An Ode to the Stomping Ground

Pre-cell phone. Pre-car. Pre-pubescent.

July 8, 2015 ● 3 min read

We should probably preface this with an apology, and maybe a slow clap, for anyone who worked the counters of these establishments. I’m sure the three o’clock hour was a dreaded one.

Maybe it's because nice weather fills us with a tremendously adult sense of tristesse. So chained to our work, left to recall the more carefree days of our youth on a fuzzy VHS braintape, it's only natural to miss the bejesus out of the after-school stomping ground, right? 

The very idea of such a location is inextricably linked to those in-between hours of life that dissolve when you're not looking, and more often than not, they were centered around food. Sometimes they were 7-11 parking lots, other times they were Dairy Queens or Del Tacos. They were always cheap, always close, and always pathologically immune to the antics of the young. Most importantly, in the off-the-grid era, you were untethered. No cell phones for parents to GPS track or constantly text, no car to ferry you away to anything more exotic—just a free-floating space where you could buy the cheapest thing on the menu and park it for a few blissful hours until you could snag a ride or walk home in time for dinner.

Everyone had this spot. If you were basically the opposite of a hell-raiser (lookin’ at you, 13-year old me), those precious hours were spent three possible ways. One, you and a few other kids were hovered, like a gaggle of whacked-out pigeons, over a box of KFC potato wedges on the sidewalk outside the school. Two, you were lightly carousing around in the lobby of the downtown library, or three, you were at El Patio.

Ellll Paaaatio. Man alive! Even now, ensconced in the white-person taqueria paradise that is San Francisco, it’s unbeatable, visions of achingly fresh pico de gallo and ill-advised jean shorts dancing before my eyes. As it was the best of the three options, you couldn’t afford to splurge on it every day. You would wait, just until your allowance cleared, so you could clutch a five in your sweaty little palm and trade it for a mountain of God’s nachos with unlimited guac. I realize now it was a pretty typical taqueria for my little town in Northern California—it just happened to be fifteen seconds from the back gate of the school. There were big plastic drink bubblers in one corner; one tank always stocked with lemonade, the other with icy horchata. Chips were plentiful and paper thin. Salsa would start in those flimsy little plastic souffle cups and usually wind up spattered across the red-and-green picnic tables outside. The slats of those tables, all woodgrain masked by thick layers of paint, would go all tacky in the sun and stick to your legs, like they hadn’t been finished quite right. No one ever sat inside at one of the off-white formica tables if they could help it, though. Outside was Cool.

There we were, freshly-teenaged, homework forgotten at our feet, cramming our usual shared order of Super Nachos gleefully into our faces without a care in the world. The bottom layer of beans and cheese and soggy chips, normally a woebegone victim of poor nacho technique, was in this case, crisped by the sun, giving it a dreamy twice-baked character. It was a perfect nacho storm! I want to reach back in time, grab onto the straps of my standard-issue purple JanSport, and give it a good shake out of pure jealousy.

In the summertime, tiny corner-store Pacific Market—nestled in the quiet center of the neighborhood, where the only sounds were lawnmowers and the rattling wave of oak trees in the wind—was king. We’d tromp in, smears of grease on our calves from errant bike chains, and stock up on pear soda and packets of Nerds, potato salad from the deli, and big slices of watermelon draped with sticky sheets of Saran Wrap. We were shameless—I know this because once, after accepting a bet that I couldn't fit an entire double-box of Nerds in my mouth, got very close and then spit them all out after a friend made me laugh too hard. A shower of slimy purple-and-pink sugar pebbles coated the ground. What an asshole, yes, but what a phenomenal afternoon. 

Every block of wide-open hours, punctuated by ebullient shrieks and loud rounds of whatever 13-year olds talk about, was centered around food. Every single one. It's not surprising, given the various food-as-community, food-as-life edicts we're taught, but if you had asked any of us, the food was just there so we could all be in one place. It never appeared in any of the blurred snapshots we took with our bulky plastic Canons. It wasn't fetishized or drooled over (except for those Nerds). We just bought what we liked and ate it. 

Maybe that's what holds such sentimental appeal now. More than the luxury of a few uninterrupted hours roaming your terrain like wee bandits, it's the complete lack of impulse to record stand-out meals. The pressure—do you get the bird's eye shot, or are you going to resist the urge?—did not exist in those moments. Now, I think about, talk about, and write about food on a constant basis. It's a rare moment for food to be both invisible and integral the way it was on those afternoons, from 3-5 pm. 

Let's rewind the tape again, shall we? 

By Cassandra Landry.