This innocuous looking convenience stand attached to gas (petrol) stations serves a double purpose: yes, one is to satiate the hunger of the weary traveler and yes, two, it also exists to reinforce the mechanical oppression of capitalist society. Let’s start with the name. I don’t know about you but for me the immediate association with AM/PM immediately brings up the famed German Expressionist drama “Von Morgens bis mitternachts” (From Morning to Midnight) by Georg Kaiser. The German connection is no coincidence. I did not take notes but from my foray into this mechanical jungle of oppression fueled by the gasoline engine of modernity, I am fairly certain that they referred to the sausages spinning in agony over and over like the proletariat, a life of pain and pointless toil intended only for consumption, as weiners. Misspelling aside, the WIENER is of course a Viennese hot dog, and with Austria being the birthplace of Hitler it doesn’t take either a PhD in European History nor a food handling certificate to connect the dots. A double blind study of a motorist on the I-5 from San Diego to Los Angeles will most certainly reveal that the driver who, while driving, was engaged in a discussion about the Second World War and the rise of Nazism and who suddenly had hunger pangs was twice as likely to order a sausage from AM/PM than someone discussing the Mexican War of Independence. In the latter case, AM/PM has their bases covered by also offering a faux “Mexican” offering in the form of taquitos, nachos – again bastardized forms of Mexican cooking that is not such a subtle way of reminding us who is in charge. However, the AM/PM luckily avoids the traps of post-colonialism. It harkens back to the fecund period of the early 20th century where the collision of nascent theories of psychology, even as primitive as Krafft-Ebbing, and the performing and visual arts created a dialectic that gave birth to a renaissance in modern arts and letters.
All of the offerings at AM/PM come at a very reasonable cost, which reminds me again that in the third act of Kaiser’s play, the Salvation Army plays a distinct role. The superficial “charity” of cheap processed food parallels the plight of “The Clerk” in Morning to Midnight. But most importantly one needs to remember that primary function of the service area is to fill up the gas tank, not the stomach. In order of priority “feeding” the automobile, a demon engine of civilization is first, evacuating the bladder or bowels is second, and feeding the human engine is, in our society, last. This is in stark contrast to pre-modern societies and nowhere is this expressed so well as in “The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology” by Ernst Kantorowicz. Similarly, the proximity of the toilets to the roasting hot dogs brings to mind the opening of some of Strindberg’s most Freudian plays, notably the dung heap adjacent to the castle in “Ett drömspel” referencing the absurdity of our own anatomy and nearness of the sexual organs to the anus. Sweden too suffers from an overabundance of hot dogs, but I believe the situation in that country is not as dire as here with AM/PM.
In summation, a visit to AM/PM is not necessarily an “execrable” experience, but a familiarity or better yet, a more than passing knowledge of German and Swedish expressionist drama will only make your experience richer and more fruitful.
The stereo in The Hat was playing Smokey Robinson and Chubby Checker but Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings would have been a better choice. However this was no coincidence but a Zizek- like irony. The same goes for the kaleidoscopic array of condiments, clearly designed to produce such an arresting emotion as to remind us that in life, despite the Bakhtin style carnivalesque (Grimace and the Hamburglar come to mind) we really don’t have many choices at all. In some ways I assumed that The Hat in itself was nothing more nor less than a profound commentary on the fast food industry. Even the name of the eatery – “The Hat” – brings to mind ambiguous, often conflicting feelings. The French “toque” which forms the design of the lighted sign points both to French colonialism in Syria and Lebanon, as well as “tipping its hat” to the conical hoods of the Ku Klux Klan. Back to the condiments and the sandwiches themselves. The first question that comes to mind is: “Is pastrami bad for you, or does it only taste like it is?” The answer lies somewhere in Zizek again who has argued that although one may possess a self-awareness, and just because one understands what one is doing, it does not mean that one is doing the right thing. The fact that this loaded conceit is firmly rooted here within the parameters of a sandwich shop is what ultimately produces a feeling of deep sorrow.
The pastrami dip, groaning with meat produced a leaden sensation, full of the gravity of life. As the first bite traveled down my esophagus I was reminded of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s controversial statement that the 9/11 attacks were the biggest work of art ever made. This too is no coincidence. Pastrami (Turkish: pastirma) was of course invented in Anatolia and spread through the former Ottoman lands in various incarnations before coming to North America in its current bowdlerized form. The reminder that we wish to whitewash and sanitize the Mid East conflicts for easy consumption and digestion through mainstream media was not lost on me. This feeling truly hit home when digestion became problematic and I was weighed down with the rather messy history of our political and military involvement in the Levant. Within the first hour I was filled with a sensation of profound sorrow, the Rabelaisian carnival yielded to ruminations on the sad state of the world. This is not simply a quick and cheap meal. It is as much loaded with fat as it is with the deepest geopolitical questions of our times. For those seeking an inexpensive American lunch, The Hat is a candidate. But for those who seek deeper meaning in the act of consumption as well as the tragedy of our failed foreign policy, The Hat is definitely for you.