Archived Opinion

Drive-thru decision-making is maddening

Let me say this first. This is not really a column about restaurants. The last time I wrote a column about restaurants, I suggested that Pizza Hut bring those poor young ladies holding signs on the curb out of the blazing afternoon sun and let them work inside in air conditioning. Two days after that column appeared, we saw one of those same young ladies holding a sign that read, “Chris Cox, We Love Our Job!”

A couple of weeks after that, I stopped in on a Friday night to order a pepperoni and sausage, and when I handed my bank card to the cashier, she took a long look at it, as if it might give her the answer to a question she’d been long pondering if only she kept her eye on it for awhile.

“Are you the Chris Cox that writes for the paper?” she said, finally looking up at me with an expression that was half contempt and half bewilderment, family size.

“Yeah, that’s me,” I said, dreading what might come next.

“Huh,” she said, not as a question, but as a period to some sentence that she had decided to keep inside, probably something along the lines of, “What are you doing here, you pompous jerk?”

Never before have I kept such obsessive watch over the preparation of my pizza. I imagined her signaling in code to the cook, who would then reach for that “special sauce” canister they keep for those “certain customers,” sprinkling liberal portions all over our pie. Not on my watch, mister.

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Of course, the pizza was perfectly fine, although when I told my wife the story upon my arrival back at the house, she was too wigged out to take a single bite. You see, my wife is a “little funny” about food, which is, of course, a euphemism for “completely around the bend crazy.” And that brings us to today’s blue plate column special: Crazy Person At The Drive-Thru.

Maybe it’s just my own narrow-minded prejudice at work, but I have always operated on the assumption that ordering food in the drive thru at a fast food restaurant should be a fairly quick and simple task. Many of these chains have been kind enough to combine their most popular selections into helpful little “combos” that are brightly colored and even numbered for you. Really, all you need to do is choose a number, your preferred beverage, and whether you are feeling hungry enough to supersize. Moreover, if you have been to the restaurant before, you probably already have a really good idea of the options. A car-load of sea otters ought be able to place an order in less than a minute. Even a car-load of supermodels could figure it out.

Now I had better pause a second here to emphasize that my wife is not “limited” in intelligence. She’s just crazy, and there is a big difference. She is well aware of the menu, having committed it to memory long ago. Call her up and name a fast food chain and a number, and I would bet that she can reel off the answer for you lickety split. If there were a game show like this—and, please, don’t send this column to the networks; television is already plenty bad enough—I would put her on it immediately and spend part of next summer vacationing in Cozumel, or driving my new Hummer.

She is not just knowledgeable about such things, she’s some kind of genius, and we don’t even eat fast food very often. If we did, we would be in marriage counseling three days a week. Since I cannot really explain what she does in the drive thru, the only thing left to do is have you hop in the car with us and see for yourself. Oh, hi, you’re in the car now. Welcome. Sorry about the grape jelly stain on your seat. Kids, you know.

“OK, what will it be?”

This is the beginning of the madness. Choosing a restaurant. What possible difference can it make?

“Pick the closest one,” I say. “They all taste the same to me.”

“They are most assuredly not all the same,” she says. “What sounds good?”

“Poached salmon and garlic mashed potatoes!” I say. “Lamb chops and mint jelly!”

I get poked in the ribs with a number two pencil. Where did she get that?

Here we are at KFC, step one having been accomplished. There are four cars in front of us, so we have plenty of time to deliberate and make an informed decision before we get to the intercom. Of course, even if we had seven hours to deliberate, we would in no way be even remotely prepared to order when it is our turn at the microphone. I know this from years of experience, and so it is with a profound since of dread that I always approach the intercom.

“Welcome to KFC,” the voice crackles. “May I take your order?”

“Just one moment, please,” I say.

It’s a lie, a big lie, and I know it. I look at my wife, who has that familiar faraway look in her eye, as if she is trying to visualize the meal on the table at home, picturing the arrangement of the meat and the sides and the biscuits on the paper plates. She says nothing for a full minute.

OK, guys,” I say. “How about a 10 piece bucket and a couple of sides? How about baked beans maybe, or slaw?”

“Yeah, yeah,” the kids say, and somebody adds. “Macaroni and cheese, daddy!”

“Sound good to you, sweetie?” I say, hopefully. Behind us, a guy in a blue truck looks at his watch and taps a finger on the steering wheel, as if it were a cymbal. There are four other cars behind him.

“Do we really need a 10 piece?” she says. “Will Jack eat two pieces? I’m only eating two. Are you going to have a breast, or just eat dark meat?”

“I don’t care, baby. If there’s anything left over, we can snack on it tomorrow.”

“Whenever you’re ready,” the voice crackles again.

“Sorry, we’re almost ready,” I say, telling another lie.

The man behind us has turned off his engine and has reclined back in his seat, as if he is expecting a meteor shower to suddenly rain over the KFC. Now there are six cars behind him.

“Mama, I’m hungry,” a voice from the back asserts.

More time passes, each second big, pregnant.

“Ask her if we can have all the white meat extra crispy, and all the dark meat original recipe,” my wife says.

I lean out the window and start to ask this, and she grabs my arm, as if I were about to step in front of an oncoming train.

“No, wait a minute, honey. Ask her if she can substitute thighs for the wings.”

As usual, I am beginning to get confused. I am juggling requests in my head, trying to get straight the configuration of chicken in our bucket, which is crispy, which is original, which parts of the chicken are welcome, which are forbidden. Trust me, we’re just getting warmed up here.

“Tell her we need ten packs of honey,” she says. “If you don’t say a specific number, they won’t give us enough. Kayden, do you want slaw or baked beans?”

The man behind us is scaring me a little. He hasn’t moved in a few minutes, not at all, not even a twitch. Has he passed away? I see that there are seven cars behind him now, and no one else can turn into the KFC until we complete our order at the drive thru and move along.

Are you getting the picture now? Ready to get out of the car, aren’t you? Thought so. Me, I’m stuck here. But I have taken a couple of steps to deal with the situation a little more calmly. First, she drives. I make her switch with me the minute we get on line. Now, whatever happens—and however long it takes to happen—is between her and the crackly voice.

Second, I bring a novel. A Russian novel. By the time we get home with our bucket, I’ll be halfway through it.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Waynesville. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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