Notes From the Lawn

Plain Air Dining

Americans love their cars—as chariots, mobile offices, and teenage make-out spots. But when did they become dining tables?

I hate parking lots. I hate their pervasiveness; I hate how, in this driver-friendly era, we’ve forgotten to relegate them behind buildings. I hate the flat, empty space they create. Recently we’ve begun landscaping them, as if we know it’s bad to cover so much ground with cement for our cars. To make amends, we build little green islands in the hard, gray seas, then anchor our cars next to them. It reminds me of the way farmers leave a wild copse in the middle of a field as a wildlife refuge. Only, in the case of the parking lot, it seems we’re both the farmer and the rabbit running from the fox. Have you noticed? The first spaces to be taken are always the ones in the shade.

The other day I went out to lunch. I decided to try a new restaurant in town, the curious construction of which I’d been watching for a number of weeks. “Chipotle Is Coming” a huge banner declared at Barracks, a local strip mall, and for its arrival an island was built in the middle of the parking lot. The island was the shape of a trapezoid with a triangle appended to one end. The restaurant was built on the trapezoid, the triangle served as an outdoor seating area. (Hard to call it a patio, but I suppose that’s what it is.) Silver fencing trimmed in red complemented the red canvas umbrellas and red plastic baskets in which the food was served. There were lights every few feet, presumably for evening dining, but it was even harder to imagine the appeal of eating in the crisscross of headlights from cars trolling for parking. With the umbrellas and the baskets and the little dock lights, the experience was reminiscent of waterside dining at the kind of place where clam strips would be on the menu year-round. But Chipotle is a burrito place. No seafood. And there were no water views, although on a hot day I imagine the air rising from the heated pavement will be comparably hazy. Perhaps cement is the new surf.

I’d never before seen a woman eat an imprint of her own lips with each bite.I ordered a chicken burrito. I wanted a beer, but they didn’t have a liquor license, so I ordered a bottle of water, some of which I poured into a sippy cup for my five-month-old. We ate outside, where speakers mounted high under the restaurant’s eaves treated us to an eclectic musical revue: Bonnie Raitt, Norah Jones, then a depressing classical interlude with violin and cello.

The woman to my left read while she ate her burrito, her dark red lipstick marking the white tortilla. Lipstick is always devoured when you eat, the lips growing ever more dim and dry, but usually the process is more mysterious. I’d never before seen a woman eat an imprint of her own lips with each bite.

On my right another woman, talking to a friend, questioned the fate of a rival burrito place in town, Zazus. I have always pronounced it “ZA-zoos,” but I noticed she said “za-ZEUS.” I don’t know who’s right. She was also drinking soda out of a plastic cup the shape and very nearly the size of the Rotunda, Thomas Jefferson’s original library for the University of Virginia, just down the road from where we were sitting.

Elsewhere there were several tables of officers from the JAG school, about half-a-dozen Hispanic construction workers saying silent grace over their red baskets, a number of college students with backpacks, and a gaggle of mothers with small children picking up dropped sippy cups, wiping them off, and handing them back to their offspring, a maneuver that is in itself a kind of prayer. Everyone seemed pleased to be eating in the new restaurant.

Have we lost our minds? We were eating in the middle of a parking lot! The car culture is killing us—obesity at home, oil wars abroad—and yet we were eating our midday meal surrounded by steel. The view from my table was straight out to a row of SUVs that looked like the back of a citizen militia; one of them, I’m sure, contained a cup holder large enough for my neighbor’s Rotunda. Beyond that, on a slight rise, was a McDonald’s, this particular one having distinguished itself in the months after 9/11 by hoisting so many American flags from its roof that, standing anywhere in the vicinity with your eyes closed, you could believe from the din of flapping lanyards you were at a marina. Behind us, over perhaps another quarter-mile of cars, was a Harris Teeter grocery store and a Bed, Bath & Beyond. And farther again, over rows and rows of cars, aisle after aisle—a parking lot designed, as so many of them are, to hold the crush of weekend and Christmas shoppers, leaving them largely empty the rest of the time—there were two banks, a Ben & Jerry’s, an optometrist’s, and a Boston Market. And these are just the businesses built on islands in the parking lot in front of the mall proper.

Actually, as American strip malls go, Barracks is lovely. It is landscaped well, with mature crape myrtles that bloom raspberry red in late summer, purple salvia, boxwood, arbor vitae. A long line of Southern magnolias edges the border between the road and the parking lot. Someone raises seasonal flags on the lampposts, probably with the goal of linking the changing light to our consumer appetites, but no matter. They’re pretty. I like the place best in the early morning, particularly after a rain. Then the paved ground has the feeling of a staging area, a park-and-prep zone for life taking place somewhere else. If you arrive really early, it feels a bit like parking for a large ferry you’ve just missed.

Time and again I have had the experience of driving into Barracks, parking, turning to gather my bag, and realizing that the car next to me is occupied. Someone is sitting there talking on a cell phone or eating a meal. I’ll get out to do my errands, come back, and sometimes the person will still be there, chatting or munching away. Sometimes the car seems not to have changed, but a different person is inside. As I circle around my car opening doors, putting away bags, loading children, I’ll eye the other car to make sure a crime hasn’t been committed. But it’s always the case that the old car has left, this is a new car, and I just hadn’t noticed the change in model. It’s hard to when the human behavior is identical. No man is an island, John Donne wrote, but he never saw a man eating in a car in a parking lot at a strip mall.

When I was halfway through my burrito, a car pulled up and parked very close to my table. It remained on the other side of the steel and red fence, of course, but this is the problem with a patio in a parking lot: the car was not three feet from my chair. I could have reached out and touched its bug-encrusted front grille. The front passenger jumped out, presumably to run in and get some food, the driver remained, car running. I put my burrito down, fussed over my baby a minute, draped a blanket over him—all gestures designed to suggest that I did not enjoy the prospect of finishing my lunch accompanied by the sound and fumes of her car. When I turned to see if my pantomime had been understood, the woman was talking on a cell phone, oblivious.

In suburban America, this is where I would fit in if I was going to fit in anywhere.You can’t replace the joy of sidewalk dining with a marooned triangle in a parking lot, and it’s silly to try. But while I was getting ready to leave, a song I like came on over the speakers: Belleville Rendez-Vous by Ben Charest. Maybe it was the effect of French suddenly being spoken in the vicinity, but I thought the atmosphere improved for a moment. I wanted to listen to the song, so I sipped the last of my water and pretended to search for something in my diaper bag. I needed to justify my delay in case people were waiting for my table. Ever since 5th grade, when I thought the Police were law enforcement, I’ve been self-conscious about revealing any popular music preference. To watch me, you would not have known I was enjoying the patio for the first time that day, but I was.

I looked up and counted the cars in the McDonald’s drive-thru: 15. I have never passed the place without seeing at least one car waiting to order. (Neither has my husband. We have a standing bet. The first person to see the drive-thru empty wins. We don’t know what.) It seemed to me then that if we want our cars and all the trappings of a vibrant pedestrian life, too, maybe the Chipotle triangle is the best compromise. I was complicit to a certain extent: I had arrived by car, parked next to the nearest tree I could find, carried my son into the restaurant in his car seat. (I even own a stroller designed to work with the car seat. This is called, irresistibly, a Snap-N-Go.) But if I was participating in the car culture, it reassured me to think that I had more in common with the people on the patio than the people queuing their cars for burgers. Short of selling the car and moving to a city, this was my place, these were my people. In suburban America, this is where I would fit in if I was going to fit in anywhere. And so, for a moment, I found myself feeling at home on that cement triangle posing as a floating eatery, outside an American franchise imitating a Mexican restaurant, near the town where Patrick Henry famously declared “Give me liberty or give me death.”

Just then a group came out with their red baskets. As they settled down to eat, one of them—a young man wearing a green Polo shirt and khaki pants—noticed the song I’d been enjoying, now nearly over. He raised his hand, shaped it into a gun, and pretended to shoot the speaker, his mouth making three quick noises that sounded like, “Douche, douche, douche.”


TMN Contributing Writer Jessica Francis Kane’s first novel, The Report (Graywolf Press, 2010) was shortlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Her story collection, This Close (Graywolf Press, 2013) was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Story Prize and was named a Best Book of the year by NPR. She lives in New York with her husband and their two children. More by Jessica Francis Kane