MICROTONES by Michael Penn II, contributor
In my inevitable wanderings down State Street, I remember when I could see the sky from Lake Street, somewhere beyond the condos built as fast-casual as the food within them. I think of how I slept on Buraka before it was tucked on Willy, how Frites felt doomed but was good nonetheless, when Walgreens was more dingy than dystopian and didn't battle the redundancy of 7-Eleven directly across from it. State Street shifts as we do, trading a perceived bohemian charm for gentrified slabs of scaled-up storefronts just high enough to not be affordable. The surrounding downtown is yopro central and the yuppies can pay $60 for the backpack and $12 for the salad.
534 State Street sits vacant, yet it's one of the most consistent hubs of culture remaining on the strip. It's the built-in spot for fast food fare, best served well into the night for drunken droves and nocturnal adventures. On an ideal weekend, the line would be out the door, the faces red with glee and the bodies severely underdressed for the wind chill. The lights would be bright and the screens loud. Workers shouted numbers and gave you nothing without your receipt; if someone left an order behind, they might bless you with extra. Some fought, fell asleep, or frolicked in their youth as they waited too damn long for a buffer for the liquor in their stomachs or reefer in their systems. Displaced individuals held court in the lobby or outside, to the dismay of nearby vendors unamused and unsympathetic to the circumstances that forced them there.
Recently, 534 played host to a popular Wendy’s location that suddenly disappeared without a trace. (I once heard a white man tell his friend that the bathroom was "so ghetto," implying too filthy to use.) Rumor had it the place violated several health codes. I bought that even though I never confirmed it. And every time I pace State, my muscle memory craves a 4 for $4 like clockwork. Then, I remember 2011, being 17 and thinking the KFC/Taco Bell was one of the only places I'd ever immediately see a Black person downtown, even if most of them were holding court by the bench outside. And does anyone remember how briefly Full of Bull was there, serving the most underrated roast beef sandwiches y'all never thought to get?
Right now, a Taco Bell Cantina is slated to open by year's end. The establishment's liquor license is up for debate; ergo, someone can get drunk and get cheap food in the same location. While our hidden institution gears up for a comeback, I have questions alongside my gratefulness: With all the under-21 traffic, how they finna control for fakes? And can't you get better tacos at Los Gemelos and A La Brasa if you tryna drink while you eat? And are you sure you can't put a Culver's or a Popeyes in there so I don't have to hit the Beltline?