Taco Bell

Pictured, clipped from the online archives at JG-TC.com, of a classified ad seeking staff for the then-soon-to-be-built Taco Bell in Mattoon, from the Aug. 3, 1988, Journal Gazette

To paraphrase the title of a Talking Heads album, this week’s Throwback is more stuff about buildings and food. And because I believe that the history of a small town can be found in a shoe box full of old sauce packets, may I suggest that next time you have to pull yours out for that extra ketchup fix, you dig a little deeper.

For when you reach the bottom of that shoebox, I’m guessing that’s where you’ll find a logo that looks a little a lot like the one you see here, from the Aug. 3, 1988, Journal Gazette, an announcement for the soon-to-be-built Taco Bell here in Mattoon. How nice of them to let us know they were on the way, right?

Something about Taco Bell makes me nostalgic for my high school years in a way that no other fast food eatery in town does, with the possible exception of Long John Silvers, mostly because the lead guitarist in my garage band used to work nights there and would give us all free scoops of those batter crispies which we’d (ok…which I) would make into a meal by covering them in tartar sauce and malt vinegar packets and mashing it all up together into a crumbly, sludgy slurry with my fork. I mention this not to make everyone gag, but to ensure that now I’ve shared this tidbit, I never have to write an entire column about Long John Silver’s.

I remember taking a drafting class at MHS around 1995 and an upperclassman at our worktable always announcing “well, got to work a double shift at the ‘Bell’ tonight,” although he’d use a not-so-complimentary word that rhymed with “bell”. And even though he was technically complaining, he always said it with a big grin on his face. I’m a creature of habit who finds comfort in the regularity of certain stupid things, and dear readers, I don’t quite know exactly why but it always felt like something was horribly wrong with the day if he didn’t announce his shifts like that. Every time he did so I could picture the strange camaraderie among the high school-age night crew there, refilling the spork canisters, keeping the cheese stirred, and making sure the CO2 canisters on the Mountain Dew fountains were working properly. Recently I was informed by a friend of mine who used to work at a Taco Bell that no such camaraderie ever existed, but it’s nice to dream right?

And if there are memories that exist only in my mind of a gang of likeable teenage cutups slinging beef at the Bell every Friday night while teens on the Friday Night Prowl circle the building like sharks, then there definitely exists the memories of teenage cutups such as myself and my friends who really were there; like that time someone from our car pool group during open lunch hours said I “looked just like Shaquille O’Neil” when I took a big, sidewinder bite out of one of those (then) brand-new double-decker tacos, such an off the wall thing to say to another human being that I wore it as a badge of honor then and will still say randomly to people I know when they take a bite of something to this day.

It’s where me and some friends got take out and ate it in the car while driving aimlessly around the lake, as one is wont to do at that age, after which we all came down with food poisoning while watching “Galaxy Quest.” Well, everybody except for the smart guy who stuck with the trusty Nacho Bellgrande.

It’s where I celebrated six months of having braces (top row only, thankfully) by promising my friends I’d eat tacos until I puked (lightweight that I am, I gave up after six); and where I joyfully coveted my Star Wars Episode I promotional cool cup. You know, the ones that came with cardboard collector “coins” of all your favorite characters? Like ace Naboo pilot Ric Ole? Anybody?

And it’s where I had a birthday dinner with the cute hippie-chick (yes we still had those in the ‘90s) from my art class who suddenly moved to Windsor with no notice but who remembered my birthday and drove back into town for it anyway. No, Taco Bell isn’t the ideal place to dine out with a young lady who did such a nice thing, but keep in mind that, (a) you don’t have money at that age, (b) Tomasso’s was long gone, and (c) I was an idiot. I’ll give her credit; she seemed cool with it, although she kyboshed a trip to the mall afterwards.

Time passes, I graduate college, and suddenly I think it’s a good idea to eat Taco Bell five nights a week with little to no exercise, and then next thing I know I see a picture of myself and realize in shock that the metabolism of a 23 year old isn’t quite the same thing as the metabolism of an 18 year old. So yeah, eating Taco Bell on the regular had to become a thing of the past.

Still, all these years and those (thankfully still) lost pounds later, it’s nice to have Taco Bell close to the office for those times when my car is in the shop and I didn’t bring my lunch with me, or those times when they give away free AM Crunch Wraps (perhaps the most insidiously wonderful fast food item ever) because some guy stole a base.

And in those times when I’ve found myself back at “The Bell”, I wait for my Quesarito Big Box with caramel apple empanada, singing a Springsteen song in my head, and look around trying to see who there has the indefinable spirit I used to imagine. It’s a hard thing to perceive really, unless that person happens to be me, I guess. And while I may not need a sauce packet to tell me what time it is, it’s nice to grab a few extra anyway.

"The Throwback Machine" is a weekly feature taking a look back at items of interest found in the JG-TC online archives. Contact Walker at CWalker@jg-tc.com.

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