Sunday June 3rd
Venturing Forth: rain clouds gather in a darkening sky. I hop onto a Queen St. Streetcar and head Westbound (“Go West, Young Man”) over The Don River and into The City Proper, heading for Hero Burger. Near Queen & Sherbourne (which used to be an open-air Drug market: “Crackton... this stop, Crackton.” Then someone got killed and the cops got tough) a Coors commercial is being filmed in what was once a church. Silver Coors banners flutter above a bevy of blondes in untucked white shirts and plaid schoolgirl skirts. Standing on the steps surrounded by the blondes is a grinning man in a black robe. Having A Schoolgirl Orgy? Don’t Forget To Buy Plenty of Ice-Cold COORS! Directly across the street is Moss Park, a public housing complex: Muslim Children in hijabs are buying fresh produce at the Fruit & Vegetable Market set up on the Moss Park lawn.
The streetcar trundles on, music leaking from passengers’ ipods, past the bagpiper standing next to the World War One Memorial (“To Our Glorious Dead”) in front of Old City Hall, past the homeless guy dressed all in blue passed out on a grate in front of a Starbucks and a TD Bank... past University Avenue (the U.S. Consulate is right up the street) where young women in orange t-shirts are handing out Free Samples of something... candy? Cell phones? Then we’re cutting through the Queen Street West Hipster Retail scene: a beautiful Asian woman with purple hair walks past a shirtless panhandler begging in front of the Scotiabank at Queen and McCaul and I step off the streetcar into the rush of traffic and the smell of crepes.
I continue on my merry way, past the homeless guy (belligerent and twitching) at the corner of Queen and Spadina, a cross painted on his cardboard sign... past the mental patient begging for change in a doorway next to the CIBC and the scruffy tattooed Squeegee Kids lunging into traffic, past the abandoned blue shirt and smashed liquor bottles outside the McDonalds, past the chubby Chinese man poking the abandoned shirt with the tip of his umbrella... I walk along sidewalks stained black with grease and gum through the neighborhood in which I lived for five years, in a rooftop shack above a fabric store that looked out onto the public housing (Alexandria Park) directly across the alley.
Did Dallas have this many homeless people? As a kid in Dallas I didn’t get downtown that often. Now and then Mom would take me to the downtown library which I loved-- they had every single Peanuts (featuring Good Ol’ Charlie Brown) book ever released, or so it seemed-- but the library was also full of homeless folks sleeping or reading and reeking of piss.
I walk past my old apartment doorway (which also often reeked of piss: not so much homeless people as drunks staggering home from the bars) and head on to Hero Burgers. No, wait-- it’s Hero Certified Burgers. MEANWHILE, AT THE HALL OF HAMBURGERS, The Burger Certifier sits in red cape and spandex behind a massive cherrywood desk, holding aloft a mighty Rubber Stamp. “Behold! I shall certify One Thousand Burgers Before Twelve O’Clock! For I Am-- THE BURGER CERTIFIER!” Childhood memories of rifling through the discount bins at Lone Star Comics and Science Fiction, taking my Lawn Mowing Money (Five Bucks a Lawn) and buying comic books for twenty-five cents apiece: Ghost Rider, Spider Man, Fantastic Four, The Human Fly. Back at home, sitting by the fan with an ice-cold lemonade, diving into that sweet stack of secondhand comics, that musty attic smell of acidifying paper drifting up from the pages... aw, yeah.
Hero Burgers is looking a little secondhand itself. I hope I just caught them in a middle of a reno: the walls are chipped and the ceiling is covered with exposed Terry Gilliam-style Ductwork. The floor is dirty and so are the tables. Hey-- no one ever said this here Burger Quest would be a bed of roses. Carry on, O valiant one: march up to that counter and place your order.
Behind the counter is a pretty dark-haired gal with a Katie Holmes-meets-The Mediterranean look goin’ on and behind her I read the writing on the wall: “Great Taste takes time. Cooking time approximately 5 minutes. All burgers are 100% Angus Beef, free range and free of antibiotics, hormones and nitrates. All burgers are cooked medium-well.” Next to the triumphant burger rhetoric is a list of condiments available at No Charge:
Maple Chipolte BBQ Sauce
Creole Mustard Sauce
Roasted Red Pepper Sauce
Hero Certified Sauce (“Burger Certifier, no! You mustn’t hit Sauce Certifier Lad!” “Oh no? And why not?” “He’s-- your son!”)
Not a bad little list, really. But were the burgers of my youth coated with Maple Chipolte BBQ Sauce? That’s A Negatory, Good Buddy! So I order a Hero Burger (served with red onion and tomato) and add on those classic condiments of childhood: Ketchup and Mustard.
I let the cute countergirl upsell me to a combo (fries, root beer) and then I wait beneath the ducts, air conditioning humming, Hero Burgers signs all around me printed with big blocky black lettering like the posters of The Soviet Era. If I had grown up in Stalinist Russia or East Germany before the wall fell I’d be bathed in the gentle rays of sweet nostalgia but as it is I just sit hunched in this depressing industrial scene and wait for my burger.
It comes foil-wrapped on a red tray fast food style and I finally catch on: it IS fast food. Okay, I can roll with that-- let’s dig in.
THE FIRST BITE
Disappointment! The bun, spotted with sesame seeds and annoyingly crunchy poppy seeds, is chewy and so is the burger, which is also overcooked and too small. (What’s that old joke? “The food here is terrible!” “I know! And such small portions!”)
The burger has that odd Canadian burger taste that I’ve never been able to put my finger on... is it the seasoning? Different cuts of meat? Different cattle feed? Whatever it is, it’s Not Good.
The fries, on the other hand, are quite tasty. Hot and fresh and crisp... but then I dip them in Table Ketchup and the whole fries experience goes belly-up: the ketchup is wrong, all wrong, a red chemical soup that makes me wonder: can ketchup go bad?
I munch on, stomach churning, heart sinking as I ponder all the tasty, tasty restaraunts I walked past to get here: New York Subway, Ghandi Roti, King Shawarma... I’m a fool! A fool, I say!
This burger is truly terrible. Salty, way too salty with an aftertaste of meat scrapings burnt charcoal black. I contemplate the unthinkable: giving up. Throwing in the towel. Chuck this burger out and just walk away, searching for greener pastures. Will this happen, either today or later in The Quest? Will Toronto offer up a burger so foul, so incredibly inedible that I’ll have no choice but to heave it into the garbage and run screaming in terror?
If it happens, it ain’t happening today. I choke back the last bite (a total nonevent: one gulp and it’s gone) and stagger into the street.
POSTSCRIPT: After that postindustrial Mad Max Beyond Burgerdome nightmare I am craving Redemption. Hero Burger has sullied the reputation of good burgers everywhere and this injustice must not be allowed to stand. I contemplate Hal Burger, a few blocks away. A two-burger day... can I do it? I must. I must blot out this awful experience with a fresh tasty burger.
I walk south on Tecumseh and turn East onto Adelaide, past a faded Canadian flag in the window of a graffiti-strewn industrial building (“Airdate Traffic Service Limited”), and a church stained grimy by car fumes, past a guy wearing a Spider-man mask pushed up to the top of his head like a hat, past an advertisement for Mister Safety Shoes (“Guard your feet, Sauce Certifier Lad! Mister Safety Shoes is up to his old tricks!”) and a billboard for Bud Light: “We’re Talking 1970s Pimp Smooth.” Uh... I wonder if they’ll expand this campaign into television. “Fetch me a Bud Light before I choke you, Bitch!” Announcer Voice: “Beating Up Women and Forcing Them To Have Sex For Money is Smooth... Bud Light Smooth.”
Finally I see the Hal’s Sign: multicolored pastel dots like a Martha Stewart paint sample. Kitty-cornered from Hal’s is a Police Camera on a post, surveying the Entertainment District like the narc in my 9th grade gym class. Ain't’ misbehavin’, officers: just want a tasty burger, that’s all.
Hal’s is closed.
That’s it-- I’m going home.
Post-Post-Script: On the streetcar home I glance out the window and spot two homeless teenagers (one passed out on the sidewalk) and their dog. Propped up in front of them is a hand-lettered sign:
You and me both, brother. You and me both.