The speakers in the ceiling ask “Why am I soft in the middle—when my life is so hard?” I am taken back and aback by the question. Though I am soft in the middle now like the character in “You Can Call Me Al,” I can’t honestly say my life is hard, especially when i look around at the kids, mostly Latino, who are working at the Taco Bell where I am eating a mini skillet bowl for breakfast and listening to the incongruous existential angst of the first single from “Graceland,” which is now playing in everyone’s background. I suspect, though, I am the only one seeing “cattle in the marketplace.”
The man in the song (of course it’s a man) questions, above all, his own relevance. Thirty-plus years later, that’s still the question for the poor guy, but also the music itself, and, well, me (and maybe anyone who has reached a certain age).
I average two visits per week to this Taco Bell in Ceres, California. I stop on my way to work before my first class, English 136: American literature after 1850 (my favorite). Frankly, the mini skillet bowl, which consists of diced and fried potatoes, scramble eggs, nacho-style melted cheese, and a little Pico de Gallo, is a fine value at one U.S. dollar. This Taco Bell, like all the fast-food establishments in Ceres, radiates a not-so-sanitary charm (you’ll want to limit your visits to the restroom). But the younger people who work here exhibit a resigned friendliness that I appreciate. They are nice to people without pretending they have landed their dream job, though the cashier may have gone too far this morning when she gave me, without provocation, the senior discount.
Meanwhile, Mr. Simon, or rather his speaker, is about to discover his epiphany (damn, I love those angels in the architecture) among those rich African rhythms, and I for my part, contemplate one more refill of diet Pepsi before I find my way to the junior college and my irrepressibly eager students.
D.W. Schmidt is from Hughson, CA and teaches at a junior college.