Saturday, April 12, 2014
The Taco Bell Jar
The first similarity I noticed was the typography—tall, narrow seventies letters with curlicuing flourishes at their otherwise hard edges. Davida font against a flat colored background. The second similarity that struck me was the shame.
I’ve always had a weakness for wordplay. I explained to my co-worker that if I ever got married I’d want to have an Otis Wedding.
“It would be on the dock of the bay,” I gushed, “and the procession would enter to a chorus of whistlers who’d move from Motown tunes to more complicated baroque arrangements.”
“You want one if the most significant events in your life to be based on a weak pun?” He asked.
“Yes,” I gurgled, tears forming in my eyes as I clasped my hands across my heart. “I do.”
So when I divined the similarities between the classic cover of Sylvia Plath’s proto-feminist novel The Bell Jar and the old Taco Bell logo, and I realized they were unified by the best kind of pun—one that marries high and low culture—I was beyond inspired. I realized immediately that I must do a performance.
I’m moved and impressed by the old school strain of performance art that hinges on acts of endurance. In 1974, Marina Abramovic wrote these instructions for a performance called Freeing the Voice:
“I lie on the floor with my head tilted backwards.
I scream until I lose my voice.”
My deep-seeded authority problems, bolstered through years of exposure to punk rock and Catholic education, have rendered me hopelessly irreverent, so I also think this classic type of art performance is a fair target for parody. I’d sit at Taco Bell, in its gaudy plastic “dining room” where no one besides the staff spends more than twenty minutes and read The Bell Jar from cover to cover in one sitting, and I’d make a video of the whole thing.
I pulled into the Taco Bell parking lot on Saturday night as dusk fell. I was already violating one of my personal life rules: Only eat Taco Bell under cloak of night. Why? Because of shame. I was uncomfortably aware of my body, clad in a peach cashmere sweater and pencil skirt borrowed from a friend’s vintage store. I also, as a rule, don’t wear peach, but I was committed to approaching shame from all sides, and the element of costume took me out of myself. I smoothed my hair into a makeshift French twist, and with paperback under my arm entered the taco complex.
I ordered some hot garbage from the helpful young man behind the register and slid into a hard plastic booth, trying to make myself comfortable. I was in it for the long haul. And, as it turned out, this franchise was a hot spot for loitering. A crew of college-age Dungeons and Dragons players and a boisterous group of transients rounded out the dining room crowd. Their conversations provided the ambient soundtrack that I’d alternately eavesdrop on and try to ignore over the course of my sitting.
The Bell Jar, Chapter One: Sensitive young writer Esther Greenwood has been offered a dream job doing temporary writing for a women’s magazine, but her experiences in the big city lead to her psychological unraveling. Esther spends most of chapter one getting drunk:
“I began to think vodka was my drink at last…It went straight down into my stomach like a sword swallowers’ sword and made me feel powerful and godlike” (10).
This plot element underscores another one of my personal roles I was breaking in the service of this performance: Never eat Taco Bell sober. Heretoforth, I’d only ever experienced the Crispy Potato Soft Taco, the Cheesy Bean and Rice Burrito through an alcoholic fog. Sobriety did the food no favors, but Fire Sauce did, so I smothered my bean blobs with it, trying to be conscientious of my borrowed cashmere.
“I knew something was wrong with me that summer, because all I could think about was the Rosenbergs and how stupid I’d been to buy all those uncomfortable, expensive clothes, hanging limp as fish in my closet…” (1).
One Doritos Tacos Loco down, one chapter under my belt.
A half hour into my performance, the conversation between the transient-types at the table next to me got a little louder and harder to ignore. As I ran my eyes across Plath’s hefty metaphors, attempting to absorb their content, I simultaneously absorbed the details of some drifter drama.
“She’s beautiful!” a craggy man behind me hollered to his companions about some unsuspecting diner. “Too bad she’s not twenty years older! Shit, another seven!”
Here the rattle of his plastic dice across the tabletop entwined with Plath’s narrative like a thorny bramble. I took a pull from a massive cup of Baja Blast and worked on comprehending.
Esther spends Chapter 3 of The Bell Jar feeling like the black sheep at an upscale banquet for the journalist girls sharing her ranks. She watches a centerpiece of marzipan fruits melt as she shovels avocado, crab salad, and caviar in to her mouth. She sips an unadorned glass of vodka and entertains herself by lying to strangers.
I was lying to strangers too! I nibbled at my taco in a mannered way, fingering my out-of-place pearl necklace. I was also freezing. Taco Bell seemed to maintain a chilly temperature to discourage this type of long-term stay. It also neglected to provide electrical outlets for weirdos making videos. I thought when I was here, I was family. Or is that the Fazoli’s slogan?
The Taco Bell slogan emblazoned on my giant cup was “Live Mas.” This is a fittingly clunky juxtaposition of English and conversational Spanish, and there’s probably a suicide joke teed up there, but I’ll avoid it. Despite Plath’s morbid reputation garnered from her grim poetic imagery and dramatic death, The Bell Jar is a book that feels very alive. Esther feels everything strongly, and the book is dense with raw, sensory experiences that she is ill-equipped to process. Maybe amidst the Taco Bell crowd, my transient tablemates were the ones who were truly alive. Maybe they were the real endurance artists. All I can say for sure, is that one hour into my reading they drove me out. The reviews of girls’ bodies and the rattle of the incessant dice became more than I could withstand, and I broke from my prim pastel character to fling the book across the booth.
“I can’t fucking deal!” I announced to the camera, then laughed and laughed like Marina Abramovic never would.