom used to take us there when we were kids. The glamorous downtown Philadelphia mall had seen better days, or maybe I’d just been too easily dazzled as a kid. But it still made for a nice little nostalgic lunch break for my slightly-jaded twentysomething self – disappearing into a crowd; sipping my old favorite Hӓagen-Dazs peanut butter vanilla milkshake; and admiring the tall, twinkly-eyed, auburn-bearded balloon animal vendor.

He seemed like the personification of everything that was right about the world. There he was, smiling and calm, making people happy while all the lunch-break suits and class-cutting teens streamed by him in a preoccupied haze. Maybe someone had slipped something in my milkshake. Or maybe I was just so bored, or lonely, or dreading going back to work that I just had to act impulsively. I’m not sure how it happened. One minute I was smiling at him from my bench; the next minute I was at his side.

“Do you like your job?” I asked. His smile was warm and genuine, not at all bothered by the crazy lady asking him personal questions while he was trying to work. And he liked his job quite a lot, it turned out. Until recently, he explained, he’d been a social worker. But it was heartbreaking work; he was completely burned out. He used to make balloon animals around the office as a way to deal with the stress, so he decided to start a business doing just that.

I was captivated. It was like a romantic version of Douglas Coupland’s Generation X “McJobs.” Here was a guy with a heart, and he knew how to follow it. He was older than me, but what did age matter when Monica was dating Tom Selleck on “Friends”? It was also sweetly reminiscent of Party Girl – when Parker Posey’s character falls in love with the falafel guy. I said goodbye to Balloon Guy and went back to work with an extra spring in my step.

For days I walked around with the delightful prospect of him in my heart, figuring we’d meet again. Everything had an extra note of joy to it. Then I realized I was going to have to do something about it. He knew my first name, but had no idea where to find me (if he wanted to at all, of course). Could I do it? Could I go back to his balloon kiosk at The Gallery and breezily ask him out for coffee?

Well, I would try. It was only a few blocks from my office, not much of a detour on my walk home. Just stop by after work, chat, and ask him out. I’d already struck up a conversation with him out of the blue. How hard could it be to take the next step?

Damn near impossible, it turned out. His kiosk was all the way at the west end of the basement level, right across from the Market East SEPTA station. I stood at the opposite end of the mall, lurking in the doorway of a store, camouflaged by a steady stream of shoppers. I could see him in the distance, taller than I’d remembered. And busy. I kept telling myself I’d head down there after the next wave of commuters poured out of the station. But I was positively frozen. What was I going to say? Would he even remember me? Just how lonely and desperate and pathetic was I, anyway? After a few false starts I gave up and went home, feeling just the littlest bit heartbroken.

A few days later, I regained my nerve and went back to try again. I took slow, deep breaths and walked purposefully toward his kiosk, forcing myself not to think about it too much until we were face to face. Step, step. Breathe, breathe. I came to the end of the row of kiosks, right where his should be. But it was gone. Gone.

No! Maybe he’d relocated to another part of the mall. I walked every floor, end to end. I had no idea the damn Gallery was so expansive. Turns out it went all the way to Strawbridge’s. Who knew? And, more to the point, where was my Balloon Guy? Nowhere, that’s where.

If I hadn’t come so close to asking him out a few days earlier, maybe it would have been easier to let it go. But at the time, it seemed to me there was a “carpe diem” lesson in there somewhere. He had been right there, but I was too overcome with shyness and self-doubt to speak to him. And now he was gone. I guess I’ve got to find him, I resolved.

I called the mall office from work, putting on my best approximation of a yuppie mom voice (which, ironically, I never use now that I actually am a yuppie mom), affecting the confidence and the “surely you’re going to help me” attitude that I hoped would cover my paper-thin excuse for calling. I pretended I wanted to hire him for a child’s birthday party, but all I had was his first name and a vague recollection of his kiosk’s location. It worked. They found his business card and gave me his number. Before I lost my nerve, I called him right up and left a message.

For our first date, we met at my “safe coffee house” – right around the corner from my apartment building, where it was easy to make a hasty retreat if things took a turn for the weird. No need for that this time. In fact, it was easily one of the best first dates I’ve ever had. No awkwardness, no “what was I thinking!” moments; just a happy, easy flow of good conversation. We could not stop smiling at each other. All I wanted was to crawl across the table into his lap, but I’d seen Sense and Sensibility recently and was going for a more Austenesque/ joie-de-repartee restraint. Instead, I went home, put on some music, and danced around my apartment like a bad chick movie.

Our second date was even better. Well, at least it started out that way. Joyful conversation, joyful food, joyful margaritas. We cuddled a little before the movie started, chatting happily. I remember right before the lights dimmed we were talking about The Producers. He told me how he’d seen Dick Shawn live, and how brilliant he was.

The movie was Othello – which, in retrospect, may not have been the best choice for a date movie. Yes, it scores points for being a lush, star-studded film version of a Shakespeare play. And yes, it was playing at the art cinema, which was practically a requirement for First Movie Dates of the 1990’s. But it was still Othello, with all its blinding bitter jealously, vicious manipulation, murder, and whatnot. When Harry Met Sally, it ain’t.

I could never be sure if it was the film’s subject matter that clouded his mood that night. Had he experienced that level of jealously himself? Or that level of manipulation? Or loss? It could just as easily have been my own chattiness about the film, and Shakespeare in general, as we walked home. Maybe the “too smart” thing alienated him. Or, just as likely, maybe my Shakespeare prattle came across as callow and naïve, illustrating our age difference in a way that hadn’t fully occurred to him until then. Or maybe he’d seen an ex-girlfriend at the theater on a date. Who could say?

But whatever the reason, something shifted significantly with him that night. He gave me a short, bearded kiss goodnight and tapped my arm playfully. But we never recovered our initial joy of each other after that.

There wasn’t a phone call for a while, which made me feel a little panicky, sad, and resentful. Valentine’s Day came and went. Eventually, I went back to The Gallery and found him at his kiosk, where I hung around like a high school girlfriend trying to chat and be breezy. I couldn’t help it. When I really like somebody, it’s puppy time! So much for Jane Austen. He made me a balloon flower – a belated Valentine’s Day gift. Sigh…

There were a few strained dates after that, and then nothing. In the end, I had to resign myself to the old familiar “maybe he’s not that into me / maybe I’m not that into him; I just want to be into somebody” refrain of the single smart girl. I was sad, of course. But it wasn’t the end of the world. It’s so easy to blame ourselves, but the fact is, dating is hard. People come with so much baggage, it’s rarely anybody’s fault when things don’t work out.

I suppose I could regard him as a “the one that got away” of sorts. But I doubt he was really “the one.” I loved the initial spark, but I barely knew the man himself. Ignorance is bliss, and sometimes an abrupt ending can be a blessing in disguise. Our brief encounter had all the joy and longevity of a balloon itself. Nothing wrong with that.
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