Sometimes when I am in Manhattan late, either for a work function or some other reason, I will treat myself to a meal at White Castle and a more luxurious ride home to Flushing, Queens on the Long Island Railroad. Last night was one such night.
White Castle holds a unique place in the sphere of American fast food. It is a small chain that is not widely franchised like McDonald’s or Burger King, and so enjoyed a cult status among greasy food enthusiasts long before the Harold & Kumar films brought the restaurant wider notice. It popularized “sliders” or miniature burgers that many restaurants have emulated.
The low cost of the small burgers brings lots of poor people there, and because of this and the fact that many or most White Castles are open 24 hours a day, there’s often an element of danger associated with the chain. My father grew up in the Bronx in the 1950s and 1960s and said when he was a teenager, his friends would dare one another to eat at one of the local White Castles on Fordham Road.
White Castles are mostly in the Midwest and the Northeast. New York City has at least a dozen spread throughout its boroughs, but only two listed in Manhattan. The more centrally-located one is the one on 8th Avenue between 36th Street and 37th Street. This is very close to Penn Station and a moderate walking distance from Times Square by current American standards. And this part of the city is where many of the seedier elements that were once comfortable in Times Square have been chased. I had come from a fancy restaurant where I had gone for an event for work, and after chatting pleasantly over fine finger foods for a few hours I needed some balance. So there I was.
Entering this White Castle, I saw that there was a man in a wheelchair who was slumped over one of the side counters, passed out. He had the dirty appearance and slumped look of a vagrant, but luckily didn’t smell as bad as he looked. A few people stood near the counter waiting for their food, and a few diners sat in the small booths.
I placed my order and noticed a couple by the soda machines having an animated conversation. After several attempts, the man finally extricated himself from the conversation and bid the woman a hopeful farewell. With the man gone, the women kept up her end of the conversation with no one and everyone. She noted that she had warned people about other people and made good on her commitments to things, as much as I could gather.
While I was waiting for my food, the staff at White Castle decided that the man in the wheelchair had been passed out on the side counter long enough and that it was time for him to go. Staff at the White Castle are usually friendlier and more competent than their counterparts at other fast food places. Maybe they pay better or maybe they have better or more interesting clients. Anyway, the White Castle worker very gently started to move the man in the wheelchair, who woke up and started making noise.
“Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep!” The guy in the wheelchair was making noises like a truck backing up as his wheelchair was moved back. “Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep!”
Once he saw he was headed for the door and out of the restaurant. He began to protest. “Hey! Hey! Hello!? Hello!?”
At this point, we heard from the disembodied voice of White Castle’s remote security. They monitor White Castles through security cameras at remote locations and will sometimes remind you that they are watching and recording all proceedings. One time at this White Castle a man was there with Wendy’s food and the voice told him to leave and threatened to call the police. He didn’t leave.
Now though, the voice wanted to remind the wheelchair guy that they were there. “This is White Castle security monitoring, recording all proceedings at this location,” said the voice over the public address system. “All proceedings are being recorded by White Castle security.”
A helpful customer ran ahead and opened the door for the man in the wheelchair, who mumbled and complained until he was outside on the sidewalk. He later recruited a departing customer to push him around and I saw them going up and down 8th Avenue.
After a wait I got my food and sat watching people walk by outside. Every once in a while someone will do the White Castle Peek, the act of carefully looking inside the White Castle to see if it’s safe enough to go inside. One nervous woman doing this decided to come in and order food, but she never lost her nervous demeanor. She moved around frequently as if to throw off the chances of some unseen assassin ready to shoot at her from somewhere outside.
I sat in a small booth, methodically making my way through my too-large order of burgers. I had an outside soda on the seat next to me, lest the disembodied voice of White Castle security call me out on it and tell me to leave or buy a soda from White Castle (White Castle offers Diet Coke, which tastes like ass; I smuggle in some Diet Pepsi for taste and sanity).
I finished my meal, threw away my garbage, and headed out the door. On my way out a staff member wished me a good night and I wished her the same, a rare moment of fast food camaraderie not available most places. I walked on into the New York night, sated and satisfied.