There are nearly 280 million people in the US, which means that on any given day nearly 800,000 Americans have a birthday. 800,000 is a lot of people, but what I want to know is how each and every one of them knew I’d be eating at Red Robin last night.
Of course, I’m not sure you can call what I was doing last night “eating.” In reality, I was simply speed-chewing in hopes of swallowing my burger before my jaw locked up in another Happy Birthday Song-induced seizure. I knew I was in trouble when, stepping out of my truck in the parking lot, I heard the faint echo of poorly coordinated clapping. Walking into the restaurant, I was instantly greeted with a dissonant chorus of “happy happy birthday from all of us to you.”
“Oh, son of a bitch,” I said to my wife. It’s funny how, when you don’t eat out for a while, you forget about this unavoidable staple of the franchised-dining experience. I guess it’s a tribute to the mind’s ability to overcome horror—or my lazy ass’ willingness to put up with anything to avoid cooking. Either way, it’s all out the window the second you hear a zombified wait staff soullessly singing that song. I swear, it’s the aural equivalent of a kick in the junk.
And don’t act like you don’t know that song. There are emaciated Ethiopians who’ve never even been in a restaurant who know that song. It’s embedded in our DNA like that fucking tune from Tetris. And, if you’re anything like me, that song produces a species of “warm and fuzzy” that makes you want to punch pregnant women. That said, we endure the song because we understand that, as Americans, it’s our civic duty to support all those cookie-cutter franchises that ran all the good restaurants out of business.
Because if we didn’t, the terrorists would win, right?
Still, last night was something special. Instead of the normal three or four caustic interruptions of my meal, I heard that song so many times I entered a state of shell-shock similar to what Vietnam vets experienced after returning home from the war. I’m not kidding. It got so bad that if I noticed two waiters standing together, as if preparing for evil, my eye would begin to twitch, I’d start to sweat and nervously finger my butter knife.
What’s worse is that the song haunted me later on in my sleep. All night long, faceless, tone-deaf waiters clapped and sang for a parade of idiotic four-year olds, all of whom were sporting grins straight from the Special Olympics.
And let’s not forget the children for whom the song is performed. If there is one good thing about the Happy Birthday ditty, it’s that it is likely the single best way to show children just how special they aren’t. Oh sure, when those waiters crowd around the table, interrupt all our conversations and announce, “Everyone we have a very special birthday boy,” mom and dad’s little “accident” is undoubtedly all aglow with delusions of grandeur.
For me? Just for me? Wait till the kids at school hear. Yeahhh.
Then the clapping and singing begins. To the waiters’ credit, they belt out those lyrics with the unbridled enthusiasm of a corpse—one that’s been cremated. Half of the singers don’t even look at the kid, choosing instead to stare either at the ceiling or down mommy’s blouse. And those who do look at the kid? Well, hell, you’ve seen those looks. The ones that seem to suggest the person is one candle stick away from Jeffrey Dahmerville. Creeps my ass out every time. I mean, they’re singing “happy birthday,” but I’m hearing the banjo from Deliverance. And to top it all off, there’s always one singer—and it’s always a guy—who’s too enthusiastic, too happy, and smiling too fucking much. I refer to this guy as the Applebee’s pederast. And while little Billy might only be four or five, he’s old enough to recognize when he’s being sized up for a sandwich.
If, somehow, by the end of the song, the kid isn’t traumatized and hasn’t picked up on the raw hatred the restaurant’s patrons have for him, his joy will be short-lived. In fact, his joy will last approximately one minute. Because that’s how long it will take for the Busboy’s Chorus From Hell to announce that sitting two booths over is another “special birthday boy.” Two minutes later, and, holy shit, here’s yet another “special birthday boy.” And another and another, just rinse and repeat until little Billy feels about as significant as the loser who’s always picked last when forming teams in P.E.
And as fun as it is to watch a five-year old develop existential angst over the course of a meal, I’d much rather watch his parents get beaten senseless with an Onion Bloom. The parents—more so than even the restaurant—are to blame for ruining our meals, our conversations, our escape from the drudgery of the kitchen. I mean, what’s going through the parents’ minds when they spotlight their kid at a restaurant and expect all the hapless diners to serve as makeshift partygoers? It’s disrespectful to the diners and the kid—who might expect mom and pop to put a little thought into his birthday celebration.
Seriously, for those of you out there who were too cheap to get an abortion, why don’t you take a little friendly advice. Next year, when your little boy’s special day rolls around, throw him a fucking party you lazy bastards. Bake a cake, invite all his friends over to the house, and hire a clown or some other grown man who, for some reason, likes to entertain children. The cake will fill them up, his friends can sing the damn song, and the clown will provide the trauma.
And all from the privacy of your own home.
I can’t guarantee your child will enjoy his or her birthday more, but the rest of us, undoubtedly, will.