Fast Friends?

The complicated experience of living next to a Wendy's.

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I imagine that one of the most universal but least discussed rites
of passage is the discovery that the house you grew up in has a very
distinct smell, and that it wasn’t just everyone else’s house that
smelled peculiar. Recognized only on return from your first long time
away, this is typically not the romantic smell of baking pies or pipe
tobacco, but neither is it anything foul, like a backed-up septic tank
or mildew. It’s instead something that defies description, a complex
olfactoral web that is unique to the group living under one roof. Like
snowflakes, no two are ever alike.

It is for this reason that I never plan to start a family where I
currently reside. I live next to a Wendy’s fast food restaurant, and
the smell of my home is very describable: It’s the smell of Wendy’s
food cooking. The last thing I want is to have my future kids return
from college one day only to realize that their childhood home smells
like something called a Baconator.

Fast food restaurants like Wendy’s have become easy visual shorthand
for the homogeneity of American culture. Yet because they tend to sit on
large expanses of asphalt, few Americans actually live as close as I do
to one. This is probably for the better, because living next to a fast
food restaurant is a strange experience and, if the modern residential
landscape is any indication, people do not seem to want a home life
that they could describe as a strange experience.

I moved into my current apartment at a very particular moment in
Wendy’s history — two years after founder Dave Thomas’ death but less
than a year before a California woman would claim that she found a
finger in the restaurant’s chili. These were heady Wendy’s times, to
say the least. Before moving in, I had considered Wendy’s my favorite
fast food chain. Its ingredients always seemed the freshest and the
least fast-foody, and I found Dave Thomas very likable. (When I was
about 12, my parents laughed when I asked them if they thought Thomas
visited every Wendy’s franchise. I still don’t think it’s such an odd
question — I would if I were him.)

It didn’t take long, however, before the idea of eating Wendy’s
became difficult to stomach. It wasn’t the food — that hadn’t changed
at all. It was, instead, the smell of the food, and how its fried-ness
could creep into my apartment at any hour of the day. Unlike the only
other Wendy’s in downtown Philadelphia, the one next to my apartment
isn’t on the ground floor of a larger building. Instead, whatever
structure had previously been on the site was torn down and a one-story
Wendy’s was built in its place, almost as if one had been airlifted
from the suburbs and tucked snuggly into the tiny space between older,
traditional Philadelphia buildings of first-floor businesses with two
or three apartments above. The distance between the Wendy’s kitchen
vents and the back of my third-floor apartment next door, then, is very
short.

There is, to be sure, lemonade to be made of living next to Wendy’s.
Because this one was built in the classic Wendy’s architectural style,
and not in any way that acknowledged its dense urban surroundings, it
has one of those greenhouse-like dining rooms with windows that look
out over two streets. I’ve always found the Wendy’s solarium to be a
nice touch for diners, but, against a sidewalk, it means that
pedestrians have the pleasure of an up-close look at what people are
eating. I like seeing what people eat. I also get to see how people
treat a space like a Wendy’s dining room, which can be equally
interesting. Some will sit there for a while after eating, reading or
doing crossword puzzles below plastic ivy in hanging baskets. I’ve seen
some who sit there for hours and just stare out the window. A lot of
these people are recurring characters in the Wendy’s tableau.

At the same time, there are a bunch of bars in the area, plus a
methadone clinic down the street, so sometimes you get more than the
crossword-puzzle crowd. It’s not uncommon for people to use the small
alcove on the building’s side as a bathroom. Last week I saw a guy
passed out in the solarium, his face held up by a small Frosty cup.
Sleeping at this Wendy’s is, in fact, neither rare nor (judging from
the amount of people who do) discouraged.

That there’s only a tiny undrivable alley behind Wendy’s and my
apartment presents additional problems. This means that trash trucks
can’t collect from the rear, so the restaurant must store its garbage
in a room that opens to the street. When it’s time to clean that room,
the dirty water runs all over the sidewalk. This leaves behind a greasy
film, a slippery layer of fat that makes you wish you were walking
through the urine instead. And about once a week, not too long after
the restaurant’s 1 a.m. close, a loud tractor trailer parks on one
street, lowers a metal ramp down into the store, and a delivery man
unloads cases of hamburger meat, French fries, and chicken nuggets. If
you’re asleep, you wake up; if you’re trying to get home to sleep, you
have to climb over a metal ramp.

For four years, nothing but the menu changed at this Wendy’s. Then,
a few months ago, they installed a game called Stacker on the wall next
to the condiment counter. In Stacker, a square slides across a row on a
video screen until you stop it by hitting a button, at which point a
new square will start sliding across the next row. Successfully sack
the squares and you can win anything from fake teeth to an iPod. I’ve
never seen Stacker in a fast food restaurant before, and I’ve yet to
see anyone in Wendy’s play it. Random, right?

And yet… For all the nuisance its brings to the neighborhood, for
its effrontery to smart urban design, for all its weirdness and
smells, the Wendy’s works in some strange way. Maybe it’s the nature of
living in a city, where relationships are as complex, as give and take,
as any family’s. Sure there are people who pee on the side of the
Wendy’s, but some people have pets who pee on their furniture, and that
actually seems worse. Wendy’s does leave the sidewalk greasy, but other
people have neighbors that they can only speak to through Dr. Phil. At
the Border’s around the corner from me, employees wake you if they find
you asleep in one of those oversized chairs tucked into bends in
bookshelves (I know this first-hand), but nobody will wake you up at
Wendy’s. And on rare occasions, say once a year, I’ve found that a
soft-boiled egg broken over a Wendy’s baked potato makes for an OK
dinner when the refrigerator is empty.

At the end of the day, I guess it’s better than living in one of
those weird ghost towns of foreclosured McMansions. You can’t win an
iPod there. • 10 December 2008

Jesse Smith is a writer based in Philadelphia.
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