Casa Bonita was essentially a Mexican restaurant masquerading as a theme park. It was a cavernous place that seemed to go on for miles, with multiple seating areas that had individual motifs going on, like “village square” and “tropical garden”. The absolute best place to sit was in “The Caves”, with its realistic stone walls and randomly-placed lanterns that threw shadows on everything in the slightly-creepy dimness. Of course, it was very difficult to gain access to The Caves during Casa Bonita’s heyday, and the hostess would often counter your request to be seated there with a look that made it very clear you were completely insane for even contemplating such.
Regardless of where you sat, the restaurant had a unique (to me at the time) way of letting your server know that you required additional food that you could shove in your mouth. (The restaurant had an all-you-can-eat option, which everyone took advantage of because most people are willing to be pigs when given the opportunity.) If you needed more grub, there was this little thing on your table with a flag, and you hoisted the flag upwards when you were in the throes of gluttony and your plate was barren.
I found this aspect of the dining experience to be fascinating, with a serving wench magically appearing just because you fiddled with a table accessory. In my youthful mind, because I was still a bit simple and hadn’t yet become jaded by working in the corporate world, I imagined that the flag was somehow connected to an important circuit board that alerted a Directoress of Food Management, who would then bellow something like “Table 42A needs more enchiladas. Run!” Of course, there was no magic involved. The servers simply wandered about the acres of dining enthusiasts until they spied a raised flag, and then they scurried. It was all merely a Pavlovian technique instilled in the workers, with a bit of smoke and mirrors thrown in, which is exactly how most politicians get elected.
The only downside to the Amazing Flag of Wonder is that I was not allowed to touch it as much as my entire being wished to do so. On my virginal visit to the Casa Bonita Experience, the family had barely gotten comfortable in their chairs when I latched onto the miniature flag pole and began running the flag up and down like a woodpecker. Suddenly, a large adult hand was smacking my naughty little hand away from the contraption.
Me: “What? What did I do?” (The mere fact that I was questioning my surprise punishment was a clear indication that I was out of my mind, because my dad firmly believed that when children interrupted the punishment-doling in any way, with tears or proclamations of injustice, it was a green light for further doling. And I knew this. I must have still been feeling a little spunky from the four cups of sugar I poured on my Honeycomb cereal whilst watching “Land of the Lost” that morning.)
Mom, diplomatically intervening: “We don’t raise the flag unless we need more food.”
Me: “But we don’t have any food. So I need to raise the flag, right?”
Mom: “We don’t have any food because we haven’t ordered yet. We just sat down. Wait until the waitress comes, and takes our order, and then we eat, and if you’re still hungry after that, then you raise the flag.”
This was far too complicated. “Why don’t we just tell her to bring enough food in the first place?”
Mom, her facial expressions indicating that I was about to have two parents not happy with me, instead of the usual one: “Because it doesn’t work that way. You don’t need the flag right now.”
Me, not relenting, because I always had questions about everything and I always needed answers, even if there really weren’t any: “Then why doesn’t the flag say that? Why isn’t there a sign that tells me what to do with the flag? Why are we here if they don’t know how much food to bring us?”
My brief philosophical moment was abruptly interrupted by my dad grabbing the little flag thing and moving it from its convenient location near me to the other end of the table, where I would have to physically deal with him should I feel the need to send out a signal to the world. Conversation thusly terminated.
From then on, whenever we dined at Casa Bonita (and I was surprised that there were subsequent visits, because surely my parents understood that wondering about the proper time to use the flag kept me awake at nights, a sure sign of an unhealthy obsession), I was fixated with that flag. It called to me, in its limply-hanging, salsa-splattered glory. My fingers would itch and spasm, yearning, but knowing that I needed to control myself. Then I would succumb and reach for the damn thing anyway.
Mom: “No, you haven’t finished what’s on your plate.”
Me: “Yes I have. It’s empty.”
Mom: “Empty? You still have a whole enchilada and you haven’t even touched your beans.”
So I would chop up the enchilada into little bits and move everything around with the fork, making it look like something had happened with my food. “There.”
Mom: “If I can’t see your reflection in the plate, you’re not done.”
I turned to my sister, hoping that she had a reflection that would pass the test and therefore flag-raising would be justified. Sadly, as usual, she had eaten her normal three grains of Spanish rice and half a tortilla chip, and she was full. Her plate still looked brochure-worthy, ready for prime-time viewing. No satisfaction in that direction.
Why was everybody trying to destroy my dreams?
Apparently somebody in the Planning Department at Casa Bonita understood that there would be children in attendance who might have emotional issues, so the restaurant theme park had a number of entertainment options to ease your pain until Oprah developed her TV show a few years later and you were finally allowed to talk about your trauma in front of a national audience. Sadly, though I appreciated the thought, some of these options only amped up my anxiety and did little to bring me down from the ledge.
They had a traveling band of mariachi/troubadour singers who would wander about, proffering melodies and matching outfits to one and all. It was very nice, actually, even to my little uncultured mind. As long as they stayed on the other side of the room. I didn’t like it when they came up to the table and then launched into an epic ballad about who knows what, usually a poor decision on the part of a young couple that led to someone being shamed in that rustic village square.
I never knew what to do when they were right there. Do you put down your fork and gaze admiringly upon them? Do you smile briefly at them and then continue with your meal because, well, that’s why you’re here, to eat? Are you supposed to stand up and join them, like the Coke commercial that was currently playing where random people apparently took one sip of a carbonated beverage and instantly felt compelled to bond with the entire world in perfect harmony? (Hey, maybe I could wave that little flag around during the really stirring parts!)
And then there was the money issue. Once the ballad finally dwindled down to its sad end involving somebody being unhappy for all eternity, people at other tables would generally clap and then hand them a buck or two. Nobody at our table ever let loose with the bills. (In my own juvenile defense, I was still a decade or so away from having a steady source of income, so there wasn’t much I could do.) But the fact that the families at other tables were doing one thing and the family at my table was doing nothing made me think that perhaps there should be a nice little ballad about that.
There was also a puppet-show theater where the kiddies could gather around and be entertained, post-meal, while their parents continued to guzzle margaritas and accuse each other of infidelity. I was never a fan of puppet shows, so I avoided this area. There’s just something not right about that mess. This probably stems from forced viewings of “The Sound of Music” when I was even younger, with Julie Andrews and the 400 children (apparently Captain Von Trapp had some very determined sperm) doing that marionette show with the creepy dolls that looked like a plastic surgeon had gone on a bender.
To be fair, there were other distractions for the youth that were not quite as nightmare-based. For one, there was the exquisiteness of the sopapillas that would be tantalizingly waved at you the very second you finished your entrée, belching and wiping ranchero sauce off your face. These things were delightful, of course, with the sugar and the honey and whatnot, but they should have come with a warning label: “Caution, despite the tastiness, the fried dough will expand in your already-stuffed belly and you will feel like you are about to pass a water buffalo. Please remain in close proximity to personal-comfort stations for the next 24 hours.” The “yummy doing down” sopapillas were huge implements of pain, post-consumption.
Then we had the Treasure Hut (I’m sure it had a fancier name, but I’m old now, and things have faded), a little shop where the underage crowd could claim a “prize” for being relatively stable during the dining experience and not burning the place down. The rewards were minimal, pieces of candy or some cheap little toys that would disintegrate with the first gust of wind, but it was still very exciting because everything is when you don’t know any better. (Now that I ponder it, there may have been a cost involved, perhaps something added to the bill, or maybe Grandpa had to trade a goat or something, but financial matters did not involve me at that time and I didn’t care.)
What I did know is that you were only supposed to take one item. This directive made sense to me, and I always abided by such, because I was a decent child with a healthy respect for regulation and order. This was not the case with many of the unruly children from other families who clamored into the little hut at the same time as I. Those heathens were cramming mounds of illicit booty into their Underoos or even unabashedly racing out the door with both fists full, bellowing in triumph. I would imagine those children later became elected officials in the Republican party.
Finally, after all of this whirlwind of activity had died down and it was time to go back to our own houses where we didn’t have flags that alerted the staff of our needs, we had to make the Long Journey Back to the Front Door. This could take a while, as the place was massive and you needed Sacajawea to get out of there. It was especially true if you had been feeding at the trough in The Caves, located as it was in another county at the back of the warehouse, since you had to walk past all the unfortunate souls who had been denied Cave Privileges, and they would glare at you with a jealous intensity that could fry your retinas. But it didn’t matter, because I was well-fed, I had been presented with free candy, someone loved me enough to pay for all this mess, and I had an extra sopapilla in my back pocket in case we had to cross a raging river on the way home and needed a life raft. (Seriously, those things expand.)
Eventually we would claw our way out of the front doors, fighting past the billions of people still trying to get in for a late meal. (Don’t even bother asking about The Caves, there’s a waiting list longer than the lines at gas stations caused by the oil embargo.) Yes, I watched the news, even then. This was before Fox News, so you could generally trust what you were seeing. Once we worked our way to a clear spot on the massive sidewalk in front of Casa Bonita’s, we would pause for a bit, because you really needed to recover after a fight for survival like that. Grandpa would smoke on his pipe, the menfolk would talk about boring men stuff, and the womenfolk would whisper in hushed tones about secretive men things.
And I would stare at “the spot where it happened”.
This involves another flashback to my virginal visit to Casa Bonita, when the place had first thrown open its doors, the restaurant became the social event of the season, and it could take you three hours to find a parking space in the mammoth lot. (The intensity of the drama surrounding that parking lot search could be severe, with many divorces germinating during those three hours, just ask any overpaid lawyer at the time.) Right in the midst of this well-hyped frenzy, Grandpa Lageose announced that he was taking us all to this glitzy new establishment.
We just stared at him, stunned, because this meant that he would have to behave himself in a massive crowd of people, a skill that he had not especially mastered. It also meant that he was implying he might be paying for this adventure, and this was something he would never do, so there was probably a hidden clause in the fine print of this social contract that we would later regret. Still, the enticement was very alluring, and the entire extended family raced to our gas-guzzling 70s automobiles before Grandpa came to his senses.
Several hours later, we had parked those non-economical cars and the family was milling about on the well-trod sidewalk outside Casa Bonita. The menfolk were all acting slightly annoyed like Italian men do when they have to go somewhere with their actual wives, the womenfolk were just glad to get out of their houses, and the childrenfolk were so excited that they could almost scream. En masse, we began to maneuver our way towards the front doors where apparently the entire population of Tulsa was trying to gain access.
Suddenly, one of those doors flew open, and the tragic figure of a young woman appeared. We’ll call her Delphina, for dramatic purposes, since that seems like a name one would assign to people in ancient Greek plays, and based on the way that Delphina had thrust the door open with simmering outrage, she apparently thought she was in one of those things. (Of course, the heightened theatricality of it all just may have been due to an excellent stage crew who had properly lit her entrance. The tech people never get enough credit when it comes to the success of a production.)
Delphina briefly surveyed the townsfolk lumbering about, her expression indicating that she was not at all pleased to find so many people who could possibly interfere with whatever she was about to do. (Had she not read the paid-for but still glowing restaurant reviews in the local media? Did she really expect to find an absence of humans outside Casa Bonita?) She took a quick, deep breath to fortify herself, and then launched into the second phase of her performance artistry. (At this point, I was quite convinced that she was a radical socialist, a concept I had recently read about in an underground newspaper with which I had a secret subscription.)
Delphina raced away from the entrance portal, fighting her way past both people and some aggressive cacti that had been placed around the Welcome Plaza by over-exuberant landscapers. She made her way to a less-populated bit of paving stones (tens of people instead of hundreds), her furtive eyes glancing hither and yon as she scrambled. It was at this point that I realized her couture indicated that she was actually an employee of this establishment. (A recognition factor courtesy of the relentless advertising campaign that had saturated the previously-mentioned local media.)
“Hey, she works here,” I yelped, because I had an innate desire to let people know that I knew things that they didn’t.
“Shut up,” said one of my more-aggressive aunts, because she had never had sex and she was 40.
Delphina paused once more to glance around, her frantic and woeful eyes speaking of clandestine plots to circumvent her rightful ascendance to the throne of her country, and then she promptly threw up all over the sidewalk.
“Oh,” said I. “That wasn’t in the brochure for this place.”
The rest of my family then shrugged it off and resumed their odyssey to the front doors of Casa Bonita.
Me: “Um, she works here and she just threw up. Shouldn’t we rethink this?”
Mom: “Your grandfather is picking up the tab, whether he knows it or not, and we can’t pass up this opportunity. Get your ass in line and keep quiet.”
And thusly we trudged forward. Just before we were swallowed up by the depths of the Casa, I glanced over my shoulder and, though I’m not certain, it appeared that someone had placed one of those little flags next to the Heaving Delphina. And it was raised…
Note: The photo I used appears to be from a later facade for the building, it doesn’t look quite like I remember. Then again, I was just a little urchin at the time, so who knows…