It turns out it wasn't really Justin Bieber. Last week, a photo went viral in which someone who looked like, and was reported to be, Bieber, in his current unkempt-skateboarder-Jesus phase, sits on a bench hunched over a gigantic burrito, taking a huge bite from its middle.
This is the wrong way to eat a burrito. Starting from the middle is absurd, unworkable, and guaranteed to make most of the burrito end up on the ground. But it’s also somehow deeply right. Burritos themselves are unworkable and absurd. The impulse to eat a burrito at all is an only mildly more controlled version of the impulse to bite into one right at its bulging middle. A burrito is always about trying to shove everything into your face at once, to have more than you should, to take more than you need.
The burrito I'm talking about - and the one supposed-Bieber appears to be eating - is specifically the Mission burrito, a mid-century California descendent of the original tortilla-wrapped Mexican import. The Mission burrito is the most gluttonous, unsupportable version of this food item. It is usually about the size of a medium-weight newborn child, stuffed full of the by-volume equivalent of an entire Thanksgiving dinner - meat, rice, beans, cheese, salsa, lettuce, guacamole, sour cream, sometimes even further vegetables or a second meat. No one needs this much food, and yet a burrito almost dares you to finish it in one sitting.
The Justin Bieber photo - or what for a few days we all thought was the Justin Bieber photo - made me desperately want a burrito, but so does literally any photo of a burrito. I pretend often to not be from California (much more about that here), until I see a burrito and am reminded that I want a burrito at every moment I am conscious. I love them more than anything on this earth; if I eat one I will be in a miserably bad mood for two days after and pick fights with everyone I love. I have one maybe twice a year and regret one and a half of those two burritos every time. It turns out most food I really like is like this; it turns out a lot of the things I want fall into this category.
Like most comfort food, what the burrito is actually about is sleep. It is the weighted blanket of food. This very good article from 2015 says a lot of accurate stuff about burritos but where I disagree is the part where it says burritos should be eaten with other people, and not alone. The whole point of a burrito, in my experience, is to eat it alone. It cancels out all sociality afterwards, perfectly isolating one from anything but one’s own appetite and the soft, welcoming excess of one’s own body. A burrito is the relief of failure, the soft bed of giving in to one’s own despair. It is a wallowing, a whole-bodied refusal. It is a Dave Matthews Band song you can eat. Eating a whole burrito on one’s own feels the way California bands from the late ‘90s and early ‘00s sound, the absolute entitlement of gluttonous laziness, of indulgent failure.
My eighth grade boyfriend had a band that played Everclear songs at school assemblies. We dated mostly because we were the two tallest kids in our grade and everyone told us we should date until we finally did. We broke up quickly and badly, as much as that's possible for two fourteen-year-olds. Later at the end of high school, after my family’s life fell apart, I would drive him back into the city from which we both commuted, and I remember it being obvious there was still some weird attraction there, some dirty and comfortingly cynical thing that wasn’t romantic at all. I didn't ever think he was good-looking, but I liked that about him; it was nice to know that bodies aren’t really about bodies at all, not in the way you think they are.
He’d been a dirtbag in eighth grade and he was still a dirtbag four years later and so, I was discovering, at the clean shore of the first really bad thing that had ever happened to me, was I. So was the place where we were, too, the city I can’t go home to again, with its wide armed and casually-self-impressed sea vistas, its weathered wood houses with their incongruent daylight colors, its endless sleepy afternoons and matching long flat drive out to the beach through the Sunset. It seems impossible now, but there was a time when San Francisco felt slow, when it felt like the opposite of ambition, like a boy in a flannel shirt who you wanted to fuck because you didn’t respect him or care what he thought of you, like the way going to the beach and doing nothing makes you tired at the end of the day, a place like bedsheets, like the un-triumphant ease of a season-less year, last minute plans and low expectations.
A few months ago, a group of friends and I did '90s-music-only karaoke for several hours in a sweaty private karaoke room. I don't usually sing at karaoke, or stand up from sitting in a corner looking at my phone, but that night I yelled Everclear’s Santa Monica into a microphone. I can’t sing but it turns out with an Everclear song or a Dave Matthews Band song, it doesn't matter. It's only here I recognize the closest thing I have to an accent, which comes out only either when I meet someone else from California or when I’m trying to diffuse tension, to lower the stakes, to make people comfortable.
Because we were only singing songs from the ‘90s, every song we sang was about a dirtbag, about a dude who is the absolute worst. In that sweaty karaoke room, as I sang these songs by these flannel-shirted boys who had haunted my adolescence, it occurred to me that I had always wanted to be them, more than I had ever wanted to date them or sleep with them. Maybe the two impulses were the same, built inextricable, a single object fused. For years I tried to put myself as close as possible to a succession of men who who seemed to have stepped straight out of these songs, men whose voice and demeanor felt and sounded like dirty clothes left warm from a body in a pile on the floor, men for whom love was sleeping in, was staying inside all day. The kind of person who could only be trusted to reveal the intensity of their feelings through their aversion to putting them into either words or action.
How much I like men, even beyond and outside of attraction, has always been profoundly humiliating. I am aware that men, the monolith of men in the society in which I live, are profoundly bad, equal parts embarrassing and horrific, culpable, banal, and rotten at the core, dragging everything else down with them. And yet all of that is what I’m drawn to, the stupid animal part of me that lights up at simply getting to be close to it maleness, at trying to put myself in the spotlight focus of some asshole’s gross masculine otherness.
Anyway, my point here is that men are burritos. Or most straight men are, and definitely all the ones in songs from bands from California and the Pacific Northwest in the ‘90s and early ‘00s. Often desire is about wanting to be allowed to be worse than you are, to sink into the swamp of yourself, and these men are that impulse and that permission. Imagine being all your own worst qualities, and being praised and lifted up for it. It might feel like a long, shitty sunlit day on the west coast, and like the overfull half-asleep state after a burrito, and it would almost certainly sound like an Everclear song.
Burritos aren't a reasonable food; they are, if they're done right, so massive as to be an act of self-sabotage in culinary form. A burrito tastes good, but it’s possible that its real attraction is how it makes you feel like shit afterwards. What I like about them is the same thing I like about hangovers, and sick days, and most of the men I've dated in my life. All of them are the guilty, pleasurable tinge at the edge of feeling bad, the desire to submerge oneself in on-purpose failure. Sometimes we want exactly the things that make us feel sick, that drag us down, that put us to sleep. That photo wasn’t actually Justin Bieber, it turns out, but it was a perfect photo of a burrito, and of what it sometimes means to overwhelmingly want something.
hi friends. so sorry that I’ve been a little delinquent with Griefbacon in the last couple weeks. I tried to write a couple more serious essays for it, and so far failed, but hopefully I’ll send a couple extra ones this week and next. In the meantime, feel free to email me about burritos. If you want to read other stuff I’ve written, I have a couple new pieces here, here, and a very silly thing here.