Cold Turkey

Scott faces addiction head on

click to enlarge THE HUNGER: The almighty Sonic -- they giveth and - they taketh away. - Scott Harrell
Scott Harrell
THE HUNGER: The almighty Sonic -- they giveth and they taketh away.

For a period in 1990 that seemed like forever, I was effectively homeless. With all that we owned stuffed into a lemon-yellow 1981 diesel VW Rabbit, a skinny kid named Jim and I bounced from apartment sofa to trailer floor to abandoned house in the name of fun, trouble and not working. Which is neither here nor there, really, but serves as an appropriate introduction because it was during this time that I developed an enduring addiction.

We had no money, obviously, nor any motivation to earn some. So, like the leeches we were, we relied heavily on the kindness/ gullibility of friends/strangers for just about everything, including the sustenance our bodies required to keep us from, you know, starving to death. One of our benefactors was a lovely, concerned young woman who worked at the retro drive-in fast-food restaurant Sonic, a chain that has been ubiquitous in the American South and West for well over a decade, but which only recently came to the Bay area. She fed us as often as she was able without drawing the kind of attention that might jeopardize her job, and I quickly developed a dependency upon one of the franchise's specialty items.

The Country Fried Steak Sandwich is exactly what one would expect it to be, given its name and purveyor: dark meat of questionable origin, breaded in batter of questionable composition. Then fried, treated with preservatives, flash frozen, boxed in bulk and aged in freezers to be retrieved much later. Then fried again in lard flavored by several shifts' worth of Tater Tots, served up on a toasted bun with overripe tomatoes, dry shredded lettuce and enough mayonnaise for two quarts of tuna salad.

Just writing about it now triggers Pavlovian salivation at the back of my throat. It's ambrosia. It's a delicacy accidentally bestowed upon us, a race undeserving of its charms. It's a party in my mouth, and nobody's invited, because I want it all.

I arrived in Tampa with this yowling, fatty Monkey on my back, only to discover I had no way to feed it. I tried placebos. Arby's and Hardee's had the greasy mystery meat quotient, but not the breaded-slab vibe. Cracker Barrel had the look and feel, but lacked the quantities of possibly lethal unknown substances. In the end, I was forced to kick the habit cold turkey. And after weeks of frightening withdrawal symptoms — weight loss, lowered heart rate, tolerable breath — I pronounced myself clean.

As any addict can tell you, however, most obsessions are never completely surmounted.

Years later, I was part of a furniture delivery crew that handled jobs all over Florida. And my infernal appetites were reawakened when I discovered a Sonic languishing in the little town of Chiefland, two-and-a-half hours straight up U.S. 19 in Levy County. At first, I only allowed myself the occasional taste, while on a delivery or heading to or from my parents' vacation home in southern Alabama. But before long, I was making the drive on weekend afternoons, telling myself there was nothing better to do — and bringing back an extra sandwich for later. If you've got a Country Fried Steak stash, my friends, you've got a problem. So I resolved never to get in the car with the sole intention of heading to a Sonic. I wasn't working for the furniture company anymore, anyway, though I did endeavor to see the folks (or at least their house) regularly.

I was coping. I was a functional user.

Then Sonic came to the Bay.

Press releases and human-interest TV news stories announced the arrival months in advance (I smiled tightly and agreed that, yes, it will be cool). Coupons began coming with the other circulars (my hand trembled slightly between the mailbox and the trash can). When a couple of locations finally opened around town, none of them were between me and work, home or the clubs. Thus I renewed my determination to not go out of my way, to not poke the Monkey and see if it was hungry.

Then, one afternoon when my girlfriend asked if I'd like to spend Mother's Day hitting the Oldsmar Flea Market with herself and her mom — my quick, almost manic acceptance caught her a bit off guard. I love her mother, of course, but her frequent invitations to Sunday thrifting and yard sale perusals are pretty much always rebuffed.

The Sonic on Tampa Road between her mom's place and the Flea Market was probably the furthest thing from her mind. She did bring it up in passing as the date approached, though, as I may have mentioned at some point that I particularly enjoyed one of their featured items. I casually replied that lunch at Sonic might be fine, sure.

I tried to contain my anticipation as the red-and-yellow sign floated nearer, but lost my hold on the in-car conversation and had to be tapped on the shoulder when a question I didn't hear was directed my way. I didn't careen into the first available slot, however, looking for something nice, shady and a little quieter. I even pretended to check out the menu once we were parked, though my mouth was already full of spit and it seemed my taste buds had swelled to the size of upside-down shot glasses to receive every vestige of flavor from my long-awaited prize.

The Country Fried Steak Sandwich wasn't listed.

I did a double take. I did a triple-take. I broke out in a cold sweat and uttered disconnected obscenities at the door handle, cradling my clammy forehead in the crook of my elbow. I was broken, debased — a junkie denied his fix.

In the end, I ordered some sort of bacon cheeseburger on Texas toast, chewing listlessly and being unresponsive to lunchy small talk. It was tasty enough, I guess, but I didn't sense the warmth, love and fulfillment that permeated every bite of every Country Fried Steak Sandwich that ever graced my maw.

And it certainly didn't sate the Monkey.

The beast thrashes and bitches yet. Nothing quiets my Sandwich Monkey, not the McRib, not Krystal, not a sock in the jaw from the irascible, bleary-eyed Beer Monkey.

I just got off the phone with the Sonic on Gandy. They don't have the Country Fried Steak Sandwich either; it's being phased out company-wide. I've considered starting an online petition, or calling their corporate office and pretending to be the manager of a Tampa location beset by angry, riotous hordes, but decided against both approaches.

It just seems a little too desperate, don't you think? I can handle this.

Besides, I just heard that we're about to get a whole lot of Whataburgers around here.

Scott Harrell can be reached at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or by e-mail at [email protected].