This is another excerpt from I Want to be an Awesome Robot , and shows off the less wacky but still not quite true aspect of the book. It’s a sort of elegiac tribute to a shopping center near where I live. I took the pictures myself.
“The Plant” is a shopping center near where I live, a soulless conglomeration of chain stores. The name comes from how the space used to be a General Electric plant, though the one building left over from the GE days now contains an Edible Arrangements, because that’s apparently how the world works these days. There is more than one Edible Arrangements store in my city, and for that matter in the universe, and no one seems to know why.
The heart of the Plant is a row of big chain stores. Target, OfficeMax, Toys ‘R Us (with a Babies ‘R Us), and Home Depot, plus PetSmart and Best Buy forming the short part of an L-shape of capitalism. When it first opened the only restaurant was Rubio’s Mexican Grill, a step up from Taco Bell, a step down from real Mexican food. When it first opened, there always seemed to be men in polo shirts looking at blueprints. Once I asked one what he was doing. “This is the new shape of the world,” he replied. It was true. There was the Market Center and a hundred others, shopping centers in orange and yellow, all across America, striving for the same set of chain stores like fevered poker players.
“Just kidding,” he added sheepishly. “We’re doing the electrical work for the new Radio Shack they’re putting in.”
His words pulled me all the way back to 1997, to my first job, to wearing a tie and a magnetic nametag. I remember a tiny strip mall, also home to a Petco and an Armadillo Willy’s. I don’t want the Tandy Corporation in my little sanctuary, with its Optimus-brand electronics, its extended service plans, its creepy district manager and worrisome customers. I don’t want to think about my younger, more foolish self.
At the Target they are selling comfortable cotton boxer shorts for $5.99. I buy two pairs, along with the shaving gel and deodorant I came for. On the way out I avoid eye contact with the man asking for donations for the homeless. Not that I have any cash. When I have the energy, I venture to Best Buy, to the furthest reaches of the Plant. In the New Releases they have The Human Centipede on DVD and Blu-Ray. It is not so strange that such a thing exists, but I feel there is something wrong at the heart of the world that they have it at Best Buy rather than some sketchy German website that charges in Euros.
Some lament local flavor giving way to corporate uniformity. I don’t applaud the fall of mom and pop businesses, but there are times when I need to decompress. There are times when I need a space that is empty of personality so I can air out my psyche without the stench of other minds intruding. Sometimes I need a place without a soul, because when I don’t want to deal with people, I also don’t want to deal with the personality of a place. And so I would go to Chevys.
I first discovered Chevys while I was going to San Francisco State University, as it was part of the Stonestown mall nearby. There is real Mexican food, and then there’s Chevys. There are a dozen or so places I can go to get real Mexican food in my neighborhood, places where a taco is a pile of marinated meat with some onions and cilantro a soft tortilla about 3-4 inches across and they have Tapatío hot sauce with the guy in a sombrero on the label and Jarritos fruit soda with real cane sugar. Chevys is commercialized Tex-Mex, and along with El Torito, Acapulco Mexican Restaurant and Cantina, and a few others, it belongs to Real Mex Restaurants, Inc. The interior is in muted colors, yellow-orange, green, and red, with nearly identical vaguely Mexican decorations at each location. When you sit down they bring you chips and salsa, and the chips are warm, greasy, salty, and perfectly crispy. I usually order the crispy chicken flautas meal, which gets you four tubes of flaky crust with chicken and cheese inside, with a mango-chipotle dipping sauce that tastes closer to Chinese sweet and sour sauce than anything you’d find in a Mexican restaurant. There’s also a scoop of some sweet corn stuff that I don’t know what it’s called. Rebecca at work loves it so much she asks for an extra scoop. On Sundays they have scoops of deep-fried ice cream for $1.
When I go on weekdays the waiter is a man with curly black hair parted in the middle. He’s always friendly, and when he brings the check he jokingly says, “And here’s the bad news, sir.” Occasionally I went there with friends, but most of the time I was by myself, often listening to a podcast or audiobook on my iPod.
One day Chevys was gone. The building still stood, next to the spot someone calls the “Town Square” on the map, but every bit of Chevys signage was gone, carried off in the night. There is only the dirty ghost of the old red sign, and it’s surprising how easily its façade of faux-Mexican décor could vanish, leaving a generic restaurant space.
“It’s gone my friend,” said the former waiter. “Never coming back.” I didn’t need to ask what came next for him. There was an Applebees job application in his hand. Even a place like this can change. The buffet restaurant closed too, while a Tapioca Express and Krispy Kreme sprang up.
I had Hawaiian BBQ instead that day. On the way there I passed by the Edible Arrangements. A plump woman with glasses with thick, black rims stood outside, a skewer of flower-shaped honeydew melon and pineapple in one hand, and watched me go. I hurried past her, past the Radio Shack and Panda Express, to the bus that would take me home.