In any case, off I went on that day of discovery from the egregious mold pit wherein I labor for the biblical mite, a not nearly as interesting a bug as the praying mantis, Gregor Samsa, or the crazy guy who comes in here every day wanting to know what the last thing on the computer is, but one merchants across the length and breadth of this our Great Republic are more likely to accept in their establishments than the hoarse fly, the shagged fly, and the open fly, unless, of course, you’re running that type of establishment, down [yes, this is the main verb; my apologies for the delay in getting to it—I left it on the kitchen table next to the car keys this morning and I had to go back inside for them both] the street to the Gnocchi Deli, there to consume an Italian Combo, which is not, despite the obviously misleading name, three guys from Aci Castello with second hand instruments interested in playing the greatest hits of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie with more or less (mostly less) no degree of skill, but a definitely non-kosher sandwich made from various and sundry Italian cold cuts made in Iowa by illegal aliens from Oaxaca.
It was a busy day at the deli; I am usually in the tail end of the lunchtime crowd, but that day the gods of lunchmeat and chronology were not kind to me, and so I was just one more body in a packed mass of bodies craving high sodium and fat. To add to the confusion, the new girl behind the counter had not, as most new people have not, fully mastered the intricacies of operating a cash register. But she was game, no two ways about it. She was all hustle and bustle, cheerfully scurrying this way and that way in precisely the way that someone who knows what they are doing does not. [Yes, I am paraphrasing D.N.A., for those of you who noticed.] I did not give her my order—I figured I’d cut the kid some slack—so I gave my order to Billy Gnocchi, the owner’s son, and while he made the sandwich we did what baseball fans in this neck of the woods do at this time of the year: argue about whether the Red Sox in their current incarnation are the actual spawn of Satan or merely a small and not terribly important subset of the mentally and venereally diseased slave army of the Anti-Christ. After he finished piling slabs of faux Italianate lunchmeat on a roll, Billy wrapped the sandwich up in some paper and left it by the cash register for her to ring up. And it was there, by the cash register, in the bright light of an October noon, that the new girl posed the existential question.
She was confused, as well she might be, for I strongly suspect that she lied through her teeth on her application about having any experience in food service in general or in the cut-throat, dog eat dog world of retail sandwich making in particular, and because she was confused, she was well on her way to becoming flustered as well. This is always a bad sign. It became very clear to me very quickly that the only experience this young woman had with cash registers was in rifling the contents thereof during armed robberies, a skill useful, perhaps, for those happy few who choose a career in professional lawbreaking or Democratic politics, but one not entirely germane to her current circumstances. As she tried to figure out what to do next, her conversation yes I said I will yes became a Joycean stream of consciousness that flowed riverrun out of her mouth while Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the internal organs of beasts and fowls without any editing at all from her now allegedly conscious mind and a very good moocow it was too and pooled on the floor about her feet in brightly colored patterns of toxic flop sweat that positively shouted Parnell Parnell my vanquished king upon all the living and the dead. Finally, at the height of her confusion, crushed between the Scylla of orders and the Charybdis of making change, she asked me, “Are you the taco?” To which query Billy Gnocchi hollered from the other end of the deli, “No, he’s the combo.”
No, I am not the taco, but this does not mean that I, or any other human being, for that matter, can, in light of the tanking economy, avoid the question for very long. For who is and who is not the taco is ultimately a philosophical question, perhaps one of the great philosophical questions of our time, along with what is the meaning of life, how to be just in an unjust world, and why is an old guy like Hugh Hefner getting all the hot babes? The question of who is the taco is not an easy one to ask or to answer, which renders it unpopular in our glib era, where what we want from philosophy is a thirty-second sound bite that explains all of creation and has a snappy punch line too.
It was not always thus, however. Heraclitus, the greatest of the pre-Socratic philosophers, held that war and tacos were the father of us all, a position many Greeks of his time shared. Centuries later, Diogenes the Cynic held that Heraclitus was a dope and a dolt whose position on tacos would only make sense to a Theban, a noticeably not bright group of people much given to marrying their mothers and walling their daughters up in the rec room in order to avoid paying for a prom dress. Socrates himself had no position on tacos other than Xanthippe, whom he loathed, and Plato found the matter uninteresting to the nth degree. Archimedes the Syracusan, on the other hand, proved mathematically that the best way to eat a taco was while wearing a green t-shirt and boxer shorts, and Thucydides devotes a chapter of The Peloponnesian War to the Athenian attack on the polis of Burpus in upper Attica, which the Athenians did in order to get control of the taco traffic in central Greece.
But none of this mostly unnecessary verbiage really addresses the central issue: who is the taco? What is the role of the taco in modern life, and how can I fulfill my taco destiny, assuming that I even have a taco destiny? Is there a life after tacos and if there is, how can I achieve this life, and will I have to supply my own Rolaids once I get there? Will the professional doubters like Christopher Hitchens undermine our society’s deepest held beliefs in the efficacy of ordering tacos? Difficult questions, all of them, and I see no desire among today’s young people to even spend the slightest amount of time considering them. We must, I fear, wait for a more reflective age than this one before we can even begin to think deeply about the question. It will be a long wait, I think.