There are several things that set Southern Californians apart. The fact that I used the definite article before the freeway number in this post’s title. My ability to weather even the worst traffic with a shrug and a vanilla ice blended. My ability not to have to weather the traffic because I know 8 alternate freeways and 4 side street routes to get me where I need to be. My appreciation of strip malls and acceptance of cell phone conversations that would seem contextually inappropriate in other cities. The fact that I grew up a 5 minute walk from the beach but hardly went (it’s enough to know it’s there, no?)
And then there’s what sets us apart when we travel: our appreciation – nay – worship – of the In-N-Out on the 5 at Kettlemen City.
For many years, that In-N-Out was the northern-most in our fair state. Consequently, it was a holy site – a meeting place. The last chance for those headed up the 5, the first sign of home for those heading down.
I know it like I know an old playground or friend’s house. I know that when you make that right-hand turn off the main drag you don’t turn into the McDonald’s parking lot, even though it sure looks like you have to cross under the Golden Arches to get to the Golden Arrow: getting to the In-N-Out takes patients and an extra 100 feet.
I know they don’t take plastic and the piece of mind that comes with knowing they’ve finally stuck an ATM in the corner so you’ll never be Double-double-less again for lack of cash.
I know that you shouldn’t have to wait in line in the women’s restroom because there really are 6 hidden stalls around the corner that the uninitiated, the Northerners, don’t seek out. I know that you have to be careful when you wash your hands because turning the handle to the far left is a recipe for scalding and the appetite ruining shivers a good scald can induce.
I know the secret menu.
I know that I once – almost – broke up with a boyfriend right there by the soda machines – faithfully located in every, single, blessed store – for saying “I don’t see what the big deal is, it’s just a burger.”
I know that when I say “plain and dry,” I won’t be questioned, they won’t be confused, and I’ll get what I want with no superfluous offers of ketchup or pickles.
Now that In-N-Out has crept into San Jose, San Francisco, and even Marin, Californians who previously lacked the opportunity to get to know In-N-Out can now see how the other half lives. Sadly, many still get it.
But in that In-N-Out, the knowing Southern Californians meet. We catch each other’s eyes. We place our orders. And we know that home is either within reach, or never that far off. . . .