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How I Decided to Stop Worrying and Love the Drive-Through
Published on July 16, 2012 by guest author: Dan Schneider

Grilled or crispy? Ordinarily a question concerning a chicken sandwich would not strike fear into my heart. But a couple nights ago as I sat at the Wendy’s drive-through lane, I was faced with a circumstance I had not prepared for, had not rehearsed, that gave me no time to make a call to my wife (for whom the late night sandwich was destined). The Wendy’s guy’s voice squawking out of the scratchy speaker sounded as if he was in a hurry, though there was no one behind me.  And I felt the familiar moment of panic set in as I ordered “grilled,” and hoped this would be the right choice.

The whole experience took less than five minutes, but it reminded me just how much I dislike drive-throughs in almost every form. The one exception is the station at the bank where I can send deposits whooshing up pneumatic tubes, an experience at the same time so ultramodern and completely outdated it somehow doesn’t bother me. But for a long time fast food drive-through lines bothered me to the point that I would just go inside and watch as bags of food shuttled out the drive-through window while I stood waiting for my order, the lone indoor customer.

I still develop an almost nauseous tightness in my chest when I turn into the lane, pull up to the incomprehensible menu, talk into a faceless brown or yellow pole, and hope my order will be transmitted correctly. The feeling is only heightened when, inevitably, a car pulls behind me with a driver who I imagine has no trouble with drive-throughs. He probably gets his coffee from the Duncan Donuts drive-through every morning, I think to myself, and the tapping of his fingers on the wheel must mean he is growing more and more impatient with me as I try to find exactly where on the menu are printed the sides and kids meals.

I have reason to be nervous.  I have been scarred by not a few bad drive-through experiences. There are the small inconveniences: Only half the time do I get ranch or honey mustard sauce along with my order of (all white meat!) chicken tenders. And then there are the drive-through disasters. At a Taco Bell once I thought I heard confirmation of my Taco Salad and burrito order for my wife and son. But after waiting at the pickup window, I was handed bag after bag of Taco salads and charged upwards of fifty dollars. The woman with the headphones who took my order somehow heard 10 taco salads, and somehow I had failed to catch this on the screen that listed my order. I offered to pay the full amount for the mix-up to the manager who stuck his head out the window to see about the situation. I felt even worse when he said “no” and took back all the extra salads and only charged me for the one I thought I had ordered.

Then there was the late night at a KFC/Taco Bell in Albany when I realized the person two cars in front of me for some mysterious reason was never going to move forward, even though he’d been handed his to-go bags. After the drivers ahead of me started leaning on their horns, the guy blocking us finally got the picture and pulled over enough so that we could get our orders and squeeze through the driveway back onto the street.

But perhaps the wrong orders, mixed up bags, and anxiety attacks are not all the fault of a food-like-substance delivery system that turns its users into cogs in its automated machinery. Perhaps I am flawed in ways that fundamentally make my drive-through experience one of existential dread.

It is certainly my failure to be thorough that causes many of my drive-through troubles.  I assume that I will get the packets of ranch sauce that the disembodied voice asked me about along with my order. I believe I needn’t open the bags to check for them and for the packets of ketchup. I forget that at Duncan Donuts a cup of coffee automatically has cream and sugar added and that I must tell them to make it black against their better judgment.

And it is certainly my failing that I am illiterate when it comes to reading drive-through menus with their easily numbered meals laid out in front of me in no particular order. (In the distant future archaeologists will interpret these menu boards as hieroglyphic maps giving directions on how to ascend to the realm of the 20th century gods!)

Having children, though, changes one’s habits. I wouldn’t say we get fast food more than once a month, but every now and then our oldest son will get a happy meal as a treat, or Jenny or I will develop a craving for a Frostie or cheeseburger. Then I confront the drive-through, since it’s just easier to get the kids to wait patiently when they are immobilized in their car seats.

And coming to terms with my failure as a drive-through patron has had its benefits. I accept the fact that I will make potentially catastrophic mistakes in a process that should be completely simple. I have given up ever trying to read the menus, since I have realized that at the drive-through you are already supposed to know what you want.

Lately, I’ve even caught myself thinking that the people in the SUVs that tower above my car probably don’t actually know how difficult I find it to make it through the drive-through line. As I reach for the yellow bags of food from the hands that extend out to me, I pretend that when I grasp them and pull away this experience is as unremarkable and normal for me as for anybody else.

Dan Schneider is a former high school English teacher who lives and writes outside of the Rochester, N.Y., area.

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User Comments
Tatiana Zarnowski | July 22, 2012 21:41

Wow, that's my experience too -- waiting inside as cars flow through the drive-through outside, fearing the machines and waiting in trepidation for my order. It always seems like the tinny voice coming through the microphone repeating my order back is speaking some alien language, which increases my anxiety. And nearsightedness makes reading those darn menus even more difficult!

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