My friend and I were sitting in a booth at Hardee's drinking Coke. We didn't have enough money for anything else. The store manager came up to us with a tray of french fries and asked if we wanted some. Several nanoseconds later we accepted his offer. He set the whole tray down and went back to work.
In 1985 a Hardee's opened in my hometown of about 4,000 people. I didn't bother telling mom and dad I wanted to go. It was a forgone conclusion. A sign that popular in a town that small would eventually attract everybody. The bright orange sign might as well have said "This way to the outside world." It was a status symbol, at least in that little corner of the US. I would be able to say that I saw people I knew, eating at a Hardees.
And our store was unique. It boasted a train theme, in honor of the town's origin. There were train pictures, train memorabilia, and a wall border with an old-fashioned train design.
At first I was awestruck at having a nationally familiar store in our town.
Hardee's sold plastic goblets that could hold a quart of the new Cherry Coke, and twisty cones with spiralling towers of ice cream that could feed three and were served with a tiny sheet of wax paper wrapped around the little cone, increasing the chance that it would slip from your hand.
Behind the counter, unapologetically big burgers accented with lettuce and buns slid down metal chutes like cattle fodder, boxed in styrofoam that would puff up big sacks of garbage scented with ketchup and cigarettes.
Salads were condiments.
There were padded wooden booths and greasy brass handrails. Tinfoil ashtrays, some already full, were on half of the tables in the store. The floor seemed slippery, like someone had washed it with oil.
Employees in orange and brown polyester would walk around with water bottles and swipe wet rags across tables. They always looked too oily to be cleaning something else.
The drive-thru had only one window, where one employee would talk to one customer, into a microphone, mounted to the cash register.