Tales of the drive-thru

Our local paper just published an interesting piece from the Associated Press about fast-food drive-through service, and how they are using technology to increase speed and improve service. It made me smile, since I am a drive-through operator’s worst nightmare.

For one thing, my van is too tall for most of the overhangs. I could do more damage to them they could do to me.

For another, my husband and I almost never go to a fast food restaurant. With no advance knowledge of the menu, we are unable to make the super-fast decision they expect. Besides, since we do it so rarely, we want to read every word of the menu, experience the gestalt, savor it. At least in the regular line, inside, we can step back and let people go in front of us.

The article did, however, make me think of some of my favorite drive-through stories. Like the time we were coming back from a pizza joint in New Orleans, and we decided to stop at a drive-through daiquiri shop. A week earlier, we had walked into one of these ubiquitous joints and discovered that we could order an alcoholic drink in a “go cup” and drive off with it. The driver isn’t supposed to actually drink it (wink, wink), but the passengers are free to imbibe.

We had that “I can’t believe we’re doing this” feeling as we pulled up to the window and asked what the specials were. Since gallons were on sale, we ordered a gallon of frozen “white Russian” daiquiri.

“How many cups?” the attendant asked us. Brian, the driver, looked puzzled. Isn’t a gallon 16 cups? We took the plastic jug, similar to a milk jug, back to the boat, where we had our own cups, and proceeded to get plastered.

When I lived in Ohio, I had another strange drive-through experience. I once took a whimsical overnight bicycle trip, packing nothing but a tent, a bathing suit, and a towel. I didn’t carry any food, figuring I’d just buy it as I went along. When I arrived at Alum Creek, the state park with the campground, I discovered that the only thing nearby was a drive-through beer store.

Ohio must have an interesting loophole in their beer sales law, because these places are always enclosed buildings, styled like garages with doors on both ends, rather than just drive-up windows. You drive in, roll down your window, and an attendant walks around the garage, picking up your case of beer, bag of chips, and Slim Jim and passing them in your window. I had three problems with the place: One, I was shopping for dinner, not beer; two, I was a vegetarian, so Slim Jims were out of the question; and three, I was on a bicycle. I grabbed a bag of cookies and got out of there fast, wondering how the attendants could tolerate that much exhaust.

I was an impressionable teen-ager when my brother Dave got married in Seymour, Indiana. His fiancé, Jeanie, dressed for the wedding in the motel room I was sharing with my sister, Julie. With Jeanie in the driver’s seat, we piled into her car to go to the wedding. On the way there, she suddenly decided to stop at Wendy’s. We pulled up to the microphone, and she place her order for a medium Frosty. “That will be $1.01,” said the disembodied voice. “Please pull up to the window.”

When Jeanie pulled up to the window, dressed in her wedding gown and veil, the attendant was completely flabbergasted. “Oh my god! That’s a wedding gown!” she said. When she heard Jeanie was on the way to her own wedding, she handed back the money, along with the Frosty. “I can’t charge you for this!” said the flustered Wendy’s employee.

Since I grew up with the concept of drive-through or drive-up windows, I’ve always had a soft spot for drive-in restaurants, the kind where the waitress brings a tray to your car and hangs it on the window. In the late 80’s, I drove along the shore of Lake Michigan with a couple of friends on a weekend trip. The Holland tulip festival was a bust, so the highlight of the trip was a stop in Ludington, where we ate supper at an A&W drive-in.

About seven years later, I was chatting on the phone with my sister Julie, who was driving cross-country from North Carolina to Oregon with her bicycle and camping gear. She’d was lamenting the expensive and major repairs she’d just had made to the bike, because she forgot it was on top of the car.

“What did you hit?” I asked, sympathetically.

“The roof of an A&W drive-in,” she admitted, “along the shore of Lake Michigan.”

Laughing, I admitted I knew exactly which one.

To this day, I don’t think she has the same soft spot for drive-ins that I do.