Welcome to Life in Chains, Eater's essay series exploring essential roles played in our lives by chain restaurants — great and grim, wonderful and terrible. Here, writer Justin Carroll delves into the dark allure of Hardee's for small-town teenagers.
started the summer after my freshman year with a lie and an eighth of mushrooms. The lie was that I was going to play Mario Kart. Instead, a boy my mother called "a disrespectful sneak" picked me up in his periwinkle Isuzu Rodeo and took me to Hardee's. By fall, I'd be branded an "out of control youth" by the courts and sent to a group home eighty miles away in Anaconda, Montana. But at the start of the summer of 2001, I just wanted to be a Hardee's kid.
When Tyler, the sneak, and I arrived at Hardee's, the back of the parking lot was already buzzing with activity: teenagers sitting on the hood of their cars smoking cigarettes or taking resin hits from metal pipes; couples kissing with their eyes closed and their hands lost in the unfathomably deep back pockets of each other's JNCOs; the Sisson twins standing nose to nose, yelling at each other. I had bummed these kids' cigs and gotten them high at lunch, but until that night, our relationship ended each day when the last school bell sounded. Walking into the parking lot, I felt the gleeful horror only teenagers can feel; I was ecstatic to be there, yet terrified that I'd find a way to humiliate myself. My hands were so sweaty I could see little beads forming on my knuckles.
The eighth of mushrooms came from Kevin, who showed up twenty minutes late. Kevin was a fascinating enigma to me. He arrived from Denver in the middle of the school year and became a Hardee's kid almost immediately, as if he'd moved to Hamilton, Montana, for that specific purpose. He slicked his hair back, wore a different NBA jersey every day for two months, and proudly smoked Newport cigarettes at the edge of the high school parking lot, daring the teachers to say something. I desperately wanted to be his friend, which is why I didn't hesitate to dump mushrooms onto the Hardee's Daily Special — cheeseburgers, since it was a Friday — and take a bite, pretending that the mushrooms hadn't been picked from cowshit and stored under someone's mattress for two months. We listened to Powerman 5000's "When Worlds Collide" over and over in Tyler's car until suddenly I was laughing so hard I thought I might spit out my lungs.
Later, the Hardee's illuminated sign swung like a palm tree fighting a hurricane; I found myself stumbling around a keg party; I watched wondrously as someone threw up off the balcony; and I heard Pixies for the first time as the credits for Fight Club rolled. When I sat with Kevin on the curb sharing a cigarette, he asked me to meet him at Hardee's again the next day. This news was so exciting that when I got home morning, and my mother grounded me for two weeks, I couldn't care less. After I had been home an hour, I jumped out my window and walked the three miles to Hardee's.
n Hamilton, Montana, the high school kid hangouts were very political. In a small town, there's no place to go if you get cast out, and haunts tended to be cautious of whom they let into the fold. If you were a McDonald's kid, you earned good grades; had a membership to River Bend Athletic Club; liked your parents except when they wouldn't let you get Lucky Brand or Silver jeans; smoked cigarettes once in awhile and prayed for forgiveness afterward; played a sport and lettered in it; would probably never go to jail; would one day find Dane Cook to be hilarious; and would choose to live in Hamilton for the rest of your life. This tribe gathered at McDonald's on the weekends after a football game, volleyball match, or basketball tournament, and spent their time talking and wrestling with each other. Sometimes, if someone's parents were gone, they got one of the Hardee's kids to steal them a case of beer or sell them some weed.
If you were a Dairy Queen kid, you did very well in the courses that you thought were worth your time; wore whatever was given to you by your older siblings or was bought by your mother; had a large group of friends from chatrooms dedicated to your favorite video game; had no interest in driving because your mother was willing to take you where you needed to go; and listened to They Might Be Giants and Reel Big Fish, because they were funny. This group spent Friday nights playing Magic: The Gathering in the biggest booth at the DQ until closing time, which was eight o'clock. Occasionally, they gathered in some empty, overgrown lot to play flashlight tag or got their mothers to take them to a movie.
If you were a Hardee's kid, you were still stubbornly wearing JNCOs; had been in at least five fights; and were believed by the majority of adults to be a no-hope kid.
If you were a Hardee's kid, you were still stubbornly wearing JNCOs; had been in at least five fights; were the first suspect when something went missing after a party; probably had a juvenile probation officer; likely had cigarette burns, a smiley-face branding, or a stick-and-poke Insane Clown Posse tattoo; were believed by the majority of adults to be a no-hope kid; and would likely live in Hamilton for the rest of your life, though not by choice. There were only ever two goals for this crowd that I remember: Get money and get wasted.
Since moving to Hamilton two years earlier, I had yet to find a stable spot in the caste system. While Tyler, a true scene-hopper, could pass for a member of the McDonald's group or a Hardee's kid — he was a member of the wrestling team, but was on academic probation and had received at least one Minor In Possession of Tobacco ticket — I was an outsider, unconnected to any sect directly. I secretly played video games and flashlight tag with the Dairy Queen kids, but lacked the obsessive dedication to the specific type of imagination that makes these kids who they are. I could make the McDonald's kids laugh, but I always sensed that they just humored me because they thought it was the Christian thing to do. I've always been drawn to the outsiders, though. I root for the bad guy to get away with it in cop movies, I prefer Batman to Superman, I like Dennis Rodman more than Michael Jordan. Beyond my love of outlaws, part of my attraction to the Hardee's crowd was my desperate need for approval, and this gang didn't care about my background, my grades, or what I looked like. All that mattered was that I was there.
My summer days developed a surprisingly predictable teenage dirtbag routine. I went to Kevin's house to help him package the bags of weed we sold, then we walked to Hardee's, where we followed the shade around the parking lot from noon until dark. Over the course of the summer, we ate our way through the menu three times. While chain-smoking to the brink of puking, we told each other long, elaborate lies about the girls we'd slept with and the dudes we'd beaten up, and we pretended to believe each other. After the restaurant closed, Little Bill, a Hardee's kids alumnus who worked there, brought us piles of lukewarm curly fries and messed-up orders and we ate greedily.
Almost all of the Hardee's kids stayed out all day because no one was home. No one they'd want to be around, anyway. Maybe a parent lived in a different state, or the only caretaker was an ailing grandparent, or the parents worked all night and slept all day, if they worked at all. The dads — the ones who still lived in town — had slick haircuts and fast cars and smiled at teenage girls hungrily as imitation Oakley sunglasses hung down from the backs of their heads. All of this made me perversely ashamed of my own parents — perfectly boring people who had been married for thirty years, had middle-class jobs, listened to NPR, and read every night after dinner. Their existence was the one thing I kept from the other kids.
But I could not hide the existence of Hardee's from my parents. They thought that I shouldn't be hanging out at a fast-food restaurant all day. The consequences and the urgent notes piled up on my bed, but my parents' concern threatened what I had finally found in that parking lot. So I yelled, slammed doors, turned cold when they told me that they loved me. I felt with everything I had that they were wrong. I'd finally found what would set the world spinning right again after a lifetime — a short one, granted — of it being just ever so slightly off. Being a part of the Hardee's crew felt like everything to me, and I clung to it with the desperation of a person caught in a flood clinging to a log, even though it's taking him swiftly downstream.
hat summer, I got stoned nearly every day; tried mushrooms, acid, cocaine, and, strangely, angel dust; stole from both my parents and from strangers; and was caught smoking a cigarette by Mrs. Jacobson, my favorite teacher from freshman year. By the end of it, my parents had decided that my "wildness," as my mother called it, had gone on too long. Jesus would save me, they decided. They forced me to sign up for a mission trip with the Lutheran church and a handful of McDonald's kids. After attending a Christian music festival (P.O.D. was the headliner) we were going to feed the homeless in Seattle. I never made it past the festival; I took a bottle of Dramamine, was ratted out, and was rushed to the emergency room, where I was prayed over and given charcoal. Apparently, on the way to the hospital, I threw up on the pastor's back, so the van smelled like my vomit for the rest of the trip. I wouldn't know; I got sent home.
My parents picked me up in Moses Lake, Washington, and on the trip back, they laid down the ground rules for the rest of the summer: I would get a job. I would go to therapy. I wouldn't spend any more time in fast food parking lots. I consented, and was even partly relieved. I had the vague sense that things had been getting out of hand. Still, as soon as we approached town, I became increasingly uncomfortable. What had the Hardee's kids been doing without me? Laughing at me? Missing me? Wondering what I was doing with the Lord and his sheep in Washington? At the first stop light, I jumped out of the car and ran as fast as I could, ignoring the shouts of my parents.
Kevin said, "I thought you were with Jesus." Later, we convinced a man at a gas station to buy us a brick of Keystone Light, and the Hardee's kids drank to me.
When I arrived at Hardee's, the gang was all there. It was the middle of the afternoon, and they were gathered in the little patch of manicured lawn next to the drive-thru menu eating burgers. They had combined all of their French fries into one big hay stack in the middle of the grass. When I showed up wheezing and sweaty, Kevin said, "I thought you were with Jesus." I told them the whole story, and as we laughed about it, they shared their fries. Someone even bought me a milkshake. Later, we convinced a man at a gas station to buy us a brick of Keystone Light, and the Hardee's kids drank to me. At nine, everyone headed home. They were tired, they said. It was getting cold. I wandered around town for a long time, and when I got home, the doors and windows were locked. I slept in the garage, on a patch of green carpet we kept for the dog, until my mother found me and helped me to my room.
In retrospect, that night was a watershed, and school didn't slow me down much. At first, I distractedly attended class until lunch, but within a few weeks I was heading for Hardee's the moment my mother's car was out of sight after dropping me off in the morning. I was so worried that if I wasn't in the parking lot, my friends would finally figure out that I didn't belong there. One Saturday, after the school had asked that I not return for the rest of the semester, my father stood in front of the door as I was going to Hardee's. "Don't go," he said. "Just don't." He was trying to get between me and my friends, so I pushed him as hard as I could and went to Hardee's, where nothing had changed. That night, my parents called the cops on me, and I was on my way to a group home.
A few years later, after the group home and several more institutions like it, I returned to Hamilton. My parents had retired and moved to a place that wasn't bitterly cold eight months out of the year, a number of the Hardee's kids I had known were in prison, and I was three years sober, so there was no good reason to go back to Hardee's. But I was curious. By that point, Carl's Jr. and Hardee's had merged and started making indecently giant burgers topped with onion rings, three strips of bacon, and fried chicken. I wanted to try one. Or maybe I just wanted to see if kids were still loitering in the back of the parking lot. But the place was closed — its sign broken and in pieces on the pavement, the once well-maintained lawn overrun with riotous weeds, not a single teenager in sight.
Justin Carroll lives in Oakland, CA, in a home owned by Oakland A's great Ricky Henderson. His writing has appeared in Grist.org, Frightday.com, Gulf Coast, and many others.
Editor: Meghan McCarron
Header photo: Steve Baker / Flickr