Fast-food became long wait.
“Random events occur,” a learned man once said to explain life’s capacity for the improbable.
“In the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes,” Andy Warhol, himself an improbable event, said of the nature of fame in a world of fickle attentions spanned by instant communications.
Which seems to be why people were waiting a long time for a hamburger in Newhall last Wednesday, and California Highway Patrol officers were joking that they might need bolt cutters to cut their way through a fence to the highway.
The Newhall CHP station is located on a dead-end road, near the mouth of which the In-N-Out Burgers people opened a fast-foodery.
This would ordinarily not be cause for comment. The In-N-Out people reportedly make fine hamburgers, which motorists can collect without getting out of their cars. This is a right the Constitution guarantees to all good Americans, and is properly envied by lesser breeds without the law.
The In-N-Out company ordinarily comes to the attention of the big wide world only as the suppliers of bumper stickers that young men with one too many chromosomes and antisocial leanings can easily convert into mobile obscenities, a visual pollution that is now as common as ignorance.
But somehow, the opening of this particular hamburger joint on a holiday weekend resulted in very large crowds.
Motorists lined up three across. Fast-food became long wait. The little road beside I-5 turned into a parking lot as the line stretched for more than a quarter-mile.
That’s how far away the CHP station is, and the line filled the road past the station, according to the officers and clerks who work there.
By the weekend, the line had become a phenomenon.
“From 11 in the morning until about 2:30 in the afternoon, the congestion was extreme,” said CHP Lt. Alan Henderson, a watch commander. “The signal light at the end of the street was overwhelmed. We sent officers to direct traffic, but it was like trying to direct the Rose Bowl crowd. There were just too many.”
There were news reports that the traffic, jamming the only route away from the CHP station, was preventing officers from responding to emergencies, and even that the CHP wanted to abandon the station and set up shop elsewhere.
No, said Henderson, it wasn’t that bad. “With sirens and their public-address systems, our cars can get through,” he said. There are delays sometimes, he conceded, “but it’s not stopping us from responding to calls.
“I’m not worried,” he joked. “I’ve got a bolt cutter right here, and if we have to we’ll just cut a hole in the fence and drive right onto the freeway.”
As far as abandoning the station, he said, the CHP wanted to move out and began negotiating for a site in Newhall long before the Great Burger Madness erupted.
What does worry him, said Henderson, is the housing project at the end of the road. There is no other way into the area, “and we’re concerned about what may happen if an emergency vehicle, an ambulance or a fire truck, has to get back there in a hurry.”
The development is called Sunset Pointe, a name with a silent “e” apparently chosen to evoke images of genteel grace in the Malibu twilight, not life on a cut-and-fill mesa latticed with concrete erosion-control channels. The road itself is called The Old Road, which is only slightly less cute.
The In-N-Out, meanwhile, flourishes.
In less than a week it has become the busiest of the chain’s 53 Southern California locations, manager Fred Aviles said. He is cagey about how many burgers that translates to but admits to easily “more than 2,000" a day.
This is not for lack of competition. A McDonald’s and a Denny’s share the cul-de-sac, a Carl’s Jr. is a few yards away and a Burger King and a Tiny Naylor’s are just across the freeway. Yet, while a 15-minute backlog of dozens of cars waited patiently by the new burger stand Tuesday afternoon, the rivals had only two or three cars each.
“We sent officers down there to survey the crowd the first couple of days,” Henderson said. “Most of them weren’t local people. They were just passing through on I-5, a lot of them holiday traffic, and they pulled off and stopped at the In-N-Out because they knew the name.”
But the crowd became self-perpetuating.
“I came here because I kept seeing this big line and I wanted to find out what was going on,” said a woman waiting in a station wagon with two small children.
“It’s just the place to come now because it’s new and everybody’s here,” said a teen-age girl in a pink sweat shirt, waiting with two girlfriends.
Mostly they were there because they were there because they were there.
It’s hard to explain.
Maybe it has something to do with the “e” in “Pointe.”