Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Life According To The Lunchbox (Extended Version)

“It’s been a slow night,” said Kurt with one eye on me and one eye on his customer. “This is the third person I’ve had all night. I just got this little rush of people before you walked in.”

I don’t fully sympathize with his plight since a rather sizeable line of students just accumulated on the grassy knoll adjacent to Kurt’s Lunchbox. They want fried food; it’s what their appetites created by PBRs crave more than anything. Kurt has fried food by the white truck-full. Kurt will end up with over three-hundred customers by the end of the night, I’m sure of it.

I climbed up into the van and looked around and had an expression on my face similar to the one I had the first time I saw The Never Ending Story. He greets me and has me stand back while he lifts a fresh batch of mozzarella sticks out of the roaring oil. “This is a hot one!,” Kurt exclaimed over the clamor of the customers and of my maneuvering on the cold steel floor. “Thanks for stopping by. It’s nice to have some company in here,” he said while walking over to dispense some food to a pair of college students.

Though his affable nature and genuine smile create a persona much like a neighborhood ice cream man, Kurt opts to listen to rock stations or Jane’s Addiction albums instead of the familiar summertime jingle. Kurt’s day job is a teacher’s aide in high school, and he can come up with the correct amount of change instantly for any combination of food from any cash amount, but he can’t remember if he’s had his food business for eleven or twelve years. The truck has an old and worn appearance, but the inside is a very clean and efficient system built to equip any amount of people who decide to show up. There isn’t much space, but you can move very quickly from the nacho staging area on one side to the Crock-Pot that holds barbeque chicken on the other side.

Kurt was nice enough to let me observe his weekend trade on a night where he was battling the elements of a cold and rainy night in Durham, New Hampshire. There was a chance that a leak would form and send cold water into the hot oil and cause splashes which could burn his skin, or if the wind happened to blow east, there was a chance fire would shoot out from under his original model Fryalator and could burn his entire being. Despite these potential dangers, Kurt will stand in harm’s way for a few extra seconds to wrap sold food in tin foil so his customers will be ensured that their cheesy fries stay crispy and warm. Kurt cares about his craft more than he cares about our personal safety. I made sure to stand back and let the master take care of business.

Kurt is the perfect example of a college late night mainstay. He is a well-known figure that goes by one name and one name only. Everyone who has been at UNH for more than a month knows where he is located. His “cheesy fries” are part of the local vernacular just as much as “HoCo,” “DHOP,” and “The Dump.” A good deal of college campuses have food trucks, and Kurt’s has all of the characteristics and ambiance of a typical one, including the slight air of mystery that Kurt himself seems to give off (the “Kurt is a teacher” rumor has floated around the campus for a long time, amongst other things of that nature). The food is delicious, especially after a night of drinking. The dude working the counter is one of the more cool laid back dudes you’ll see all night. He wears a funny hat and rings one of two bells depending on how much you tip him. He remembers the regulars and he gives out free samples to those who’ve yet to enjoy the fruits of his labor. Kurt is a late night college campus staple, and people like him are integral to a full college experience.

The feeling one gets attaining fried food after a night of drinking is the same feeling as finally beating the original Super Mario Bros; you got what you wanted and who cares if you got through being warped? The food isn’t the most important aspect of a food truck on a college campus; it’s the atmosphere just outside of it. The line at a place like this is always a post on the Facebook group “Overheard at UNH” waiting to happen. Approximately eight out of ten people in queue are relaxed, hungry people just looking for fries, and if they are lucky, a sideshow. The other two people in line are that very sideshow. “I’ve heard and saw just about everything by now,” Kurt told me with a slight grin and a laugh. With almost perfect comedic timing, a customer interrupted our conversation and asked Kurt to “grill a piece of cheese bread” and told him to put “whatever you want on it.”

The night kept up the trend of being interesting when two of Kurt’s “co-workers” showed up (I use the term co-workers loosely since they hadn’t been by the truck in a while). Two UNH students named Nicole and Chelsea entered the truck and they were very excited to be there. They started helping Kurt arrange the various food combos coming in waves through the outside and collecting money. “I have people help out if I know them and trust them with the responsibility of making change. There’s not that many people who have worked with me consistently.” Nicole was primarily handling the money and when she wasn’t asking me what the correct change for certain items were or listening to requests from guys asking for her number, she spoke warmly about the Kurt’s experience.

“This is one of the coolest places on campus. You see tons of people, and it is just a good time,” she said through a smile. Chelsea concurred with a whole hearted, “Kurt rocks!” The employee with the least spotty attendance record would be Dane DiLiegro, the starting center for the UNH basketball team. The low ceiling of Kurt’s wouldn’t seem like ideal working conditions for someone who stands at 6’9”, but Dane enjoys the experience. He also conceptualized “Danish Sauce,” a condiment of Dane and Kurt’s creative collaboration that is used to top french fries and hot dogs.

“I find it therapeutic. It can get pretty busy, but it’s nice to work here and just live in the moment and not worry about anything else.” While Kurt has no plans to open a Day Spa off of his truck, the therapeutic atmosphere does make sense. Kurt is much unstressed by the environment and it rubs off on everyone. The students who wait in line for up to half an hour at a time don’t even get all that mad if he has to close up shop on them since Kurt genuinely does seem sorry if he cannot serve a customer due to having to close at 2pm, a rule kept fairly strict and monitored by the UNH Police Department. “The students have always been great to me and so have the administrators and the police. Everyone in the community has been very welcoming of me.”

One of the things I will always remember from my college experience is being lucky enough to have a window with a bird’s eye view of Kurt’s every single weekend. I always found something reassuring about the faint yellow light emanating out of the back door window; it reminds me that the weekend is here. I used Kurt’s as my weekly treat when I was spending the rest of the week exercising and dieting to lose weight. Although a Jared Fogel like campaign probably wouldn’t be met with much positive response in regards to Kurt’s, I have dropped around 60 pounds since going to Kurt’s on a regular basis. These connections are, to some extent, unique but simply having stories and Kurt’s experiences to recount when remembering college is not that unique since nearly everyone has something to remember. Perhaps you shared a drag of a clove cigarette with a really good friend and you had an intense conversation about life while waiting in line for corn dogs. Or, maybe you saw someone eat pavement falling off a skateboard after trying to do a kick flip onto the curb near the truck. The point is that Kurt’s Lunchbox is an epicenter of nostalgia if you allow it to be. Assuming, of course you can recollect what happened that night.

1 comment:

  1. I am posting a running diary of my night at Kurt's either tonight or tomorrow as well.