Welcome to Life in Chains, Eater's recurring essay series where we share the essential roles played in our lives by chain restaurants — great and grim, wonderful and terrible. Here, writer Chris Clayton on the irresistible allure of getting into trouble at Perkins.
t was a cold night in January, and we were stuffed into Mike's Civic like it was a clown car. Approaching the restaurant from the frontage road, we gazed at the oval sign on which the name was rendered in a frilly white serif font: Perkins. For most drivers heading its way, it was a beacon signaling the simple comforts of all-day breakfast and bottomless cups of coffee. But for five bored teenagers buzzed on their dads' Budweiser, the sign may as well have been a dare.
Mike dropped us off outside the restaurant, then parked at the motel next door and stayed in the car. We felt good about this decision. Mike was alert, trustworthy and a bit of a wildcard—the ideal getaway driver. The rest of us would do the dirty work. We were: Joel (oddball with a heart of gold), Tony (mouthy, closet teddy bear), Scott (hilarious, fearless) and me (excitable lemming).
Standing on the sidewalk by the entrance, we admired the oversize American flag flying next to the Perkins sign, and Scott gave it a hearty, sarcastic salute. "Gentlemen," he said. "Tonight, we celebrate our freedom."
For the uninitiated: Perkins is a past-its-prime chain of casual restaurants found mostly in the Midwest and down South. Like many pancake houses that double as lunch and dinner joints, it offers decent, rib-sticking food for cheap: overstuffed omelets, buttery patty melts, and muffins the size of boxing gloves. It's unremarkable but comforting, the kind of place that fed America's middle class before that demographic began to vanish. Imagine a folksier, slightly more upscale diner with wood accents and duck paintings. That's Perkins.
Everyone felt better after Perkins, especially the two of us in the backseat, heads dizzy with sugar, hands clenching cheap plastic toys.
As a kid, I couldn't wait to stop at one of its off-ramp outposts during our family road trips across the Great Plains. Neither could my parents — Dad because he needed a break from yelling at "Jackson," his catchall name for any bad driver, and Mom because keeping the peace between my brother and me was exhausting. When things boiled over, we knew just where to cool down.
Every stop was the same for us: chocolate chip pancakes for the kids and coffee and eggs for the adults, all enjoyed from within a puffy green booth that threatened to swallow our family whole. Afterward, my brother and I would visit the "wishing well" every Perkins kept near the register, a freebie bin containing miniature Etch-a-Sketches, army guys, and other delights from Chinese factories. My dad would say, "Time to go, rat-faces!" — he had a thing for weird nicknames — and we'd pile back into the car.
Everyone felt better after Perkins, especially the two of us boys in the backseat, heads dizzy with sugar, hands clenching cheap plastic toys. Mom would flip on the radio and scan the lost stations of highway-land, patching together an oddly cohesive mix of country, oldies and Mexican polka. We sang along when we knew the words. Not even Jackson and his reckless driving could kill our vibe.
Tony pointed to some snowdrifts that had formed at the side of the restaurant. "That’s the spot," he said. We worked quickly, hidden from the diners just a few feet away thanks to the fog of body heat and coffee breath that had clouded the inside of the windows. Highway traffic buzzed at our backs. Overhead, the full moon was unnaturally silver, like a big fake pearl.
When we were ready, someone suggested swapping jackets so we’d be harder to identify. Huddling close for warmth, we passed around an indistinguishable array of Columbia parkas. I could barely zip up Joel’s coat, my hands were shaking so badly. I was pretty sure it wasn’t due to the cold.
In high school in the 1990's, my friends and I did our best to avoid the "slacker" tag that Madison Avenue had so successfully monetized around kids our age. We kept our grades up, participated in team sports, even did some volunteering. We prided ourselves on our ability to float between cliques. The jocks liked us because we could remember Kirby Puckett's lifetime batting average, the skaters liked us because we dabbled in punk rock and weed, the art kids liked us because we knew about Basquiat (or at least, we pretended to). You couldn't be a slacker and be this social, we reasoned.
If it's true you always hurt the ones you love, then we must have really loved Perkins.
But beneath our surface-level decency and self-congratulatory posing, we were still teenagers. And teens — especially teen dudes — consist mainly of energy drink and evil. Give them some rope — a driver's license, too much free time — and they go full hooligan. In the pre-social media ’90s, this meant invading the offline world in great, greasy packs.
Maybe it's because we tricked our parents into thinking we were choirboys, but my pack had a lot of rope back then. We often turned our unearned disaffection on the cafes and fast food joints in our small Minnesota community, terrorizing each with a blend of old-school high jinks and brazen jackassery. We loosened the tops of the parmesan shakers at the Pizza Hut to give future patrons a fun surprise. We wrestled in the play area at the McDonald's one town over. We repeatedly did not pay for Banana Berry Freezes at local dine-and-dash hotspot Applebee's.
But we saved our most destructive behavior for Perkins. Perkins was our Peach Pit, our Arnold's, our Monk's; we stopped by after everything: school, football games, parties, dances, harassing other restaurants. Our nights there often bordered on performance art. Once, my friend Ty and I hauled a hookah into the smoking section, packed it with cinnamon-flavored tobacco, and took long, luxurious pulls as the manager decided if this was a battle worth fighting. (He decided, ultimately, that it was not.) Other times we placed ridiculous orders, my favorite being, "Denver omelet, hold the eggs." But mostly we treated the place as if it were a South Boston dive bar, roughhousing and yelling and puking in the bathroom after one too many Zimas in the parking lot.
If it's true you always hurt the ones you love, then we must have really loved Perkins.
We came in firing. Diners ducked and screamed as snowballs whizzed through the restaurant. My first shot hit an elderly woman on the shoulder as she took a bite of soup. Another knocked over a glass of water. My final throw was a perfect rising fastball that smacked a uniformed police officer right on the side of the head.
He was quick for a bigger guy, and chased us outside and into the night like an angry bear. Tony slipped on the sidewalk. We thought he was toast, but then the officer fell too, giving us just enough time to grab Tony, sprint to the hotel, and pile into the waiting Civic. Mike floored it, and we disappeared onto the side streets, then out to the dark country roads at the edge of town — at which point we began cheering wildly, high-fiving, and generally acting like we had just pulled off the biggest caper of the 20th century.
By the time we pulled into Joel’s parents’ driveway ten minutes later, we decided our gang needed a name. "What about the Snowball Bandits?" said Joel, which didn't really make sense given that we hadn't robbed anything, but we went with it anyway. Each of us received an alias memorializing our role in the offensive. I was Mr. Freeze. Tony was The Tripper.
I have a theory that the minor pain we caused Perkins kept us out of major trouble elsewhere. Perkins reined us in and softened our nascent delinquency into something puppyish and harmless. We liked to think we had full run of the place, but the staff was always watching, ready to kick us out — which they did, on occasion. It was mischief under adult supervision.
I understand the impulse to run back to the past when the present gets too heavy.
But adult supervision ends when you yourself become an adult — that's when the real trouble often starts. In college, my friendship with one of the biggest drug dealers on campus culminated in our arrest at a Wisconsin state park. (I was lucky to get off with a paraphernalia charge; things didn't turn out as well for him.) Others I knew, including some of my old high school friends, went on to face more serious issues: depression, addiction, the untimely death of a parent.
The good news is that most of us survived our twenties and became upstanding citizens. The bad: Trouble doesn't discriminate. I'm thirty-five now, and I can really feel the road bumps. Some are typical job and money hiccups, while others threaten to derail the whole program, like my wife's miscarriage a few years back.
Being the raging human that I am, I understand the impulse to run back to the past when the present gets too heavy, to yearn for days when trouble was a snowball thrown indoors. But more than ever before, I take comfort in the moment, thanks in no small part to my two young kids. A couple years ago, I took my then four-year-old daughter to that very same Perkins I'd frequented in high school. The décor had changed slightly, and the smoking area was long gone, but the menu looked about the same. My daughter giggled when the waitress handed her a few crayons and activity sheets, and she giggled again when a Belgian waffle with whipped cream and strawberries arrived at the table. Sitting next to her in the booth, I felt innocent by proxy.
One of the magical byproducts of parenting is that it bends time into a circle. We see ourselves in our children, of course, but it works the other way too.
The day after the attack, we had T-shirts made at a local screen-printer. On the front: "The Snowball Bandits" and a cartoon snowman; on the back: our nicknames in big block lettering. We wore the shirts to school on Monday and got a lot of "What the hell?" looks from teachers, which made us happy.
A few classmates who had been at Perkins the night of our attack informed us that the downed cop had made the rounds back inside the restaurant that night, asking if anyone knew our names. Thankfully, our friends had played dumb, though we were sure that we got away with it because of that last-minute jacket-switch ploy. Either way, in our own minds, we were legends.
Chris Clayton is a St. Paul-based writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Believer, Outside, and other publications. His go-to Perkins order is the Tremendous Twelve.
Editor: Helen Rosner
Header photo courtesy of Perkins; additional photo via Nicholas Eckhart/Flickr