Saturday, December 21, 2019

So Long, Evil Sam

There's an adage that says you should never meet your heroes. Maybe its existence is for fear that those who seem heroic in the abstract are evil in person. That hasn't been the case in my experience. My hero called himself evil, but I'm glad to have met him. 

Astute Broken Chains readers may notice that this is my hundredth blog post. The most astute among them, however, will note that it’s technically my hundred and first, including the post I uploaded during my summer 2019 hiatus and took down when normal posts resumed. (That would technically make last week’s rhyming post about former G.D. Ritzy’s buildings my hundredth, and I’m mostly fine with that.) In either case, a hundred or more blog posts feels like a big deal in a society built around a base 10 system. To mark the arbitrarily significant occasion, I had planned on detailing some of the earliest broken chain adventures I had shortly before I started blogging. 

Social media posts that I made about those early excursions would lead to my friend Cosmo Roadpacer suggesting that I start a blog about my travels to oddball chain restaurants. Yep, writing about the trip I took after Christmas 2017 to the Huntington, West Virginia G.D. Ritzy’s, the nearby Ironton, Ohio Rax, and the Pomeroy, Ohio McDonald’s, six months late to get an elusive McPizza was the plan for my centenary post, until I got some sad news.

When Cosmo suggested early in 2018 that I start a blog centered around chain restaurants, my chief argument against it was that it had already been done. For well over a decade, I had been an avid consumer of the impressively comprehensive fast food restaurant reviews and regular blog posts made by The Evil Sam Graham. In fact, it was late in 2017 when I was inspired to start visiting the endangered chain restaurants near me after rereading all of Sam’s blog posts dating all the way back to 2005. It's therefore safe to say that without the inspiration provided by The Evil Sam Graham, there would be no Broken Chains. I’m sad to report that we now live in a world without The Evil Sam Graham in it. I’ve learned that he died earlier this month. This post is as much my way of coping with the loss as it is my tribute to him, as Sam’s online presence has been a part of my life for the past 15 years.

I discovered his old site when I was a teenager, searching for information on some regional chain restaurant or another that I was curious about. I found his page of reviews of nearly every fast food chain I had ever heard of and several I never had. Not long after that, he began blogging, detailing his day to day life and the adventures on the road he’d have in his spare time. He posted regularly, and I read everything he wrote voraciously. In a time when social media was in its infancy, it was a boon to my angsty teenage psyche to find someone living in the world who was the same kind of weird as me. I wrote him an email after I visited the last operating Druther’s restaurant in 2006, and was ecstatic to find that he had written me back.

I’d continue to read Sam’s blog regularly over the next decade as I went through college and established myself in a stable career. I’d have little adventures to interesting and/or historic chain restaurants once or twice a year during that time, but a lack of time and/or money prevented me from doing so regularly. That all changed late in 2017 when I found myself with a stable 9-5 job for the first time in my life. Simultaneously, I was in a new relationship with my beloved Esmeralda Fitzmonster, whose work schedule did not line up with mine. Our coupling left me with approximately half my weekends free. It was then that I decided to use my newfound abundance of free time and resources to have some Evil Sam Graham-style fun, which led to regular broken chain adventures, and eventually my earliest blog posts.

When setting up my blog, I shamelessly used the layout of Sam’s as my template. To this day, the basic layout of my header, footer, and blog archive are essentially identical to his. My earliest posts are poor imitations of his writing style, and like Cleo McDowell hoping that the lack of sesame seeds on the bun of his Big Mick was enough to keep the McLawyers at bay, I hoped that my focus on the surviving locations of defunct chains was enough to keep The Evil Sam Graham from seeing my work as a cheap imitation of his.

Over the next few months, I felt myself becoming increasingly obsessed with the diminished restaurant and retail brands that I had dubbed broken chains. I found myself joining restaurant and retail-themed Facebook groups full of hundreds of people who were the same kind of weird as me, and I was pleased to find Evil Sam himself among them. I was overjoyed when he told me that he loved my blog, and I was excited to tell him that his work was the chief inspiration for my own. He accepted my friend request, and we’d chat every now and then. Usually I’d seek his wise counsel regarding things like the history of the Hardee’s roast beef sandwich or which of the two Taco Ticos in Iowa was the best to visit if I only had time to visit one.

In fact, I routed my pre-Christmas road trip through Iowa last year because I knew Sam lived near Des Moines, and I wanted to have an excuse to meet him in person. I shared my entire itinerary with him and told him I’d love to meet up with him somewhere along the way if he had the time and desire. It made my entire year when he said he’d meet me at my favorite G.D. Ritzy’s, the University Drive location in Evansville, Indiana.

True to his word, Evil Sam himself showed up at the agreed-upon time, a few days before Christmas 2018. He said that he’d had business not too far away and had always wanted to try Ritzy’s, and I was awestruck to have the privilege to play the role of guide as my favorite blogger experienced my favorite restaurant for the first time. As we made small talk in the order line, I was excited when he asked me what the default burger toppings were and I was able to tell him that every sandwich was topped to order and there were no default toppings. When we received our orders and sat down together at a faux marble topped table in the center of the elevated dining room, I took great pleasure in showing him the bottle of magic sauce on the table that when sprinkled on G.D. Ritzy’s conventional chili, would give it the cinnamony zing of Cincinnati chili. It felt great to see the look of amazement on the face of Sam Graham, the fast food connoisseur, when he took a freshly-sauced second bite of his chili dog to be greeted by the signature flavor of The Queen City. As the meal progressed, we discussed the history of G.D. Ritzy’s, our mutual love of Taco Tico, and I hung on his every word like the fanboy I was as he told me stories of failed Des Moines area restaurants I had only previously read about in his blog. Having the source of the writing that inspired my own writing hobby munching shoestring fries across the table from me was a wonderful kind of surreal.

I probably embarrassed him a little when I told him what a big fan of his writing I was and how long I’d been reading his stuff. Whenever a new Evil Sam blog post would appear, it would make my whole week, from his very first post detailing his visit to the grand opening of a Chick-fil-A in October 2005 to his last, about trying the much-hyped Popeye’s chicken sandwich just a couple of weeks before his death. Every post in the 14 years between those breaded and deep fried chicken bookends not only influenced me as a writer, and gave me the most rewarding hobby of my life, but also showed me it was okay to have unusual and specific interests.

The Evil Sam Graham gave me the confidence to be a weirdo, and in my life that’s been the key to my happiness. I’m proud to call Sam Graham my hero and my friend. I’m going to miss his blog posts, his tweets, his cleverly captioned photos posted in our mutual Facebook groups, but I think most of all, I’m going to miss the knowledge that Sam is out there on the road somewhere, driving too many hours and too many miles in search of a fleeting experience at an endangered or regional restaurant chain to which the average person wouldn't give a second thought. I am grateful to have had the experience of meeting him at one of my favorite places on the planet. I owe him so much more than a tip on how to sauce a chili dog. Without his influence, there wouldn’t be a single Broken Chains post, let alone 100, or 101, but who’s counting?

In memory of Sam Graham 1966-2019

6 comments:

  1. This online community is big (to outsiders, perhaps bigger than they'd imagine), but can also be a small world. Your friendship with Sam is a testament to the latter. I'm glad you got the chance to meet with him in person and share how his work influenced you.

    An example of the former is that, until you linked to a post of his recently, I ashamedly admit I had never run across his work before. But I enjoyed the post you linked to immensely, and immediately read through several others and subscribed to his blog.

    It's so sad to hear he has passed, but it's nice to know his legacy will live on, and - with any luck - others will continue to discover his work and be similarly inspired, or at least entertained.

    May he rest in peace.

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    1. I hope that as well. I'm sure I'll sit down and re read all of his old posts sooner or later. It's something I've done every few years since discovering his site. I imagine I'll continue to do the same for the foreseeable future.

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  2. Thanks for sharing this. I've been reading whatever he chose to share for a very long time, beginning with TESG's Guide to Roadside Consumption.
    There is a very definite hole in my online life that he occupied. I became suspicious when he hadn't tweeted for a month which was very unusual for him. I don't know any of the specifics leading up to his passing, I can only hope his cats are taken care of. He will be missed tremendously.

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    1. I became concerned around the same time you did. The obituary I found for him indicates that he passed on December 1. Hopefully Chester and Maggie have a good home with a new owner who will continue to feed them fried chicken occasionally.

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  3. This is beyond sad. I am so sorry to read this. I too was a fan of his original blog, which introduced me to Ivar's, Pal's, and many other chains that have since become regular stops for me, and especially of his writing style, humor, and ability to present his reviews in narrative form. May he be blessed to be reunited with his first wife (who I've always assumed was his only wife) and father, whose passing he so eloquently announced earlier this year.

    Anyone who hasn't read the "guide to big chain road food consumption", start here (archive only) and enjoy the journey:
    https://web.archive.org/web/20100330195739/http://www.99w.com/evilsam/ff/index.htm

    Zap, your tribute is phenomenal. Thank you for posting it, and for accepting the passed torch.

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    1. Thank you. I was excited to learn at Raxgiving that you were also a fan of Evil Sam's work. I don't think I'd ever met another TESG fan in the flesh before.

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