I was sitting, alone, in a booth at White Castle in Indianapolis Sunday night when I had the strangest feeling. It wasn’t déjà vu, the feeling I’d been there before. After all, I had been there before. I have eaten at White Castle a few times in my life. In fact, I have eaten at this particular White Castle before. It wasn’t a feeling of déjà vu exactly, but a general impression I’d thought the same thoughts somewhere else.
I think part of it was the lighting; flat fluorescent light that removes shadows and makes the surrounding windows almost impenetrable. Part of it was the lack of sound. There was no Muzak playing in the background. The kitchen was only ten feet from me, but the clatter managed to sound far away somehow. There was a low electrical buzzing from the neon sign in the window, advertising the fact White Castle is open 24 hours a day. I think part of it was the general mood. I wasn’t the only one in there. Two men were eating in a booth across the restaurant from me. Neither of them spoke. The two women working behind the counter kept the conversation to the minimum required to take orders and fulfill them.
If you go to a restaurant on a Friday or a Saturday night, there’s a party atmosphere. If you go in the evening during the week, you almost get a feeling of family. Sunday nights have an air of isolation. Everyone seemed to be preoccupied, lost in private thoughts as they ate slowly and mechanically. Maybe they were lamenting the end of the weekend. Others – like me – were possibly preparing for work in the morning.
As I walked out to my car, I happened to look back at the restaurant. White Castle was a brilliant white beacon. I could see the booths inside. One had an old man wearing a tweed jacket about four sizes too large. Shadows poured out in straight lines. Around it were empty stores lit by dim yellow parking lot lights. And it occurred to me I’d been dining in an Edward Hopper painting.