Sometimes you want to go where everybody tells you to eat their pussy; sometimes you just want to watch that place on television. Or at least that's the case for TruTV, which has decided to create a reality show for Lincoln Park institution the Wiener's Circle, as reported Monday by the Huffington Post. In case you don't know what the big deal is about Wiener's Circle, well, join the club, because I'm not really sure what the big deal is either. But the nuts and bolts of it are that the Wiener's Circle is a fast food shack in Lincoln Park that is famous for its hot dogs and cheese fries, but more famous for the loud, foulmouthed black women who work behind the register at night until 5 AM. The "novelty" of Wiener's Circle is that the employees who take your order will yell some of the nastiest, most offensive insults back at you when you are likely blind drunk.
Wiener's Circle's lore was given national attention when Ira Glass featured it on This American Life, compounded by its reappearance on the television format of that radio program. Here's the video of that episode (with a scrolling, low-tech, rhetorical question typical of YouTube uploads at the end of the video).
I went to Wiener's Circle for the first time over ten years ago, and I remember being terrified. I knew nothing of the service and was scared out of my mind when the woman taking my order told me to suck her dick when I said "Thank You" for taking my order. It never occurred to me that this was why my friends and I went to Wiener's Circle—I assumed we were going because the food was good, which was the reason given to me. The food, in fact, was pretty good—the dog was grilled well and the cheese fries were terrific, with just the right dollop of cheesy goop.
I returned with some friends a few weeks later, but this time the place was packed. People were pouring in through the doors, and most of them were sweaty (it was in the middle of summer), thirtysomething white men. The difference this time was that whereas before the women behind the counter were dishing out all the insults, this time the patrons were dishing it right back. And a lot of what they were saying was crueler than what the cashiers were shouting. At the time, it seemed like there was something sinister about the way the customers were talking to the cashiers—I figured they thought to themselves, "Well, if they're going to talk to me this way then that's how I'll speak to them."
When I went back a few years later, having graduated from college and been away from Chicago for a few years, the poison in that interaction became much more transparent. The crowd was mostly the same as before, but this time the comments seemed much more violent and openly racist. I can't remember what exactly was said, but I remember my reaction—I was disgusted by the way the crowd of mostly white men in stripy shirts and Diesel jeans were berating the women behind the counter, who seemed much more timid and less threatening than I remembered. And the comments the cashiers made weren't any tamer, necessarily, but I could tell that by this point they were expected to act this way, and the comments they made seemed rehearsed and stale. It seemed like an act, and it seemed like an act of self-degradation.
A year ago, my girlfriend and I somehow ended up in Wrigleyville; it was late, and we were starving. Reluctantly, I took her to Wiener's Circle—it must have been a weeknight, because the place wasn't that crowded. The cashier (whom I now know is Roberta "Poochie" Jackson, thanks to the This American Life episode) was doing the usual Wiener's Circle shtick, telling me that I could get pussy juice on my hot dog to go along with mustard and relish. The performance aspect of the routine was so obvious by this point—even the laughter by the patrons seemed forced—and the food was truly awful. The hot dog was undercooked and soggy, and the fries were drowning in a quicksand of salt. I haven't been back since.
The last experience I had with the food at Wiener's Circle makes me think that there are only two logical reasons why anyone would want to go eat there: they're too drunk to care what the food tastes like and/or they want the experience of having invective shouted at them by a black woman (and, alternately, to verbally abuse the women, whether they're prompted or not). Either way, the underlying motives are ugly ones.
The gimmick of Wiener's Circle—what apparently doubles their business according to the This American Life episode—is abuse: you can dish it or receive it. There are numerous reasons that the specific abuse at Wiener's Circle might appeal to people. The one that probably doesn't immediately come to mind is that the service is somehow less phony because the people serving your food can act however they'd like. Normally the job of the waiter or chef is to serve you, which means that it is their job to be obsequious and helpful—a notion that Wiener's Circle openly does away with. Upon closer inspection, however, the motives of these practices are identical: both are performed with the primary objective to make money. And frankly, it's a little difficult to tell which is more honest about that purpose; at first, you might think it's Wiener's Circle, but the roundabout way in which the owners seek to make money only further obstructs their objective.
Another level of Wiener's Circle's attraction is that it's the one place where vocal abuse is (mostly) acceptable. Many of the late-night customers likely work jobs where service—or, alternately, their office's acceptable level of comportment—requires a suppression of true reactions and feelings. A place like Wiener's Circle, whether it's submissive or submitted, is a place where the release of those feelings is possible.
Of course, this is probably not thought about by the customers of Wiener's Circle, who drunkenly crave greasy food and blithely encounter an accepted emotional climate. And part of the reason that climate exists is because Wiener's Circle has now become something else—an establishment—in this case, an establishment that is part of a greater tradition of Chicago. That might be the most perverse and the most frightening thing about the Wiener's Circle: it's a place where people go to feel like they're a part of something.
What seems to be lost on people is that the thing they're a part of is in front of them every day, all the time, but not examined quite as closely. They're taking part in a manifested form of the racism and segregation that is a hallmark of the city. They eat in a place where a wall divides them from the service, which is more often than not of disparate gender and race. And while the cussing and derogatory comments may seem to acknowledge that division of class, gender, and race, the way that interaction takes place only makes what is mostly straightforward more confusing, since in a weird way of acknowledging barriers it attempts to absolve itself of guilt, thereby obfuscating those divisions. But maybe this new reality show, while further exploiting the employees of Wiener's Circle, in a circumstantial way, might ultimately benefit them. Maybe they won't have to work there any longer, and then people will stop going.
__________________ Poster formerly known as sLaNd B a L L a