Saturday we went over to my folks’ house near Issaquah. After spending a long, pleasant and fairly lazy afternoon hanging out with Gramma and Pop Pop, we hit the road home and realized we were all hungry for dinner. We thought of trying to make it across to our side of the lake, where we are familiar and comfortable with our “options” (my euphemism for fastish food), but then the inspiration struck me to check out the XXX Root Beer drive-in off of Issaquah’s Front Street.
XXX Root Beer has been there forever. I used to see its huge, unmistakable sign from the freeway every time I drove past on the way to or from my home in Snoqualmie, and for a while I lived in Issaquah just a few blocks away. Yet I had never patronized this local stalwart.
Angela expressed minimal enthusiasm — after all, there is a Burgermaster in our own neighborhood if we wanted a quick burger gutbomb — and asked me what exactly I knew about this place, which was her way of asking me how much of my enthusiasm was based on a romantic idea in my head. I knew nothing about it as fact, but my assumption was that it was a greasy burger joint of the old A&W and Burgermaster variety, and my gut feelings about it were that, as a rare representative of pre-corporatized roadside eats, it would be a) a wonderful place and b) gone soon. In fact, I wasn’t even sure we weren’t too late; establishments old, unusual or independently owned have been disappearing right and left.
Not to worry. The massive barrel-shaped sign with XXX Root Beer Restaurant written on it, which before certain trees grew up could be seen for many blocks in any direction, soon hove up before us, and the place was hopping. Couples, families, coveys of high school homecoming coronees and sports teams spilled over in the booths, at the to-go counter, and at the tables outside.
I was a little taken aback. I’d expected a place just barely hanging on, maybe just a little too quiet, the pall of imminent closure lending a depressing stillness. On the contrary, it turns out that this is where the party is. Entering, you are deafened by the din of dinnertime revelry and blinded by the sheer intensity of light and color and chrome. License plates, side-view mirrors and other car parts adorn the walls and ceilings, interspersed with pictures of old cars, pictures of people attempting to eat the “amazing” Triple XXX (sic) Burger, and framed photos signed by automotive celebrities. A bubble-edged jukebox actually takes money and plays old Top-40 hits. Apparently, the fact that this is the last genuine historical XXX Root Beer Restaurant makes it THE spot for weekend classic car rallies. There’s a schedule of vintage and specialty car shows that goes on all summer long.
We loved it. We had burgers — the Elvis Blue Hawaii (chicken) for Angela, the ’49 Woody for me and the Matchbox for Mara — fries, and a giant frosted mug of XXX Root Beer, which our server Matt informed us has been the same special recipe since 1930. It was delicious. While we supped, at least three birthdays were loudly celebrated; honorees were made to wear oversized sun-glasses and a pointed cap, then given a sundae with a candle on it, which they held in front of them while we all shouted a version of the birthday song at them at top volume.
I was glad we experienced it, especially since it often goes that you wait so long to check out a place like this that when you finally get around to it there’s a hole in the ground or a spanking new set of condos. But here’s where I get reflective. I’m a vocal grumbler about what our dependence on and idolatrous devotion to the automobile has done to every aspect of our culture — the deterioration of neighborhoods and the social bonds internal thereto, the ruin of town centers, the creation of wastelands of parking acreage in front of shopping centers that are hostile to bipeds, the desolation of sidewalk life, the scattering of families, the wreck of urban architecture, the isolation of people from one another. Yea, verily, I say the automobile has come to be a blight on the earth.
And yet… there’s this perceived golden age of America, in which cars take the starring role, that even I cannot resist believing in, perpetuating, celebrating, and taking some bizarre comfort in. I was thrilled that XXX Root Beer was still there and that we got to experience it.
Of course it’s partially a myth, in that it was only valid for a certain segment of the population, and only in America, and even then the image of happy middle-class people cruising around idly burning up fossil fuels and then breezing up and cheerfully dining, say, from a tray affixed to their whimsically designed autos with “cruiser ventiports” and rocket fins doesn’t address the realities of those decades, such as the appalling destruction many countries had to deal with after World War II, later the chilling menace of the Cold War, or any of the grim political and social developments around the world in between those conflicts. In fact, the myth possibly had greater strength and appeal precisely because of the dark horrors vignetting its edges.
But for all that, the myth has an allure even for myso-vehicular curmudgeons like me. I really can’t say why, but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that the truth about ourselves, our culture, and our habits is often just too troubling to look at for long. A medusa’s head. Plus, there have been genuinely good aspects of the American automobile story. At one time there was a lot of craftsmanship in carmaking at the manufacturing level. And as for the family level, I have a lot of good memories of my dad working on our cars out in the driveway, and of seeing whole new worlds open up to me out the windows of those cars as I sat in the backseat with my siblings. Pulling and repairing the engine of my own first car, a ’67 VW Bug, did wonders for my self-esteem, and having cars of our own gave my friends and me a constructive focus of diversion during some of the most emotionally challenging years of our lives. As with all of human experience, it seems, there are some marks in both the debit and credit columns.
Well, so we do our part where we can. I ride the bus to work. We reduced our car ownership by 50 percent (I donated my pickup truck to PBS — oh the loss!). So let’s say we’ve done well, live with the paradox and savor our roadside serving of mid-century Americana! Pass the ketchup!