In an overly curated world, the Random Restaurant bot is a chaotic masterpiece

Life
In an overly curated world, the Random Restaurant bot is a chaotic masterpiece

Everything is collapsing. The senators are insider trading. The algorithm is relentlessly selling the most tepid, flavorless version of your life back to you. The last remaining industries are meal delivery apps, “cloud software,” and threadbare money laundering schemes. Your account has been deducted a fee and you’re just now hearing about it for the first time. We fluctuate between rage and limp nihilism and back again, and while this column won’t fix that, it will provide you with a small good thing to appreciate, a recognition of something weird and valuable and beautiful, despite it all.

One afternoon in 2020, the author Nicholson Baker tweeted a picture of an impeccable cube of white rice, sitting in a bowl in the microwave. The cube was in the unmistakable shape of the Chinese takeout container it recently inhabited — the perfectly flat sides, barely a disturbed grain, slightly tapered like the wax paper cartons, the microwave light shining down on it like a religious painting. It was April, as quarantine was beginning to look less like a brief if suffocating event and something closer to meteorology, a grim feature of existence we would endure at fluctuating intensities for the foreseeable future.

The caption of the picture said only "rice," but I thought immediately, fuck yes, Nicholson's having leftovers. I know that place, I have been there, killing time while my little improv meal oscillates. That place is my home, my temple in a House of Woe.

***

At some point “taking pictures of your food” became a kind of mocking shorthand for smartphone-era vanity, a society both obsessed with and bored of itself, looting every ordinary moment of its day for poignant anecdotes and coming up with a sad looking sandwich. Wrung of our last provocative ideas, we’d fill social media platforms with tedious reports of lunches next to the whirr of a laptop fan. But I think about it lately and want nothing else.

Give me your overcooked chicken and canned tuna, your vague bowls of slop, three hot dogs on a paper plate, the salvation of motel vending machines. The way to-go burritos get damp with condensation from their own heat radiating inside the tinfoil.

Instead, we have all of this: everything fastidiously manicured, our maniacally contemplated personal brands, the exact ironic frequency we feel compelled to maintain at all times on every platform. The taunts for engagement, the exhaustion of takes, the self-satisfied hypotheses about something or other, sort of like I’m doing right now. But what I want is just an unannotated collage of These Days, a modest dispatch from someone in some distant trench doing their best.

Almost a year to the day after Baker’s tweet, the Random Restaurant Bot, built by software developer Joe Schoech, posted for the first time. The bot operates by randomly selecting a restaurant from anywhere in the world, then automatically pulls the four most recent user sourced photos that were tagged and uploaded to Google at that location. The tweets have no caption, no review, no philosophies about humanity, just a link to the restaurant on Google maps, where you can see how far away it is from a river or a boutique that sells discounted denim skirts.

It feels like the debris of a real life. Table coverings of every conceivable synthetic material, birthdays at a mediocre fajita place, people hunched over in fluorescently-lit McDonald’s franchises indistinguishable from one in Tallahassee or Phoenix except for the condiment pairings and the occasionally different style buns. Crucially it is not just pictures of food; there are men in line reaching for a wallet, reflections of people’s faces in the glass storefronts and in pastry domes. There is a narrative there but never too much divulged, slightly mysterious but powerfully familiar. Men in Zimbabwe with a painter’s focus, mopping stewed chicken in baked beans off the edge of the plate, each of their cellphones face up on the table. Corn and Cucumber salad on a plate with a whole fish fried stiff and crispy, but then a picture of the Caribbean Sea spilling up over some fractured concrete slabs on the shore in Belize. Humble transmissions from a bar in Montenegro.

Next door, almost everywhere, is a place that wants to sell you Bluetooth speakers.

There are afternoons that inched across a trajectory you recognize. The tires stacked at the place next door to a Papa Johns in Qatar. I do not know Qatar but I understand the seismic mood of being on a miserable errand and succumbing to the neon onslaught of an even more miserable pizza place, eating a slice with crust that looks like those big ergonomic mouse pads. Next door, almost everywhere, is a place that wants to sell you Bluetooth speakers.

I don’t think there was any conscious connection between this project and the rice tweet, but I do believe there was some subterranean vibration that Schoech and Nicholson felt simultaneously, some ambient spiritual noise in these times that we all wandered toward, an urge to look at our little meals, to retreat from grand displays of melodrama and even the well-intentioned pleas for etiquette in the time of masks and behold a breakfast in New Jersey. What it means to you is your business. What I am saying, basically, is I wanted someone to just tell me “I’m smoking a cigarette” and “It’s too bright but I’m in the shade.” Here was someone in Serbia doing both at once, not making a big deal about it.

In the depths of quarantine I imagined being in a bar with someone who needed to smoke, stepping outside with them and saying zero words to each other while we listened to the cars pass; Random Restaurant wasn’t exactly that, but it was close.

The account sometimes has the same feeling of intense vulnerability as watching someone scroll their camera roll to find a picture they want to show you. Strange outtakes, things not intended for a mass audience, scenes that are not spectacular but an essential fragment of your biography, a selfie while your date was in the bathroom. It is affectionate without having to say so, someone’s aunt half out of the frame as she chases a bold toddler who’s losing its patience. It feels like a receipt in the pocket of a heavy jacket you don’t notice till you put it on next winter. There is loneliness in some of these scenes but also triumph, exhaling after work on a folding chair, under collapsible umbrellas in Vietnam, on the edge of town eating street cart falafel.

The grimy majesty of eating in an idling car under the ridiculous sign of an orthodontist's office that never turns off, existing in this place that feels impervious to time the way a casino does.

I don’t think we are meant to draw any conclusions about these restaurants themselves. We never know if they are hole in the wall revelations or part of an enlightening regional tapestry or possess the cartoon gluttony of a Diners Drive-Ins & Dives spot. We know almost nothing about them besides that they exist and that someone depended on them. At a Subway in Saipan about to eat a sandwich that looks so stale it could knock someone unconscious, a snack between meetings, walking from the dark and carpeted corridor of a movie theater in Utah toward the glow of the popcorn machine. Styrofoam takeout boxes buckling under the weight of basmati rice; restaurants furnished only with the kind of chairs you’d play poker at in a basement. Crinkle cut French fries from every continent. A greasy bag of assorted carbohydrates when you’re desperate for anything to winch you up from the crater you’ve spent the last six hungover hours in, scrolling the same three websites. The restaurants are just the arena.

The bot looks like vacation, but not vacation as in something stylish or decadent, vacation as in departure, a layover, somewhere across from a store that sells knockoff Ray Bans and USB chargers that will heat your phone to an alarming temperature. The grimy majesty of eating in an idling car under the ridiculous sign of an orthodontist's office that never turns off, existing in this place that feels impervious to time the way a casino does. These places can be pivotal, meditative, tapping out texts, deleting texts, waiting to resume your life but not yet, right now you’re on the way out of a little hotel in the Ivory Coast, marveling at a Bentley the color of champagne in the parking lot.

Late one night in quarantine I stood in the kitchen, the randomest restaurant of all, drinking a High Life while I waited on some pasta water and I thought, I hope it never boils, I hope I can just drink this beer in this in-transit zone for the rest of my life.

***

One of the first posts the bot ever made was of a strip mall Italian place in Monticello, New York. It is a restaurant like one you have been to before, a mural of sailboats bobbing on Lake Como painted on an entire wall, plates of pasta that come standard with every entree that have a giant bog of red sauce resting on top of angel hair, quartered hunks of tomato in the salad you’re never sure what to do with.

You realize eventually that this scene repeats itself all over the world, different climates and upholsteries but an identical emotional volume, in Turkey, Liberia, The Cayman Islands, Australia and Nicaragua.

Your reflex might be to say, who cares, this is Sopranos-adjacent ephemera, this is basically The Chief Export Of Long Island, this is a Billy Joel song about ennui and medium-grade indulgence in America. But it is also the sort of place I spent and maybe you spent some semi-regular portion of your childhood, your cousins’ communion afterparties, a framed photo near the bar of Dean Martin looking mischievous, sweating in a bowtie, forehead dripping like a soda can. Someone’s uncle with the tannest forearms you’ve ever seen wearing a shirt made of Allegedly Silk, getting drunk enough on Carlo Rossi that he teeters perilously at a urinal. It is where someone took this very above average photo of the sun setting behind the powerlines after maybe one of their own drunk uncles had a urinal moment, where they were planning their exit, thinking about home.

You realize eventually that this scene repeats itself all over the world, different climates and upholsteries but an identical emotional volume, in Turkey, Liberia, The Cayman Islands, Australia and Nicaragua. Escapes from the dungeons of routine and responsibility, a Great Unwind, off-center photos of foliage and B+ skies with parked cars in the frame in a grid next to photos of generic paninis. Middle-aged men in jeans that don’t fit, except to him, to him they fit just right, they are his one true love, wearing them is his Royal Wedding and he gets to marry them every time he leaves the house, two renegades getting donuts together in Canada.

When I see a tweet polished up like a pageant contestant, the tension of having to witness someone who writes for a Netflix Animated Show With Mature Themes do comedy on my timeline, the tepid theories about Republicans, I think about Monticello and everywhere like it, the pale plates of barely identifiable foods and the slouched proud husbands and wives. They’re never saying too much.