South Mission Road, Los Angeles
I was hoping for capes and piles of shaved meat. I got both.
This place is like every other Teriyaki Pastrami Burger place that litters LA—they aren’t chains but they somehow all cook the same low quality, D-grade meat, serve over-fried fries, and sell a lunch combo that costs a surprising $8. The same combo will also end up surfing your gut for hours. I’m talking about Patra’s on Laveta and Sunset, Jim’s in Norwalk, The Burger Shack in Pasadena, Wiki Wiki in Downey, etc., etc. And now Café Hero.
The menu is generic. And so are the people our culture commonly dubs heroes, so it all fits together. I ordered the pastrami because they don’t have corned beef. And then at least I don’t have to request mustard and pickles. It’s dry, yet still has that rainbow sheen that crude oil exudes when it spills into the ocean. The fries are lightly seasoned, a generous touch. Posters on the wall advertise Cincinnati and San Diego in elaborate chiaroscuro frames. When I asked for a refill of my orange Fanta, the cashier said “It’s ¢50, if that’s OK.” I had to put the $8.73 on a credit card, so obviously I didn’t have any change. But I smiled and shrugged and made a joke with her about not having it, and how it was “cool” to not have ¢50, and she smiled and laughed and nodded and walked away, cute as a cupcake. I didn’t have anything against her enforcing the rules of the establishment, so I turned around and, with poise and understanding, gently tossed my cup of orange-tinged ice down the trash chute before walking out.
I still think I’ve got a chance with her. To maybe get a free refill next time I go in. Not of soda, but of her sweetness. That sweetness that says, “Follow the rules. I always follow the rules. Before lunch. After lunch. When looking at dessert. When baking cupcakes. Baking is extremely exact. You know that right?” Oh, that questioning, that knowledge, that deliberateness, that’s what sweetness is all about to me. It just tickles every part of me.
And I’m pretty ticklish, especially for cupcake icing. Especially for cupcake icing exactingly applied. Cupcakes thrill me. What about them? First, the fact that it is a real occupation to make and sell cupcakes. Yah, I’m telling the truth. You can set up a business in Santa Monica or Culver City or Eagle Rock or Pasadena or Long Beach and pay $2,200 a month for your storefront rent and another $10,000 in buildout and have another $2,500 in monthly expenses and sell nothing but cupcakes and still make enough cash to fudge that one-million-dollar baby den in Echo Park.
When you think about it, cupcakes are a valuable service. Because cupcakes make people happy and that’s all that really counts, right, doing good for other people? So it’s actually a good sign that there are people out there running cupcake businesses and people are content to pay $4 to $8 per cupcake, because these cupcake clients know that the gift of a cupcake or the consuming of a cupcake later will be so satisfying that the value will be theirs to relish, mostly in emotional terms. And those can’t be underestimated. So sublime, so lingering, so ineffable, so delirious. So just because enraging poverty and bleak, rampant injustice cascades all around and cupcakes perfectly embody the thriving emptiness at the heart of our culture, just bow your head and be thankful it’s there, because we might not be able to recognize the angel if it weren’t for the monster’s contrast.
And when you are blessed enough to be given the gift of an artisanal cupcake, it’s like being given a ticket to the experience of upper-echelon ennui turned cartoon. You have arrived. All your past desperation is instantly swept away by so much ribbed icing. Memories of your angsty adolescent search for peace and fulfillment and belonging and an adequate medium have dissipated into just that: adolescence, memory.
There are chocolate chips inside the cupcake! Ohmygosh. Yes, you have left your adolescence far behind. You work so much, you’re really productive, you do lots of activities, your family is and has always been your number one priority, you have a lot of appointments and events, you know so many great people! This rich anniversary cupcake brings you full circle, materially recognizing just how special you are now and, even more, were as a seven-year-old.
A little baked batter, a little refined reverie, a little squirted sugar. Yep, you know your place, on the right side of a muffin paper.
What about the desserts at Café Hero? Besides the sweetness of that sweetheart behind the cash register sweetly refusing to refill sodas without obtaining the ¢50 surcharge, they’ve got cookies, and they’re room temperature.
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Andrew Choate is an artist from South Carolina. His books include Language Makes Plastic of the Body (Palm Press), Too Many Times I See Everything Just the Way It Is (Residual Press), and Stingray Clapping (Insert Blanc). His radio plays and sound works have been broadcast on WDR in Germany, Radioarte Mobile in Italy, Hipersônica in Brazil, Resonance FM in England, and various outlets in the US. His visual work has been exhibited at the Yerevan Center for Contemporary Art, the Torrance Art Museum, Barnsdall Art Park, High Energy Constructs, and the Overca$h Gallery. He is currently finishing a graphic novel made of photographs and narration called 260 or 77 Aquariums.