By Andrea Ayres
What makes a family environment? Is it the kid’s menu? Maybe it is in the color of the restaurant itself. What sort of colors say “family dining establishment”? In the 1990s, before bans on smoking were a thing, the smoking section was expressly not for kids. Times were simpler then: the smoking section was for old folks who wanted to eat their chicken and dumpling soup in a cloud of nicotine. The smoking section was even cordoned off behind a velvet rope, like a cancerous corral.
Kids don’t eat anything; that’s what you learn about going out to eat at most suburban dining establishments. The kid’s menu is an unencumbered delight. You’ve got your staples there—a grilled cheese, always a grilled cheese. You have two options when you decide to go out to eat as a family: go to the place with apple slices on the menu or eat your designated local family dining establishment. Somehow, it always mentions this in the name: “Captain Todd’s Mush: A Family Establishment Since 1983”.
If you have any snowball’s chance in hell of enjoying your $4.95 white-wine-spritzer, you aren’t going to go to the place serving apple slices. So you shut up and go to the restaurant with grilled-freaking cheese and fries. Don’t worry about the little one burning their mouth because everything is cold, except for the parsley on the bottom of the plate, which is just nuclear levels of hot. Everything else? Damp. The cheese itself exists in a liminal space of fully melted and coherent slice of Kraft American Cheese Product.
Maybe it’s different now? But not here: not in Garfield’s world. He and Jon sit at the counter of a generic diner and Jon gets a balloon. He should be thrilled. The balloon to a child? An encapsulation of innocence itself. You get yourself a dining establishment giving out balloons, and you have the making of a cash cow. The balloon is a false sense of security.
That balloon is going to pop. Everyone knows it. That’s why everyone’s pissed you brought your kid out to eat here in the 1990s. The balloon is already deflating, and when it goes POP, it will scare the child and at least 24% of the diners. Still, Jon can’t help his momentary excitement.
When the balloon pops, you have two options as a parent. Wait for the child to stop crying on their own or ask for another balloon. The eyes of each diner are on you. God, you absolute piece of trash. How could you do this? These good people came out to eat for peace, for respite. And here you are, ruining it all. You have personally destroyed table 18’s night. Do you know how long they’ve been planning on coming to this place? They saw it in “Cal’s Culinary Corner” on the 4:30 afternoon local news broadcast this past Sunday. They waited the entire week, and now you and your devil child are shitting all over it.
In Garfield’s universe, Jon takes on the role of the child. Garfield knows better. He knows better even when he’s holding the menu upside down. He’s skeptical from the first panel to the last, the same way we have come to expect. Jon is the optimist. He doesn’t want to be swayed by the balloon, he’s smarter than that, but a pony ride? What kind of grump can resist a pony ride?
Garfield, because he knows. He implicitly understands the gambit. The transaction between the restaurant and the customer is dictated not by the pleasantry of a promised balloon or pony ride; no. This isn’t a relationship, and no amount of free bullshit will trick Garfield into thinking otherwise.
The atmosphere at your local family dining establishment is about providing parents a fantasy, however loosely constructed. It’s the fantasy that this is a place kids should be. It’s the fantasy that a kid’s menu denotes some sort of consideration about you or your spawn. The only thing this place cares about is your money and getting that money in as little time as humanly feasible. Get in. Eat the moist grilled cheese, spill the kids’ drink, take the fragile balloon, and we’ll all pretend we had a good time.
Except for Garfield.
He’ll be in the car.
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