the charm of the highway strip


I’ve been thinking about the idea of “omnitopia” again: basically, Andrew Wood at San Jose State put a name to the absolute same-ness of American suburbs, and furthermore, to most stores and shops that dot the country. He called them “ubiquitous, ever-present environments.”

I wrote about this a million years ago on the blog, but I’ve always been fascinated by those guys that tied up Starbucks employees, stuck them in the back room, and then ran the place for several hours, pocketing the proceeds.

This kind of robbery can be pulled off without a hitch in Omnitopia: there are only two or three basic kinds of Starbucks in the country, providing would-be robbers an endless stream of “dry runs” in order to pull off their heist. Shit, a McDonald’s would be even easier, but if you really wanted to make some cash, I’d go for an Applebee’s or even a Macaroni Grill. You can’t tell me that each Macaroni Grill puts their safe in different places.

The question is this: is Omnitopia necessarily a horrible thing? Aesthetically, sure, the preponderance of strip malls with an Auto Zone and a Blockbuster is disgusting, and will make for excruciatingly boring archeological digs in the 37th century. The forced Americana kitsch of Cracker Barrel, the homogeneity of Radio Shack employees and even the PUSH BUTT graffiti in the restrooms can make you both claustrophobic and depressed.

But on a long road trip, the understanding that you are never more than fifty miles from a Wendy’s chili (low fat, kids!) or the 100% positivity that the Starbucks in Barstow has hazelnut syrup can be… oddly comforting. I’ve railed against predictability and ninnyism my whole life, and yet I am given succor that there are 12,804 places to get a large fries with McDonalds’ bizarrely tasty hot mustard sauce.

Omnitopia offers sanitation, can always provide a bathroom in moments of desperation. But it also means you will never try that fascinating-looking Mexican place three miles off the freeway. You will stop frequenting that indie bookstore, but why bother when Barnes & Noble lets you read on the couch in the aisle? Holding a Starbucks latté, for that matter?

Sometimes I feel caught in the middle of the great cultural tug-of-war between comfort and La Vie Boheme. I crave the clandestine nook with benches etched by requited lovers, but singing along to “Goodbye Stranger” with a Filet-o-Fish in one hand is fucking sweet.

59 thoughts on “the charm of the highway strip

  1. ken

    I think the key is balance. I love a McDonald’s Sausage Biscuit w/Egg & Cheese as much as the next person and I’ve had them in many states and a few countries to boot. Even more though, I love that in a few hours when I walk into my local diner, I’ll sit down and the waitress will present me with a copy of the Sun Times and ask “the usual?” to which I’ll nod and say ‘Hello Anna’. Similarly, I’d rather go to the restaurant owned by a Sicilian who lives in the community and pay nearly double what I’d pay at Olive Garden for a much more creative and pleasurable experience than I’d find at OG. However, if I’m in Minot, ND I’d likely opt for a chain restaurant, unless I have a good recommendation from someone who knows Minot.

  2. chm

    Agreed. From JEff MacGregor’s sublime Sunday Money: “Anyone who tells you that you have to get off the interstate to really *see* America doesn’t know anything about either. America *is* the interstate.”
    And a lot of days, frankly, thanks heavens for it.

  3. Laurie from Manly Dorm

    Hee-hee! Ninnyism is my new favorite word! And the image of you singing along to “Goodbye Stranger” with a Filet-o-Fish in hand made me laugh out loud. Thanks for the morning giggles.
    I have mixed feelings about omnitopia. All I know is that when Tim and I honeymooned in London and Scotland, as much as all the new foods were “interesting”, we found ourselves absolutely craving something familiar. We were so happy the day that we were able to eat some Egg McMuffins for breakfast! I think that the whole concept of omnitopia is ingrained in all of us at this point. We like knowing what we’re gonna get and knowing where to get it. It is what it is.
    Now, what I really hate is the whole McMansion concept. . .

  4. George

    As an Ex-hippie who spent alot of time hitch hiking back and forth across the country I find the off ramps of America extremely depressing. The comforting sameness you speak of has only really happened in the last thirty years. Things Change and I can except that but, Does it have to be so frggin’ gross and over manufactured? Back in the day every truck stop had it’s own personality and the only chain around was “Stuckey’s pecan Logs”. We should’nt tolerate this creeping Homogeny!

  5. lee

    It’s funny, as a person who has multiple food allegies- wheat, dairy, potatoes and caffeine!- there’s nothing for me to eat at ANY fast food place. I’ve actually become accustomed to planning out my road trips and dealing with my food on an entirely different level. I even had an 18 hour flight this summer with nothing to eat the entire time but my stupid little sunflower seed and peanut butter rice crackers I brought from home. Anyway, I haven’t eaten fast food in years.
    So last week, I was at the mall and my girlfriend called and asked if I’d pick her up a chick filet sandwich and some fries and a coke. So I walked up to the counter, ordered and before I could get my $2 or $3 out of my pocket, her food was bagged and on the counter in front of me. I felt like I had stepped into an entirely different reality as this is so not a part of my existence any more. Every thing I eat has to be special ordered and is always very expensive and takes 20-30 minutes to get. I almost cried when I realized how simple life could be b/c it’s so far from where I am now.
    Anyway, I’d roll over and beg for some easy food and a cup of coffee that I could get anywhere, any time, for a buck or two!

  6. Bozoette Mary

    I feel that same pull. I want the indie bookstores and the sleazy diners and the No-Tell Motels… but when I’m almost out of gas and I’m hungry as hell and really tired and it’s midnight on the interstate, the off-ramp sameness spells cleanliness and safety and decent hot food. When I was on the road with the circus in the 70s, we craved the predictability of the truckstops — hot black coffee, clean-ish bathrooms (maybe even showers), and Slim Jims could get you through the night. Failing that — 7-11, baby.

  7. Claudia

    Interesting, honest post. The omnipresence of Starbucks is comforting. However, I believe there is no excuse for franchised bad ethnic food. “Macaroni Grill”? Give me a break. Compared to “Macaroni Grill,” the made-up, multisyllabic, Italianate Starbucks beverage names sound poetic.

  8. kent

    I hate ’em all. Sure, a Starbucks is always a known quantity, and it’s gonna have Wi Fi, but they always burn their beans and the coffee tastes like monkey ass. And now they sell CDs, and it’s great that some of the artists might make a bit more change on the deal, but they are appropriating the music, sucking any meaning and context out of it, and turning it into an ambient bed for selling monkey-ass-tasting coffee at $3 a cup. Then they sell it to customers, who take it home, and every time they play it at home, it’s a cue to think about Star Fucking Bucks and how you’ve come to love the taste of monkey ass.
    The indigenous is endangered, and should be supported and protected at every opportunity. If you get off of I-80 going east just past the Michigan boarder, and drive south a mile, there’s a Taco Stand with no name. They make awesome fish tacos and guacamole, and the place is run entirely by beautiful Mexican women. Right next to it is a guy who sells hubcaps, and has thousands of hubcaps arrayed in his yard.
    Fuck Starbucks. Fuck McDonalds poison. Eating McDonalds Fries is just like smoking Marlboro Lights, only it makes you fat.

  9. Laurie from Manly Dorm

    Lee! Good grief! I have never met anyone with so many food allergies. I am sorry! Have you always been that allergic?

  10. Deb

    I couldn’t agree more with your struggle. For me, I grew up in Omnitopia/Suburbia and always dreamt of loving tension, no pension, more than one dimension, starving for attention, hating convention, hating pretension, not to mention of course, hating dear old mom and dad. But the truth is, I love my parents, and there are too many conventions I would not like living without. One of the reasons I quit acting was because I knew I could never be a “starving artist”. But does having a TiVo and working 9-5 automatically make me The Man?
    Whenever I visit the burbs I am conflicted: I lovelovelove always being able to park; the convenience of the Home Depot being next to the craft store which is next to a supermarket, next to a Ground Round (I wish); the school districts, the backyards; the safety. But there isn’t a Starbucks on every corner just when you need it most; you have to drive *everywhere*; the kids in those awesome school districts tend to suck; it’s “safe”; and, well, as every urban dweller will understand…you’re in the suburbs.

  11. oliver

    When you talk about the big chain’s vulnerability you’re mirroring biology. Robbery is like disease, and the economic trend that’s raising the risk is like monoculture or a genetic bottleneck. To the extent the economy is like ecology, you need diversity both between and within industries if you want to have any kind of system left after the meteor hits or some other event changes the rules suddenly. Without variations to select from, natural selection doesn’t cause evolution and the emergence of new species, only extinction.

  12. CL

    >>>They make awesome fish tacos and guacamole, and the place is run entirely by beautiful Mexican women. Right next to it is a guy who sells hubcaps, and has thousands of hubcaps arrayed in his yard.
    ROAD TRIP!!!
    (I mean, for the food and the sights…I don’t care about the Mexican women…not that there’d be anything wrong with that, of course…but I’m a big fan of Americana…anyway.)
    My family drove cross-country to Arizona twice in the 1970s, and I remember it fondly…some of the road signs we passed are now in the Building Museum in D.C. Kind of odd to see your childhood cross-country trip in a museum.

  13. oliver

    Or leave aside recovery from catastrophes. It might be nice to be able to have a little evolution of the fillet-o-fish in general. A pervasive species with no genetic diversity doesn’t drift and doesn’t undergo selection.

  14. Greg H

    A really great book that deals with the idea of “Omnitopia” is Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser. He goes into great detail researching the forces that have created these “ubiquitous ever-present environments” over time. Its an enjoyable read.
    One of my favorite parts of the book: Covering the flavoring industry, where appealing flavors are chemically manufactured and added to essentially flavorless food. These added synthetic flavors are the reason why each fast food chain has its own identifiable flavor signature.
    Add hardcore longterm youth marketing into the mix, and we become attached to these synthetic flavors at an early age. This, of course, explains why kids complain that home-cooked burgers “don’t taste like Mcdonalds.” Muckraking has never been this delicious!

  15. Claudia

    I don’t think you people understand. There is a restaurant chain in existence called “Macaroni Grill.”
    This is APPALLING.

  16. Lee

    Hi Laurie, nope I wasn’t always this way. It started about 10 years ago when I just starting staying sick all the time with symptoms of mono but never testing positive for it. Right before that, I was told I had a disease (that I didn’t have- they were looking at someone else’s chart!) and I took a LOT of antibiotics for it and then I started getting sick. So the voodoo doctors that I’m seeing right now seem to think that may have caused it. Ok, they’re not voodoo doctors, but applied kinesiologists/acupuncturist who are taking my thousands of dollas and tryin to cure me. It seems like voodoo with all these little viles of stuff they have and all this tapping on your chest while you hold these harmonic sticks. It sure seems crazy!
    But I’ll empty my bank account to have a chance at a pepperoni pizza from Mellow Mushroom again! And some french fries!! aaaaaahhhhhH!

  17. Laurie from Manly Dorm

    Wow, Lee. That is a medical saga if ever I have heard of one! Best of luck with the voodoo doctors. Hey, if it works, it works!
    And Claudia, Macaroni Grill is quite a crazy name. I don’t think Americans care, though, because MG is making $$ hand over fist! There is just no accounting for taste nowadays!
    I just added “Fast Food Nation” to my library list — thanks for the recommendation. I finished “A Million Little Pieces” by James Frey, which blew me away. And, I am currently reading “Running with Scissors” by Augusten Burroughs — this book is disturbing on so many different levels! I literally had to put the book down and walk away from it a few times.

  18. eric g.

    lee, i feel your pain. i grew up in the south allergic to onions, which is akin to growing up in the world allergic to oxygen. i’m also allergic to mushrooms, corn, penicillin (made for some interesting times as a child) and coffee. as an attorney, this last allergy is truly tragic.
    laurie, have you read burroughs’ book “dry” about alcohol rehab? not quite as good, but worth reading. he’s got another one out now. i forget the title.
    and ian, the harmonic convergence of supertramp and mcdonald’s in today’s imagery is the kind of thing that makes this whole life trip worthwhile. you’ll excuse me now as i take the long way home so i can hit the drive-thru for some large fries.

  19. tregen

    The sameness is so depressing. It is a struggle to find a cafe or coffee shop worth stopping in. Even worse are the stores. I recall growing up and going to the hardware store. Sure, the nails were more expensive but you could but three nails if that is what you wanted, you were not stuck buying the ten pack. While it is true that you save money on ten nails, you actually spend more because you end up with seven extra nails. Anyway, in addition, the guys at the hardware store, feed store, and even the grocery store knew there stuff. The had good advice, new your house or farm, and knew what you would need to get the job done. Try getting that at Wal-Mart or even Home Depo for that matter. America’s vastness is one of the great things about our country. Americans could travel the US and see and experience completely new cultures. Slowly but surely our regional and local differences are being leached from our souls and our country, all in the name of profit and savings. There is no free ride in this world and I believe we are robbing peter to pay paul every time we pass that last little store trying to hold on just to save three dollars and to get back home in time to watch some worthless piece of shit tv show. Furthermore, the “one stop shop” mentality is one of compromise. Sure, the bread is okay, the cheese so-so and the meat of average quality but hey, we got it all done in one stop…
    I’ll stop, I could go on forever.
    Worse part about it is that I’m guilty.

  20. Claudia

    I see now that Eric beat me to it. Burroughs’s new book is called Magical Thinking. Now THAT’s a name, unlike Macaroni Grill (shudder).

  21. CL

    LFMD, I agree about Running With Scissors. I experienced a bit of disbelief when he got to the part about reading the poop for signs of the future.

  22. xuxE

    but before you get too comfortable with the fish sandwich, make sure you light a candle:
    On Wednesday, Nov. 30, at 10 a.m., Scheidler et al. v. National Organization for Women et al. and Operation Rescue et al. v. National Organization for Women et al. will be argued before the Supreme Court. These cases relate to stopping illegal violence directed against women’s health clinics, abortion providers and their patients. NOW initiated this case nearly 20 years ago in an effort to stop anti-abortion extremists from continuing to plan and organize violence at women’s health clinics. The self-described “pro-life Mafia” planned to end abortion by closing every clinic that provided abortion services. Over the past 19 years, the violence has included invasions, violent blockades, arson, chemical attacks and bombings of women’s health care clinics, assaults on patients, death threats and shootings of health care workers and administrators, including the murder of eight abortion providers.

  23. kent

    In-N-Out are a west coast thing. I wish they had them in the Midwest, if only for the spectacle of an In-N-Out next to a Kum-N-Go convenience store.

  24. Claudia

    Ian–I thought it was enjoyable, but not unique. David Sedaris (and Dooce, online) still rule the humorous-short-anecdotes-about-my-life genre, in my opinion. MT is worth reading, though, particularly for Augusten Burroughs fans, as many of the stories show his early life from a new perspective.
    I’m not letting the Macaroni Grill thing go until I get at least one more sympathetic fellow commenter (thanks, LFMD). It’s not just the name, people. Where’s your righteous indignation on this one? How about a little sympathy for my heritage and culture?

  25. Claudia

    Fine. Sit back and relax in your comfy chairs while all across America thousands of innocent eggplants are being slaughtered.

  26. LFMD

    CL – Yes! The part about the poop was just too much. That is where I stopped reading last night! Good grief. This guy’s childhood is like a train wreck. How did he survive? I suppose I will finish the book tonight and move on to his other books.
    And, Claudia, Macaroni Grill is a crime against humanity!

  27. lee

    Ok, another thing about Macaroni Grill… Why would anyone think it’s FUN to sit there and have an opera singer at your table seranading you while children are screaming and breaking crayons at the table next door? Talk about finding your niche…
    Today, by the way, I called my local hardware store because I’d ordered two coolers from them last week that were to be in today. So “Junior” (seriously, that was his name) said, “Well, we aint got that cooler.” and I said, “I know, that’s why I special ordered it last week” and he said, “Well, I aint ordered it for ya cuz I was figuring you could just get that at Target” So I said, “Were you planning on calling me to tell me that you didn’t order it, even though it was supposed to be IN today?” And he said “I thought the gal called ya. You should just go to WalMart or something.” Then he hung up. So, I ask.. is this why places like Target and Walmart are thriving, or has he just given up???

  28. emma

    I have never been in a Macaroni Grill. Why in the world would I go into a restaurant that features one of the few things that I already know how to cook?

  29. SMS

    Am I missing something? I went to the Macaroni Grill recently in another town (we don’t have one here) and had one of the more enjoyable meals I have had in a long time with our toddler. Not only did I have an amazing salad the likes of which I have not ever had in a “hoyty-toyty” place, but they actually had stuff my kid would eat too. The crayons were a bonus (although I always have my own with me just in case) and no one serenaded us. What is wrong with any of this? Sure I like the unique places too, in fact I prefer them. I enjoyed many of them when I lived in Charlottesville, VA. When you have a kid though you tend to look for the places with a stack of highchairs by the door. So if MG opens here, I’ll be there on opening day.

  30. Andrew

    lee: At a minimum, Junior has given up. But was he really ever in the game?
    Definitely stopping at the BK Lounge tonight for filet-o-fish.
    And somebody please confirm that the jerseys worn last night by our beloved team are temporary.

  31. Matt

    “Beyond the lack o’choice it basically comes down to your comfort (mine too), vs ‘The Little Man’.”
    Yes. I like the small shops, too, but to a point. If I need to buy a small item, such as a hammer, where the price difference isn’t much, I’ll go to the small local hardware store where guys stand around drinking coffee and shooting the bull. But if I need to buy something pricier, I’m going to one of the big chains like Lowes or Wal-Mart. I know that doesn’t bode well for the future of the little guy, but I don’t see why I should be less well off so the small store can survive.

  32. craighill

    those jerseys suck, but not as bad as state’s old unitard.
    bk’s fish sangy used to be called the whaler in the 80s.
    in sunday’s ny times sports section, they predicted the final 4 and duke wasn’t in it.
    tyler hansbrough is montross with speed, touch and a huge mean streak. he will fight sheldon AND erik williams this year. and win.

  33. scruggs

    I’ve never been a big fan of chains, and try and frequent the local guy as best I can. I refused to go to Caribou or Starbucks on Franklin Street, when there was a perfectly good place (with a new name every so often..Coffee Mill Roasters??) right by F.Street Pizza and Pasta. But its harder in the burbs vs. Chapel Hill to have these options. There are some great coffee places I’ll drive 15-20min to when I have time to stay and read, but on the way to work, I pass FOUR starbucks and nothing else in my 8 mile commute. Burnt monkey ass is better than no ass, I always say!
    I’ve been in a small CT town since Thanksgiving on an extended vacation, and there are no chains in sight (besides gas stations). I can roll down to Molten Java for good coffee, and then roam up and down the small main street checking out the 3 used bookstores, and a used cd shop. And its old school with indiv. food shops in addition to your typical grocery store. Need bread, go to the bakery; pastries, there’s another bakery for that, too; meat: full italian deli; and don’t forget the butcher. Fun to have authentic options, but I still love a good Harris Teeter.

  34. Laurie from Manly Dorm

    You know, deep down, I agree with Matt. I support the “idea” of the little guy, but my budget dictates that I head over to Walmart for all my necessities. I can’t afford to support Junior (who definitely was never in the game!) And, has anyone else noticed that the price of EVERYTHING is going up? Not just gas, but coffee, bread, veggies, etc. Everything is going up, that is, except for my Insurance Job salary.

  35. emma

    OK, so I’m not real busy at work today. But I just remembered the drugstores! Walgreens and CVS on every corner. We have one locally owned drug store left (just ten years ago we had three)in our town where you can still get a vanilla coke, a fresh squeezed lemonade or orangeade, milkshakes and they deliver prescriptions to your home if you are homebound. You cannot beat that.
    I also noticed that Illinois’ uniforms had the same ugly stuff on the shoulders. Could it possibly be a tournament uniform or is that just wishful thinking?

  36. Matt

    I hate to diagree with an Indymedia website, but Wal-Mart is not bad for the economy. Its success has been its ability to offer quality goods at lower prices (how dare they), which greatly benefits low-wage earners by increasing real disposable income.
    Economists estimate that Wal-Mart single-handedly lowered the Consumer Price Index 3.1 percent in 2004 and increased US productivity by 0.75% due to its efficient distribution systems. Net consumer purchasing power was increased by $118 billion in 2004 due to Wal-Mart. It also created over 200,000 jobs last year. Those who complain about its average hourly wages of $9-10, should compare it with what its competitors pay. Needless to say, the clerk at the local Ma & Pa shop isn’t spending his lunch break polishing the spinner rims on his New E Class Mercedes-Benz.

  37. Ian

    Burger King’s fish sandwich was once Craighill’s “Whaler,” but I believe it is now called “BK Big Fish.” And if it weren’t for mercury, it would be a damn fine meal.
    I confess that I have enjoyed every meal I’ve ever had at the Macaroni Grill (about three, I think). I agree that the name is terrible – in fact, when I wrote it down in the blog, I had to research it to see if I’d remembered it incorrectly.
    Re: hoops – it’s my limited understanding that the silver epaulets on both ours and Illinois’ jerseys are a mark of a “Nike Elite” school or something. Only a few schools get to wear them, and only when they play each other? Or am I totally screwing that up? Anyway, I was led to believe they are temporary, but why would we put that shit on our wonderful uniforms at all?

  38. lee

    matt, i’m guessing you didn’t read the article. walmart & sam’s club pays their employees significantly less than costco and other retailers. in fact, they pay their employees a low wage and then encourage them to apply for food stamps and other goverment programs that WE pay for. so basically, we are subsidizing walmarts wages. that sucks.

  39. Matt

    I read the article, Lee. I’m disputing it. Wal-Mart pays their employees almost twice the federal minimum wage for clerk and shelf stock positions, plus benefits. In addition to the 200,000 net increase in jobs, they’ve promoted 90,000 hourly wage employees to management positions. They are not a bad employer. Then there’s the consumer benefits Wal-Mart provides to the economy. The little guy NEEDS Wal-Mart.
    Wal-Mart Going Green:
    More on that:
    If you ask me, the hate directed toward Wal-Mart is as much a class issue as anything. But being a successful corporation doesn’t help it with the left, either.

  40. oliver

    I’ve always kept my distance from Macaroni Grill. I don’t like the idea of my cook picking pasta out of the coals.

  41. Chris M

    Geez, the amusing discussions I miss while I’m having to *work* while at work. Shit.
    I spent a lot of time in France and quite a bit in other Euro nations. They have their very own version of ubiquitous commercial environments. They just seem a lot more interesting and more meaningful to us than, say, Subway. And I suppose they usually are, but they are still *all the same* wherever you go. Every city in France has the same boulangeries and charcuteries and epiceries that all look and smell the same and the people working their all act the same. I think it is so the focus is on the fungible commodities they are selling and people are buying so routinely, rather than their being any hint of distraction or confusion.

  42. Chris M

    …and Ian, even though you finally got a hair cut and you’re cozying-up to bad fast food and Supertramp you’re still a big hippie.

  43. killian

    hey–don’t be dissin’ Supertramp. . .they got me through a very ugly and protracted dark night of the soul back in the day. More than anyone can say for Macaroni Grill. . . . right, Claudia??


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