This summer, I saw America from the highway and it scared me. My worst fears were visited upon me: America did not hold a multitude of strange, new and exciting sights for me to see. Instead, everywhere you go, the population huddles around a mall. The same chain stores have invaded formerly independent Main Streets, and only the accents are there to remind you that home is far behind. This column will focus on the increasing resemblance of everything in this country to everything else, based on my observations of uniformity as taken from inside and outside a white Dodge 350 van.


This month - No transfer in this Subway


The proliferation of chain sandwich shop known as Subway is probably the most surprising aspect of life on the proverbial road. It had never occurred to me that this meager franchise could be so pervasive. But on the road, you discover that they are everywhere. One sees as many of them as you see McDonald’s or Burger King, if not more. At any given truck stop, gas station, mall or commercial strip, there will be one. It doesn’t matter where you are - there will be one. Probably two or three, in fact. I suppose it shouldn't be so shocking, considering all the things Subway has going for it. It provides the safety of fast food convention - no matter where you are, you will basically get the same thing - with none of the guilt that accompanies fast food dining. Something about a sandwich, and a sub at that, seems so wholesome, so Americana, that it beats a Big Mac for the sake of appearances any day of the week.


The setup of your average Subway shop may explain its popularity. Their wallpaper with vague sepia inscriptions of ancient subway lines is oddly calm and nostalgic for the New Yorker. For those out of the tri-state area, I imagine it gives a taste of exoticism and danger, thus making it all things to all people. The standard glass case at the counter allows the customer to see their potential toppings, and gives a view of the sandwich making process. This gives one a sense of empowerment absent at other establishments, where the food is prepared almost out of sight and earshot. This feeling is further bolstered by the fact that the customer gets to choose their toppings, quite unlike McDonald’s-type establishment where one orders their burger and shuts up. Many also allow you to fill your own soda, which leads to the potential for unlimited refills. In addition to this, no Subway ever has more than two employees working behind the counter. This means that each customer is likely to be waited on extensively, almost personally served, unlike fast food joints where a 12-person team works to make your fries and Coke.


This freedom, or illusion thereof, is a popular trend in modern service industries. What corporate America discovered after the 1960’s is that people, despite the fact that they don’t like doing things for themselves, still want nominal control over their destinies. Places are needed where we can assert meager signs of individuality, and in this increasingly consumerist society, shopping and eating are the biggest areas where we want this semi-independence. Barnes and Noble has made a killing in recent years by establishing stores with enormous selection and little employee interference with consumer exploration. People are invited to slump in comfy chairs and paw at books they may have no intention of buying while slurping overpriced Starbucks coffee.


What these stores also lack are the potential for unpleasant experiences, or even the occasional surprise. Corporate planning makes sure that employees act perfectly (as determined by psychologists for best mass response) and that everything is always where it should be. How could your average deli possibly compete, put together by some poor, hard working recent immigrant and manned by their surly children? In the Subway world, the employees are oppressively nice, and the food always tastes the same. In the new America, especially on the road, nothing bad will happen. There will be no stories to tell, good or bad. That is the worst part - there will be no stories to tell because perfect stasis will be maintained at all times. Things will never get worse, but they also will never get better. It's a lot what I imagine hell to be like - large, interconnected white rooms where the temperature is always 75 degrees and nothing but cold cuts are served at the perfectly spaced-apart meals.


There must be something in the processed meats or damp, pickled veggies, because from the road, Subway begins to rule your existence. Once you’re out long enough, you will find yourself eating at them repeatedly, often for more than one meal. The sandwiches are no better or worse than any you could get in any halfway decent deli, and not much cheaper. Still, the road assaults you with the yellow, white and black sign incessantly enough to make escape futile. Sandwich four or five in the span of as many days is enough to send your stomach running and screaming for the hills. Something in the mind, however, something subconscious and hidden, overpowers every gastronomic instinct and there you are in those slippery yellow booth seats again. If the road is a theology, then Subway is its bitch goddess (if you’ll pardon my French), luring you in with promises of freedom and fulfillment. They seem realized when surrounded by antiseptic air conditioning and the vague smell of industrial strength cleaners. Back out in the van, however, the emptiness washes over you again, with only a smelly plastic sack and an empty bag of chips to show for your acquiescence. Subway doesn’t care. Subway knows you’ll come back looking for more. Just try to escape them. They know you can't. I personally defy you to find a rest stop without one. And there you are inside again, about to be pummeled with convenience.


Like everything on the new Main Streets in the new America, Subway sandwiches are sleek and uniform, inoffensive and inescapable. All routes now lead to Subway, and there is no transfer off of this line to any other.


Next month - It’s Mall Over But The Shouting.

Back to the Main Page