Love and Utopia over a 3-compartment sink at Sister’s Chicken and Biscuits

People remark how scent is the most powerful tool for recovering memories. However, for me it’s stupid three-minute pop songs.

My friend Martin Joseph Quinn remarked today that listening to Todd Rundgren early in the morning gets Todd Rundgren stuck in one’s head all day.  I, being the wit I am, made a quip about it just made me want to bang on a drum all day.  Because that’s the title of a Todd Rundgren song.  An especially irritating late-period Todd Rundgren song, so it’s cute that I did that. I could go to bed because, face it, I don’t really listen much to Todd Rundgren, much less contemplate my place in the Rundgren-verse. My every-day working knowledge of Rundgren consists of the aforementioned song, another one called “Hello, It’s Me,” and the party trivia nugget that, until the age of eight, Liv Tyler thought he was her father.

Then I remembered that I first asked a girl out as the result of a Todd Rundgren song, “Hammer in My Heart.” Now I have to think about Todd Rundgren.

Utopia was a self-titled 1982 release by Todd Rundgren’s side-project.  He was really trying to get all sorts of New Wave here, and the whole album is well-worth the listen, esp. the lead-off track, “Libertine.” The album went nowhere, peaking at #84.  “Hammer in My Heart” was the first single and managed to hit #31 on the Mainstream Rock chart.  It’s largely forgotten today.  It’s video on YouTube only has around 7,200 hits, despite being shot at MTV’s first anniversary party, which apparently was hosted by Nina Blackwood, easily the most-relatable of VJs –if you rode in the back of the bus with the girls who wore roach clips as earrings and inhaled Rush (not the Canadian band).

But it got played enough on Q•FM•96 that we heard it regularly when we were closing the Sister’s Chicken and Biscuits.  I worked biscuits, and I was damn good.  Stacey usually worked the front register because her talent would be wasted on drive-thru, so I would have to sneak peeks on those occasions I could convincingly manufacture pressing a biscuit need on the front line. I thought she was beautiful.  Her red hair and pixie (yet oddly-nosed) features were only highlighted by the brown 100% polyester Irish flat cap we all had to wear.  Managers were always telling her to tuck back in that loose strand of hair that always seemed to be in her face.  Her hair was constantly falling in her face owing to her habit of punctuating almost every sentence with a utterly captivating quick head nod and blink. “Would you like to try our new waffle fries?” Now you have to try them, my slave, because I just did that blinky-noddy thing. Everyone loves an up-seller.

But one night she was on drive-thru, and I could stand near her the whole shift owing to the proximity of the biscuit station to the drive-thru register.  Only a fountain drink machine separated us, and I often had dry-mouth.  I could watch her complete sentences all night. In profile. Backlit by the sun setting through the trees across Riverside Drive.  And no one could tell me to move because I was making biscuits in my biscuit-making area.

When closing time hit, there was the standard kerfuffle over whether to listen to Q•FM•96 or to 92X, but seriously, who listens to 92X? We settled into our tasks. I cleaned my little oven and prep table. Stacey counted the register, brought the tray back to the office, and then began breaking down the drive-thru serving line. No of this work was especially engaging, so we just put our heads down, listened to the Ohio’s Best Rock, and cleaned. There was no dishwasher on that night because Monday volume didn’t warrant one, so we all found ourselves spending a lot of time at the three-compartment sink.

Stacey needed to rinse out some steam trays, and I was scrubbing some biscuit trays with a wire brush. We were both humming along to some song, sharing the use of the overhead spray nozzle. Then “Hammer in My Heart” came on. We both started singing out loud, and by the time we got to the chorus we were using the spray nozzle as a shared mike, making eye contact like some minimum wage Peaches and Herb:

There’s a hammer in my heart
Pounding out your name
There’s a hammer in my heart
Here it comes again

When the song was over, we realized our hands were touching, so we backed sheepishly away. “I have to go wipe down the reservoir, um, bottoms,” she said, doing that blinky/noddy thing. She glanced back at me as she rounded the corner to the drive-thru line.

I was smitten. This must be was love was like. I had never shared a connection over music like this with anyone before. Yeah, I always got a hoot from hearing my mom sing “Build Me Up Buttercup,” but this was from a non-relative. If someone could sing stupid along with a stupid song with stupid me, then it was meant to be. This is what it’s like, right? Right?

I resolved to call her and ask her out the next day. Or the day after that. Or the next week. Nothing’s more romantic than romantic procrastination. For some reason, I felt that I could not call from home. Someone would walk in on me, it would get back to my dad, and I would have to have the sex talk. I lived in constant fear of the sex talk. Looking back, I’m assuming I knew deep down in my heart that I was gay, and everyone else knew I was gay, so the sex talk would just be a farce and awkward for everyone involved. I went so far as to teach myself to shave, as I thought asking directions on shaving would precipitate a sex talk. No one ever questioned my bloody face.

Finally, I drove my car to the payphone on the far side of the Kroger parking lot on W. Bridge Street. I sat there with the engine running until I got up the nerve. I got a mildly angry man on the phone. “Can I speak with Stacey, please?” I heard the phone drop and a yell into the distance. After a minute, she came to the phone. She seemed distracted. But she agreed to meal and a movie the next weekend. I had done it. I had asked a girl out. This is how it was done. And no one had seen me. Whew.

The date never happened, and I never saw her again. Between the phone call and the meal and a movie, her family situation deteriorated to the point where she went to live with kinfolk in southern Ohio.

From that point on I decided to perfect the tactic of babbling nervously around women until they gave up and had no other choice but to ask me out. To this day, Stacey remains the one girl I asked out like a normal person.


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