I was staring at the light hanging above my IHOP booth table at 1 AM, slowly munching mozzarella sticks and sipping the stale cup of coffee that the waiter had handed me. The scene was laughable: I knew how odd I looked sitting there alone, lost in thought as I picked at my food. But my longing for the diner had outweighed the embarrassment I felt for going there alone so late in the evening.
It was a Wednesday in February, and, as a way to treat myself after a long day of Zoom meetings, I had decided to grab grub at the nearby IHOP. This late-night venture had increasingly become a habit of mine on stressful days: the restaurant’s familiarity gave me a comfort that had become rare during quarantine. It’s this exact feeling that IHOP’s corporate team hopes to create. “Just like home,” they write on their site, “breakfast at IHOP is where you can be comfortable.”
But I couldn’t possibly credit their food for evoking that emotion. I could make a better cup of coffee with the beans I have at home, and the cold mozzarella sticks they served were far from satisfying. Rather, it was the familiarity of the establishment that gave me comfort: the familiarity of the archetypal waiter who treated me with a standard combination of attention and apathy, the familiarity of the leather-lined booths that I sunk into like an old couch, and the familiarity of the energetic teenagers who predictably entered past midnight.
I was there to appreciate these little things, which collectively served as tokens of my youth. Some of the fondest memories of my childhood and teen years had occurred in similar subpar diners, and it was IHOP’s nostalgia that made it so appealing to me that night.
For the past month, I had felt consumed by a yearning for the past and memories untouched by the pandemic. I didn’t just miss the normalcy of face-to-face interactions or the experience of attending a college campus. Rather, I missed having a home—a space that housed memories of careless fun, personal revelation, or familial bonding.
The sentiment had been exacerbated by the circumstances of the past year. Like most college students, I moved numerous times during the pandemic: once when my university switched to remote learning, and twice more as my family moved between towns over the next year. This wandering was partially a product of our distinct circumstances as immigrants pursuing homeownership, but the experience of constant movement is a common one in the United States: the average American moves eleven times in their life. While such change has never failed to excite me or provide a fresh perspective, it has also torn me from locations that harbor cherished moments.
Fortunately, the resemblance of that diner to others across the country allowed me to chart my personal history and recall such moments. I could easily remember my bits of my childhood as I stole glances at those teens, who acted just like my friends and I had when we entered an IHOP years prior on my sixteenth birthday. We’d laughed, eaten, and chatted to celebrate the maturity we thought I gained from the magical number.
I could easily remember my love for writing, too, as I looked at the yellow light which had shone above me during so many nights in diners typing articles, planning memoirs in my Moleskine notebooks, or reading Orwell throughout the past two years.
On a superficial level, I’m discomforted by my silly but uncanny dependence on the commercialized fast-food experience because I know my body deserves far better than $5 appetizers when I’m feeling nostalgic. As the work of Harvard researcher Gregory Frantz implies, I have accepted commercial culture and found salvation in the consumption of standardized experiences and objects—those being cold coffee, mediocre breakfast foods, and an evening of fast-food dining.
But the stakes of my dependence on IHOP are higher than my bodily decay. The nationwide prevalence of cookie-cutter diners reflects their monopoly over the food industry, and my evenings at IHOP support their expansion. My affection for the restaurant encourages the growth of an enterprise that fuels the climate crisis and embodies the modern “growth economy that favors the never-ending consumption of the already very affluent” on a global scale, according to Kate Soper, a philosopher on environmentalism and consumption.
Worst of all for my personal psyche, these outings are a distraction. Consumerism is my personal getaway from the public health crisis we face, and I have increasingly turned to nostalgia to treat the restlessness that comes with lacking new experiences. My habit is a reflection of the reality that many of us are trapped in time, continuously looking to the past for solace. After a year of living in the conditions of a pandemic, after all, it feels as if the future has faded to a distant hope. Visiting diners provides the same feeling as listening to an old song on repeat: it allows me to emulate the emotions of prior moments when better ones can’t be made.
These sentiments are ones that most of us will struggle to move on from. We’ve been trained by a seemingly endless era to crave the vibrancies of our past. For me, moving on from IHOP will mean more than just breaking the iron grip of consumerism. It will mean finding a way to move on from old memories and regain hope in a future filled with novel, better experiences.
By Leena Yumeen
Illustration by Damien Jeon