Saturday, April 19, 2008

Kafka, Dickinson, and the issue of no sour cream

There are two thinkers which, when their methods are combined, can give one a very fine micro sketch of contemporary life in our consumer society. Both are fairly well known.

The first thinker, Franz Kafka (1883-1924), is often invoked to make summary of the strange paradoxes in which we can get caught-up. Indeed, this “Czech-born German-speaking writer's posthumously published novels expressed the alienation of 20th century man. Kafka's nightmares of dehumanization, bureaucratic labyrinths, and totalitarian society have much in common with the works of George Orwell (Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949; Animal Farm, 1955).”[1]

The other thinker whose methods can be invoked for sketching society's current quirks is Emily Dickinson. Dickinson is held to be of the level of such a poet as Walt Whitman, and she is considered one of the most original 19th Century American poets. She is well known for her creative use of metaphor and overall innovative style. She admired the works of John Keats and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but avoided the florid and romantic style of her time, creating poems of pure and concise imagery, at times witty and sardonic, often boldly frank and illuminating the keen insight she had into the human condition. Her sophistication and profound intellect has been lauded by laymen and scholars alike and influenced many other authors and poets into the 21st Century.[2]

Since a person in my position often must do the oddest of internet searches for obscurantist topics, by serendipity I regularly run across all sorts of things. The very existence of this blog is partially motivated by such findings. Here is an item I found, which is both Kafka like and Dickinson like in its description of a Taco Bell visit. Admittedly, I have modified it somewhat to remove the low-brow use of vulgar language and to set in relief the players in the situation; but, the account is still well-developed by its original author, a man whose dilemma shares a family resemblance with situations we have all found ourselves in.

* * *

When in Hell did it become so necessary for tacos to be drenched in sour cream? Sure, sour cream is awesome; it provides a nice contrasting taste with anything you eat. But when you buy a taco and it tastes like you're eating a tortilla filled with sour cream, it's completely nasty. (This is one of the major reasons I decided to stop going to Taco Bell.) Last week, however, while returning home from a friend's house, I became unexpectedly hungry. The only thing close was a Taco Bell, so I thought to myself, "Hey, I'll just ask for no sour cream!"

It was a simple plan. However, the process would not be simple, and the final goal would not be achieved.

I entered the Taco Bell, and went up to the counter; no one else was in line. The employee, asked me what I wanted. I told him, "I want a Chicken Chalupa, with Baja sauce...." The employee began to enter my order into the machine. "...with no sour cream." This last I added quietly, as if a mere aside. But when I muttered these additional words the employee looked up at me startled.

"What?" He said.

"I want a Chicken Chalupa, with Baja sauce, and no sour cream," I repeated. He stared at me bewildered. After a few seconds he walked away to talk to a manager. I'm not very fluent in Spanish but I got the gist of what they were saying.

"This guy, he wants NO sour cream!" The employee announces as he passes the factory-line taco jockeys.

"NO sour cream?” I hear the manager responds from the bowels of his around the corner, hidden office. “Impossible! He must have meant ALL sour cream."

"No, no,” the employee haggles. “He said NO sour cream."

The managers emerges in the back of the store, and they continued to talk for a short while, completely perplexed by the sheer novelty of the order. Finally, the manager came up to me with the employee in tow behind him.

"What is it that you want sir?" he asked me. He asked completely without guile, as if, perhaps, the employee was assumed too stupid or too confused to have gotten the order correct in the first place.

"I want a Chicken Chalupa, Baja sauce, no sour cream," I duly repeated. The manager looked blankly at me, as if he was trying to stare me down. I didn't let him. After what seemed to be the longest 5 seconds of my life, he spoke.

The manager abruptly announced, as if asked to shoot his neighbor's beloved dog, "I'm sorry, we can't do that."

“What?!” I asked incredulously, “'We can't do that?!'” I parroted back. I must say that I didn't expect them to say that, of all things. At least make up a good excuse -- like, 'We mixed the sour cream with the chicken'; or, 'Our sour cream doesn't have real milk in it anymore. You should try it!'. But a simple, “'We can't do that'” -- What kind of bullshit is that?

Well, the natural question arose, "Why not?" From what I can understand, this is not like asking these people to violate an ordinance against sodomy, or perhaps a law of physics.

"Because,” The manager explained, now becoming a bit irritated, “you have to get the sour cream if you order the Baja sauce."

Immediately, a martial arts fight of sorts breaks out between he and I. My prowess in ordering was not diminished, and his artful defense of the Taco Bell machine was anything but exhausted.

"Okay, I want the regular sauce."

"I'm sorry, you have to get the sour cream if you order the regular sauce."

“I want the sauce that doesn't need any sour cream."

"I'm sorry, there is none."

In swordplay, this kind of back and forth is often analyzed as an extended parley. So I thought I'd switch techniques. Perhaps I could appeal to the very value that Taco bell purports – efficiency.

“Look. It's not that hard,” I began, as a summary of my case. “In fact, it's much easier than what you normally have to do. You don't have to put any sour cream on my Chalupa. That's less work for you, and a better taste for me. No - quiero - un - sour – creamo." That last part I added, not exactly knowing why. I think my sub-conscious must have also starting getting pissed-off at the whole situation.

"I'm sorry, sir, but I'm going to have to ask you to leave." The manager pretty much called it checkmate right there.

"Yea! I AM going to leave!” I announced, entering chew-them-out tonal mode. “I'm gonna leave cause I feel like it, not because you told me to. If you told me to then I WOULDN'T leave because I'm not gonna listen to you, but I'm gonna leave cause you guys SUCK!" I'm sure the chain of premiss indicators nesting around that conterfactual must of mind thrusted him badly; he is probably down about six I.Q. points even to this day.

So I left. I didn't want their roach grind tacos anyway – bunch of chicken chokers.[3]


[1] “Franz Kafka” Pegasos (Accessed April 21, 2008) {}

[2] “Emily Dickinson – Biography and Works” The Literature Network (Accesed April 21, 2008) {}

[3] “I'm going to kill the employees at Taco Bell” March 11, 2005 (Accessed April 21, 2008) {}


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