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Denny's Grand Slam Levels the Playing Field

New America Media, Commentary, Raj Jayadev Posted: Feb 07, 2009

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- On Tuesday I had the same exact meal as two million people two eggs, two strips of bacon, two pancakes, and two pieces of sausage. I feel like a jerk saying this, but I have never felt more connected to my fellow Americans, or our collective condition.

I'm not saying that eating the free Denny's Gland Slam meal was more important to me than 9/11 or the Obama inauguration, but the same unifying features were there the ubiquity of the topic in all conversation, the sense of comradery that transcended differences, and even a strange feeling of accomplishment. Could we really all share in a tasty free meal? Yes we can.

Despite the fact that it was free, Denny's promotional strategy was certainly self-serving. In an abysmal market, where the company noted a dramatic drop in sales in its January quarterly report, free meals might be the smartest business move for a restaurant chain.

It's just that bad.

Nonetheless, the rest of America and I were ready to capitalize. On Feb. 3, or Grand Slam Day as I will remember it (this is my subtle way of calling for this to be an annual tradition), people were telling me about it all morning long. It was like every communication device text messages, cell phones, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter was made for this purpose, to let us all in on Grand Slam Day.

The first thing my friends and I had to decide was which Denny's to go to. To participate in an event of this magnitude, we needed a strategy. Lines would be long, food could run out, tables could all be taken. Choosing the wrong Denny's could be disastrous. We decided that we should go to the Denny's located in the most affluent area we knew. Rich people would likely: a) Not eat Grand Slams at 1:30 in the afternoon, and b) Not want to wait in line for a free meal.

Yet when we arrived at our targeted Denny's, the true nature of the economy -- all the talk of recession, statistics and comparisons to tough times in history -- was revealed. Although we went to an isolated, almost hidden Denny's, just caddy corner from a posh hotel, everyone was there college students, truck drivers in uniform, polo-pants-wearing tech workers with ID badges, corporate types with ties and suits, families of all stripes. The homeless man who lives behind my office was already in line, and we were on the other side of the city.

All of America was at Denny's that day.

And, lets be frank, Denny's isn't really that good. In a period when America seems more health conscious then ever (think the hit TV show "Biggest Loser," carb free menus, salads at McDonald's), eating buttered pancakes dripping in syrup, along with bacon, sausage and eggs, is sort of counter-intuitive. But that is the indicator. It's just that bad.

While every day I hear new frightful numbers describing our recession, like the unemployment rate climbing to unprecedented peaks, companies shedding entire workforces, I always wondered how the national crisis would be reflected in my circle of friends.

At first it felt like if you didn't own a home, have a 401K, or werent laid off, this recession was something to watch from the outside, rather than fear. To some degree, my viewpoint was formed from my location Silicon Valley. Having seen a regional recession with the dot-com bust of 2001, it felt like our communities were inoculated. My friends would say the same things they did almost a decade ago: "I'm used to being broke," or "I never had much to begin with, so it's not affecting me."

But sitting at Denny's, watching a mother order her Grand Slam and take it to go, I realized that the economic crisis squeezes us all.

The friends I went to Denny's with are all in their early 20s. Most of them havent been laid off, but this recession is just as harmful to them, because it is shrinking their futures, and there is a feeling there is little they can do about it.

One friend who ate with us dropped out of community college this week. Financial aid was not enough, and her English teacher mandated that all students buy their own books, rather then share. The cost amounted to hundreds of dollars. Her plan was to work, shore up money, and return to school even though she has been told that her path to economic security is education.

Our other friend got laid off a week prior to Grand Slam day. Before that, she was the job hook-up for all of our other unemployed friends. She was the human resource staffer at a company that sold merchandise online. She carried a unique guilt in this troubled economy: she was the person that had to tell people in her company when they got laid off. Then it had happened to her. She may have to drop out of school too, since at 20 she is completely self-supported, and needs to work to afford an education.

She'll bounce back, and our other friend will return to school too, I hope. But what the economy looks like to me now is a fishbowl that we are all swimming in. And our fishbowl is getting smaller, shrinking our opportunities and possibilities. This recession, I am told, is temporary, but the damage can be permanent in ways we may never even know. The education not received, the career path not chosen, the risk not taken.

I don't know if other people are thinking about this moment the same way I am, but sitting in that crowded Denny's, regardless of our station in life, there seemed to be a collective sense that no one should turn down a free meal.

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