Dagnab it! Through all the ages of man I had a taste for life
There are so few constants in life, and Spur burgers have been one of them
I was at a Spur the other day, for the first time in a while, and as I surveyed the menu like a Comanche chief before battle, considering his options and checking his wallet for wampum, the thought occurred to me: “I have measured out my life in Spur burgers.”
That wasn’t quite true, of course, but there are so few constants in life, and Spur burgers have been one of them.
The first time I encountered a Spur burger was in Cape Town, when I arrived for university. We didn’t have the Spur in Durban when I was growing up, or if we did I never went to one. I was more of a Mike’s Kitchen man back then, and the Golden Egg Grill for road trips. Mike made a damn fine burger, but if you want to be an icon, longevity trumps quality.
The very first Spur burger I ever saw was being carried past me when I went to the Rondebosch Spur to apply for a job. (What was the Rondebosch Spur called again? The Burning Prairie Spur? The Limping Bison Spur? The Blowing Tumbleweed?) The Rondebosch Spur had a reputation for very exacting standards when it came to hiring waiters – there was a thick many-paged questionnaire you had to fill out, including essay questions, rapid-fire general knowledge, intimate measurements and a psychometric multiple-choice section – but I needed the money and I came prepared with some made-up references from an imaginary restaurant in Durban where I had allegedly worked over my December holidays, so I felt confident.
The manager eyed me like a stony-hearted pawnbroker checking out some shivering peasant woman’s mother’s wedding engagement ring. He asked me some searching questions involving, I don’t know, napkins or onion rings or something, then said: “No. You don’t smile enough.”
I was flabbergasted. Rejected without even filling out the questionnaire? I can smile! I can! Give me something to smile at! I was like a goth Billy Elliot – please, I want to smile, just give me a chance to smile! I tried to smile to prove him wrong, but it’s hard to smile when a Spur manager with a ponytail is shattering your dreams.
I don’t say he was wrong, mind you. That Spur manager knew me better than I knew myself. No matter how I tried, the words “Hi folks, how are we doing tonight?” were never going to trip off my tongue. I found a job at a Pizza Hut and was fired after two weeks for a combination of excessive formality and unnecessary rudeness, but still, I felt the salty lash of rejection, which made it all the more satisfying to carry out my subsequent rustling raids on Salad Valley.
In my undergraduate years I couldn’t afford to eat at the Spur very often. I only went when I was very, very hungry, or when depression loomed and I needed to pretend the good things of life were not beyond reach. I always ordered a Cheddamelt burger, because it felt as though I was scoring by getting a cheese sauce AND a mushroom sauce for the price of only one sauce. The burger cost R18.50, which was quite steep but I stretched a buck by pretending to study the menu, and then announcing, often to no one: “I’m just going to see how fresh the salads are.”
This was a cunning ruse since I have no interest in salads, and anyway, if you took a salad you would have to put it on a little plate, and then they would know to charge you for it. No, I hovered over that Salad Valley like a buzzard over a wagon train passing through the Mojave Desert, snatching up little cubes of cheese and baby potatoes when no one was looking and stuffing them in my pockets and in my mouth, returning to my table with cheeks bulging like a toothachey woodchuck, mumbling: “No, I think I’ll have the Cheddamelt today.”
I don’t know how many baby potatoes I rustled in Spurs the length and breadth of the country, like some kind of carb-craving Butch Cassidy, but finally the accountants back at the ranch must have rumbled my wheeze because Salad Valleys were cancelled forthwith and replaced with those weird ball pits for children, probably the only modern invention less hygienic than a long table of unattended food that members of the public can pick over with their thieving fingers.
I remember when burgers escalated to R36. It was a shock that I should have lived so long as to see my old friend the Cheddamelt double in price. Well, no matter, I thought, I have a job now, I’m making money. This is what it means to be an adult: I can pay for a Cheddamelt burger and, dagnab it, maybe I’ll even have a John Lee Special to wash it down.
Oh, I had some adventurous times in the Spur as an early adult: the time my friend David’s new girlfriend tried to stab me with her fork; the time I found my burger strangely gamey and sweet and then it was discovered they’d been using zebra meat. I also made a very profound life decision in the Spur.
I was just recently back in town and wanting to see an old friend, and he suggested the Spur, which made a certain sense to me because we had often been saddlemates when we were in university. He’d been my Sundance Kid, keeping the waitress occupied with his lariat while I carried out my bandit raids on the Valley. But I soon realised that was not the reason we were meeting at the Spur. The reason was that he was married now with a small child, and small children like the Spur, where they can scream and howl in the amplifying company of other children and throw their Chico the Clowns over themselves like hairless primates in some unsoundproofed zoo.
“So, uh, do you come here a lot?” I bellowed over the sounds of what a popular song of the 80s liked to refer to as our future.
“Oh yeah,” he said, and beneath his lashes I could see the dim silhouette of the man he used to be, pressed up against the one-way security glass of his eyeball and mutely pleading for help. “You can’t avoid it when you have kids. You’ll be here all the time when you have children.”
“Mmm,” I said, giving some thought to the matter for the first time, and reaching a rapid conclusion.
I hadn’t been in a Spur for a good many years until the other day, when I stopped on a road trip and scanned the menu. What was this? No Cheddamelt burger on the menu? What would I eat? Since the fall of apartheid I’ve never eaten anything but a Cheddamelt burger when dining within the shadow of the totem pole.
And then I realised that in the company of the Spur I truly have passed through all the ages of man, and now I’m entering the final and least appealing phase of life, because I looked at the prices and heard myself saying, like a crusty old man in a rocker on a shady porch: “What?! 72 rand! I remember when they barely cost a quarter of that!”