Saturday, September 21, 2013

On the Conceptual Brilliance of Craver Nation.

It's been a year or more since White Castle launched their pseudo-social networking website, Craver Nation. At first glance, and to the uninitiated, it seemed like a colossally dumb, if not completely insane, idea. Social networking sites are ways to reconnect with, and to meet, people with common interests. They require a considerable investment of time and energy on the part of the user, and who in their right mind would devote that much energy and time into connecting with people who, for example, also likes their Big Mac with extra Mac sauce and no cheese?

But the reason why the idea isn't completely insane is that we're not talking about McDonald's. This is White Castle, the only fast food restaurant with a bonafide cult following. A cult that exists not despite, but perhaps because of, the terrible violence these burgers inflict on our digestive systems.

Which reminds me of conversation I had in high school with one of my fellow students, who partook of various illicit substances, one of which was peyote. He explained to me that the first time you take peyote, no matter who you are, you will throw up. And it will be the worst vomiting of your entire life. The second time is a little better, and the third time, a little better than that. I had trouble understanding why anyone would subject themselves to that, and then he said, it's exactly like White Castle. And that made perfect sense, because at that time I was eating White Castle about six times a week.

Now, I never tried the stuff (peyote, I mean). I never tried any stuff, because education remains the only high I need. I have a visceral dislike of drugs and alcohol, and for that reason I don't particularly enjoy stoner movies, nor do I support them by going to see them at the theater.

But I was there opening day for Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. And that's because it was White Castle. I wouldn't have gone to see Harold and Kumar Go to McDonald's, because first off, they already made that movie, it was called Mac and Me and it was terrible. But secondly, I don't care about McDonald's. There is no "McDonald's type of person", because everyone goes to McDonald's. But there are White Castle people. There are Cravers.

The movie captures this pretty well. There's a scene where an employee of another burger joint, played by Anthony Anderson, waxes rhapsodic about "those tender little White Castle burgers, with those little itty-bitty grilled onions that just explode in your mouth like flavor crystals" before flipping out because the burgers he serves just don't cut it. And people who don't know about White Castle might think that scene is exaggerating, that no one would talk that way about a fast-food burger. But I swear to God, I've heard Cravers talk like that. I've talked like that.

And though I've never been compelled to think of arson when denied my burger of choice, I have gone to pretty extreme measures at times. This is a story that people who know me have heard at least a dozen times. Of course I'm talking about The Time I Risked Getting Shot By the Secret Service to Get White Castle.

It was the summer of 2000. Election year in these United States. And Vice-President (and Democratic nominee) Al Gore was in my hometown of Dearborn, eating at Dmitri's, a Greek restaurant on Telegraph Road. Their food wasn't great (their opa was decent though) and they went out of business earlier this year. Now as it was then, my local White Castle was right smack-dab next-door.

Now, I didn't know that Gore was in town, or that he was eating at Dmitri's. All I knew at the time was that I wanted White Castle, and that traffic approaching the White Castle was down to one lane, that lane being the one farthest from that side of the street. The other three lanes of Telegraph were closed down. There were some cones, and some limousines. And standing at the Dmitri's lot were a few dudes with short haircuts, sunglasses, and black suits. (I assume there were more inside.)

There was no way to get to the White Castle. A sane person would have just went somewhere else. There was a McDonald's several blocks down. Heck, there was an Arby's just across the street. So I did a Michigan Left and pulled into the Arby's lot.

And then I made a mad sprint across Telegraph. Sometime after I got to the median one of the Secret Service guys must've seen me. As I ran across the rest of telegraph, darting between the cones and limousines, I became aware of the fact that one of them was power-walking in my direction. I poured on the speed, my body in agony.

I got to the door of the White Castle. I stopped, taking huge gasping breaths. I turned my head. The Secret Service guy had stopped moving in my direction. He let his hand wave downwards in a "just let him go" kind of motion: the kid just wants a sack of ten.

The point of all this is that White Castle isn't just a fast-food restaurant. It's a sort of nerdy hobby, like comic books and board games, that demands and rewards the same kind of investment. If anyone can make a social networking site work, it's them.

Now I have no idea if the Craver Nation site is actually any good. Thirteen years ago I was living on White Castle: at thirty-nine cents a pop, I could have a meal for two bucks and some change. Since that time, I've gotten married to a woman who is wonderful in every respect, save that the charms of Castle-fueled flatulence are hopelessly lost on her. I'm no longer a Craver, no longer the kind of person who gets up at three in the morning and says, you know what, I want to have the flux all day tomorrow, thank goodness White Castle is open twenty-four hours a day.

So I no longer have the passion that would lead me to devote any of my time to a social networking website for hamburgers. When the site launched, I logged in to get a coupon for free burgers, which I never actually got around to using before it expired. In practice, the site could be a dismal failure. But conceptually? I think it's kind of brilliant.