We hung out at Taco Bell. Mikey, Ned, Jim, and I.
We were 14. We were annoying as fuck. We rode our bikes everywhere.
By everywhere I mean Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Hollywood Video. But Taco Bell was where we spent most of our time and allowance.
Two Double-Decker Tacos and a Nachos Supreme were my bites of choice, but if I was broke it was a “cup for water” filled with Diet Coke.
We lived in Chesterfield, MI, a Detroit suburb that hasn’t stopped growing since I moved there in 1990. We wove our bikes through the congestion, the freeway entrances and exits. We threw trash in the road, we popped wheelies over roadkill, we flicked off every car we cut off.
We were awful, but never as awful as we were at Taco Bell.
There was Phyllis. Phyllis was a stout woman of 50 or so that manned the register. She had the thickest lisp I’ve ever heard. “Hi, boysch,” she’d spit out when we’d enter. “Letsch make this easchy today, huh?”
We didn’t make it easy. We’d fuck with her. When we got our food, all wet and smashed, we’d point at the mouthwatering burritos on the menu, overflowing with meat, sour cream, and tomatoes.
“This,” we’d say, pointing at our burritos, “is not that,” pointing at the menu’s burritos. “THAT is not THIS.”
If we felt there wasn’t enough cinnamon on our Cinnamon Twists, we’d ask for more, but not before eating half the bag. They always acquiesced. We were shitty, but we were loyal.
Ed was the manager. We called him Special Ed, or “Spesh” for short. He only kicked us out once: when we brought in horse burgers from Hot N’ Now to eat in the Taco Bell booths. Spesh wasn’t sympathetic to the fact that Hot N’ Now didn’t have a dining room.
There was one employee we never fucked with, though. Victor.
Victor, was tall and thin, with thick, dark hair and a patchwork ‘stache. He wore a Taco Bell baseball hat. He’d stand by the garbage cans, wiping down dirty trays. Victor suffered from the kind of mental disability we could recognize without being able to articulate. He was, in the parlance of sheltered yet rebellious suburban teens, “retarded.”
When we weren’t at Taco Bell we were playing video games. Or touch football. Or watching scramble porn. If we weren’t doing any of those things, we were prank calling people.
Now, this was the late 90s, so we had no Internet, no cell phones. We called from my house’s landline. We found our marks in the phone book. We’d look for guys with interesting names, such as Bill Dykeman.
“Hey, it’s the Dyke Man! What up, Dyke Man!” we’d say, aware and perfectly comfortable with how completely fucking stupid this was.
Bill Dykeman sighed. “Very funny, guys.”
“Hi, is your husband home?” we’d say if a woman answered. “No? Okay, just tell him to meet me at the gay bar on the corner.”
We’d call Mega Video, ask them if they carried “Ejacula,” the name of a porno we knew existed. The guy would check: “Yes, we do.”
That was the extent of the joke.
We wanted to go further.
Once, we convinced a woman we were from a radio station, and if she could guess the correct song she would win tickets to see Everclear. She was down. We played “Spoonman” by Soundgarden. She got it right. We didn’t really know what to do, so we said her tickets were in the mail. We got her address and everything.
That was fun, but whatever.
One day, someone at Taco Bell gave us a survey. Questions about customer service. There was a number at the bottom: “Share any thoughts on your experience with us at our toll-free number.”
Suddenly, we had a new purpose in life. We immediately called it. Ned said there were pubic hairs in the meat. They took the complaint. We called again. Mikey said he got explosive diarrhea, which now that I think about it, wasn’t a prank so much as a confession. Jim called once and said one of his testicles disappeared and it might be Taco Bell’s fault. They hung up on him almost immediately.
Mikey kicked it up a notch when he called and said Spesh swore at him. This was actually true – he dropped an “I don’t give a shit” when yelling at us once. Mikey, his voice straight and somber, said the experience bothered him greatly, and that he went home and cried about it that night. They said appropriate action would be taken.
Spesh gave us side eye at Taco Bell the next day. He knew it was us. I can’t imagine anyone else had driven him to swear at a customer. He never spoke to us again.
We cackled. We had made a difference.
I called next, telling the customer service representative that Phyllis’ lisp was too thick and I couldn’t understand her. I was also concerned she might be getting saliva in the food. They said the situation would be addressed.
Over the next few weeks, Phyllis wasn’t on the register as much anymore. She’d be in the back, washing dishes. When she was on the register, there seemed to be a more concentrated effort to hide her lisp. Or maybe that’s just what we thought. We were drunk with power.
I don’t know why we did what we did next. I don’t want to think we were truly this mean, or this ignorant. But we were. We were having fun. I don’t have any other explanation.
Now, I don’t remember who had the idea for this call. Unlike the others, this one was completely fictional. Just something we made up. I even wrote the script for it. Yes, a script, because this was our riskiest one yet. We were too scared to call during their posted business hours, so we called when we knew we’d get an answering machine.
Jim made the call. We sat around him. He read from a piece of computer paper. It went something like this:
“Yesterday I was at the Taco Bell on 23 Mile, near Donner Road. There’s an employee there named Victor. When I walked by him, I noticed he was looking at me in a sexual manner. He also made sexual comments under his breath. I feel violated and I hope this never happens again.”
Jim hung up.
Usually we’d burst into laughter here, high-fiving and quoting the reaction. Instead, there was a silence.
I wouldn’t call it uncomfortable, really. We still thought what we’d done was funny. We figured Victor would get a slap on the wrist and nothing more.
But still, something had changed. Nothing seismic. We still made prank phone calls, but never again to the Taco Bell hotline. Instead, we called Dykeman. Housewives. Mega Video.
I don’t recall seeing Victor at Taco Bell after that. And that makes me feel horrible.
So much of what I did back then makes me feel horrible.
I remember poking a kid named Nelson in the head on the bus. Poking him until he cried.
I remember breaking up with my sixth grade girlfriend over the phone as all my friends listened in on other lines. She cried, and when she heard the six of us laughing on the other end, she cried harder.
I remember walking around my subdivision with Jim in the winter, tipping over snowmen, stomping on top hats and breaking their carrot noses in half.
I remember times I told my dad I hated him.
But I didn’t think I was a bad kid, not by my definition. Not in the traditional sense. I never broke the law. I mostly got A’s. I played tennis, and hugged my grandmother every time I saw her.
I was just cruel.
I was so fucking cruel.
And I don’t know why.
I got a job at McDonald’s a year later. I’d take orders from pretty girls who laughed as I fetched them apple pies. Sometimes twentysomethings would blare airhorns into the drive-thru speaker and I’d scream in pain, ripping at the earpiece as they peeled by my window. Other times I’d stand stupidly in the bathroom, a gray mop in my hand, as liquid shit slid down the tiled walls. Often, I’d stare at the sun outside as I splashed soap on another set of plastic trays.
There’s no forgiveness for youthful cruelty. There is, however, the hope that empathy will one day eclipse it.
There’s also tipping.
Randall Colburn writes about pop culture for The A.V. Club, Consequence of Sound, Blumhouse.com, and a bunch of other places. As a playwright, Randall has seen his work produced and developed at theaters like Playwright’s Horizons, Writers’ Theatre, the Alliance Theater, the Mammals, the Right Brain Project, the Public Theater, and many more. He’s also written and performed around Chicago with 2nd Story, Write Club, You’re Being Ridiculous, Mortified, the Paper Machete, and more. You can also catch him as a talking head in the hit documentary BEST WORST MOVIE.