The Dairy Queen glows in the night, a beacon of Americana. But inside, chaos descends. Twelve customers are waiting at the front counter, and the drive-though lane is a snake of headlights, the voices over the speaker unrelenting.
"I want caramel in the bottom of that Mudslide, a lot of caramel, hear?"
"One chicken value meal with a Mr. Pibb and, lemme see, three value meals, and could you cut all the burgers in half?"
"Do you have supersize drinks or is the large the biggest?"
Cisco Montanez is 15 and working the window. His DQ hat is cocked on his head like a tilted ornament, his khakis circus-big. He is half Latino and half black, so he has plenty of reason to glare at the Confederate flag moving toward him on a GMC Suburban. At least one flag comes through a night.
Cisco turns his back on the flag and reaches for a plastic banana split boat. As he fills it with three puffs of vanilla ice cream, he begins to rap.
This life hurts
No cushion for me, no carpet laid out
We either sell or we're getting sold
The Indian immigrants who work at Dairy Queen have no idea what Cisco is talking about. He raps all night long, breathless incantations about injustice, pistols and housing projects. The Indians are mystified by a brain that fires out couplets but won't do school work.
"He don't use it in the right way," says Ali Momin, the 22-year-old assistant manager.
Ali presses the drive-through speaker and greets the customers with his musical Indian accent. "Welcome to Dairy Queen, may I take your order, please?"
Long pause, and then a Southern drawl. "Do what now?"
This little Dairy Queen. The walls decorated with plaques of all-white T-ball teams. An employee named Miss Carol -- hired back before the world changed -- wears a "Jesus Cares" pin on her uniform while her Muslim supervisor cooks his food in a crock pot separate from DQ food. The franchise owner, an Indian, swings by in his Porsche to check on receipts.
And Cisco at the drive-through, ranting about race six miles from a tourist spot called the "Gone With the Wind Historical District."
The Dairy Queen on State Road 138 has been visited by a global awakening, all beneath a swirl-top soft-serve cone.
As Cisco says, in one of the night's chants:
Tomorrow is right now.
The Dairy Queen is 14 miles south of Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport, just inside Clayton County. Not long ago, Clayton County was pastures and okra stands. Then, like the rest of the suburban South, it exploded in the 1990s with a 30 percent population growth and the sound of bulldozers moving across red clay.
The proof is in the exit ramp civilizations that cling to the pilings of the interstates. Waffle House, Taco Bell, Holiday Inn Express, Quik Trip in endless repetition. But it's here in this numbing sameness, amid the heat lamps and sparkly stucco plazas, that a racial and ethnic fusion has taken hold. This is the new soul of the South.
Until the early 1990s, the three major epochs in Southern history had to do with race: the Civil War, Reconstruction and the civil rights movement. Now comes the fourth. During the past 15 years, an unprecedented wave of immigration swept over the South, transforming the meaning of race in the very place it was defined.
Immigrants from Mexico, India, South Korea, Vietnam and other countries shocked a fundamentally black and white society. This first generation poured in for work -- and to survive, many of them sweated on the margins of one of the most prosperous chapters in the American economy.
Now their children are coming of age, with different expectations of what a life can be. They may live in cramped apartments with parents who speak no English and earn $7 an hour, but their own yearnings have been stoked by Niketown. They are testing every institution in their path, in schools that are unprepared to teach them, in a place that has no context for immigration and in a part of the country historically hostile to anyone not white.
Atlanta is at the front edge of this new pluralism. Some sociologists call it a mini-Los Angeles in the making. The metropolitan area, with 4.1 million people, is a mix of urbanism and suburbs that radiates out in a 20-county sprawl. The cradle of the civil rights movement, Atlanta represents the two-tone world of the past that is now giving way to a new society. Between 1990 and 2000, more than 256,000 foreign-born people arrived here.
A Dairy Queen hardly seems like a staging ground for the future. The store in Stockbridge looks like any other. On sunny days, the red sign creaks in the wind. Car exhaust from the road blows up on the patio tables. At night, the white-lit building glows luminous and cold.
Inside, there are wooden booths and chairs, and a freezer that holds cakes and Dilly Bars. A menu board with pictures hangs above the counter -- "HOT EATS" -- along with the ice cream concoctions. A silver counter and three cash registers separate the customers from the crew.
Half the crew is Indian or Pakistani. In their blue polo shirts, they work as if each sale brings a handsome commission instead of low wages in the grubby trenches of the American economy.
"How about a Blizzard Chocolate Extreme?" Farzana Khan suggests in her Urdu-inflected English. "It's full of delicious cocoa fudge. You like chocolate right, ma'am? We are selling lots of these."
Next customer: "Gimme a kids' chicken fingers."
Farzana presses the drive-through microphone button. "What sauce, ma'am? We have all kinds delicious," Farzana asks.
"You got what?"
"Honey mustard, Italian, barbecue," Farzana says.
"Okay, gimme honey mustard."
"You don't like white country gravy? It's real good, ma'am."
This zeal boggles the minds of the American employees, most of whom are the sons and daughters of the working class. They are in high school, or, as a 16-year-old employee says, "I'm home-schooling myself." A few are saving for college. One is waiting to turn 18 so he can get hired at the deli at Costco.
Cisco works the window. The average fast-food worker in America quits or is fired after four months, but Cisco has six months at the DQ. He is supposed to be in the eighth grade, but never went back after a suspension. But the DQ holds him. He's rarely late for work. "I like ice cream," he shrugs.
His mother is Puerto Rican. She left the Bronx with her two children when Cisco was 4 because she thought the South would be a gentler experience. Now Cisco is completely black-identified. He tells his mom to use the word sausage and not chorizo.
One evening, Cisco takes his dinner break on the DQ patio. He eats his fries and lights a cigarette, pocketing his chicken sandwich for later. From the patio table, Cisco can almost make out the skyscrapers of Atlanta. Atlanta means Lenox Square mall and the clubs of Buckhead, where rappers like Pastor Troy and the other So So Def Recording artists go to chill. Once, Jermaine Dupri came through the Dairy Queen drive-through and ordered a cone with sprinkles. "He had a big white Beamer with a peanut butter dash," Cisco remembers.
But Cisco's world is closer to the Dairy Queen. "The next exit is my exit," he says, "and the exit after that is my cousin's exit." His mother or grandmother brings him to work. He gets out of the car with his red Nautica shorts peeking out of his khakis as he does his little walk into the DQ. Sometimes, Cisco sees the owner arriving in his Infiniti. A subdued car like that just makes him shake his head in pity. "He let all that money go to waste," Cisco says.
Rizwan Momin arrived in Atlanta in 1985 from the Indian state of Gujarat. He had $310 in his pocket. His uncle had just purchased a sagging, white-owned Dairy Queen in a black neighborhood in Atlanta. Riz went to work for his uncle, mopping, sweeping, saving, scheming, wearing $3 shirts from K-Mart, sleeping on the floor, working day and night at the DQ except when he went to his second job at a laminations factory on Buford Highway, where he tended the boiler.
Twelve years later, Riz owns nine Dairy Queens in the Atlanta metro area. He's one of the largest franchisees in the Southeast. Drives the Porsche on some days, the Infiniti SUV on others, Indian music blasting from the Bose speakers in the wood-grain console.
Indians own 60 of the 208 Dairy Queens in Georgia. Half of Riz's workforce is Indian. "Forget the white kids with the studs in the tongue," Riz says. "Indians are gonna work for you. At the beginning, they work for minimum wage. Then little raise, little raise, slowly, slowly. Everyone live together; they are saving money, six people in household working, they bank 80 percent of their money and use 20 percent for expenses. They don't drink, no clubs, no fancy clothes. Suddenly, they have $60,000 in the bank. Then they will buy the Subway or the Blimpie."
But Riz worries about the second generation. No vision. Where's the next young entrepreneur ready to climb out of the low-wage landscape? "These people just want to be the Riz," says Riz with concern. "You can't copy the Riz. You must build your own entity. The second generation wants the short cut."
The source of his worry is his cousin, Ali Momin, 22, who is the night supervisor at the Stockbridge store. Ali could be the heir apparent if he wanted.
One Thursday afternoon, Ali is changing the grease in the deep-fryer. With his sleeves rolled up, he drains the old grease, scrubs out the stainless steel vats, rinses everything down with a hose and then pours in fresh oil. Periodically, he looks out toward the parking lot, where his 2001 silver Honda Accord is backed in so he can keep an eye on it. The CD player is loaded with Eminem and Indian techno music.
Ali came to Stockbridge from India when he was 16. He dropped out of Eagle's Landing High School his senior year. He wanted to hurry up and get started in the DQ pipeline.
But unlike Riz when Riz started out, Ali won't wear $3 shirts from K-Mart. His cologne is Dreamer by Versace. His savings account is zero. "Riz tells me a whole buncha times, 'Don't be wasting money,' " Ali says. "I keep that in my head for a couple of days, then it goes away."
His ambitions are vague and specific. "Be a something owner; that's all I want to do," he says.
At the Dairy Queen, they all have ambitions.
"I'm gonna be in sports and music, some kind of star," says Xavier Thurston, homegrown Georgia, his cornrows playfully tied off with pink butterfly barrettes. "I'm never gonna be a regular guy."
Xavier and Cisco exist in a fantasy galaxy called the Dirty South. The phrase was coined by a rap group to describe a Dixie-fied urbanism, lifting the South up from its woeful place and making it the hippest and "baddest" spot in the consciousness.
Cisco pours himself into the role of a Dirty South habitue. He hangs around a recording studio in East Atlanta, hoping to be discovered. The trim on his $90 sneakers carefully accents another piece of clothing. He owns a collection of $70 silk sports jerseys, his most prized being his University of Georgia.
"Down here we got special things," he says one day, filling up the bins of pineapple topping and Heath bar pieces. "We wear ruffle socks to match the jerseys. We don't be lacing our shoes all the way. We do it like a big X, then a big bow. We gotta have a hat. I always gotta have a hat."
Cisco has a gold dental grill that goes fang-to-fang, a diamond in each fang. As for his hair, he tells the barber to use a No. 7 guard on top, then tight on the sides with a No. 3.
Maintaining his appearance requires most of his $150 weekly pay from the DQ. Maintaining his persona could be more costly.
One afternoon, Riz the owner makes a surprise visit to the DQ. Riz starts yelling about the mess and everyone begins mopping and wiping furiously. After Riz leaves, Cisco and Xavier relax back into their usual selves. "We don't change for nobody," Xavier says.
Cisco nods. "Yeah, keep it real."
Xavier assembles a bacon cheeseburger. "My granddaddy said don't ever let no one put fear in your heart."
Americans, as seen from the drive-through window:
They are fat, skinny, haggard, pampered, with slobbering dogs in their laps, with open beers in the cup holders, with soccer schedules taped to the dash, and, one afternoon, an infant riding in a laundry basket in the backseat.
A deacon in a gold suit. A woman with a 50-pound bag of Alpo on the jump seat and a pack of Kools on the dash. A teenager with a Bad Kitty steering wheel cover and a decal of a dagger on her tinted window. She wants a Mister Misty.
Often their hands tremble with anticipation as they tear the wrappers off their milkshake straws. Some drive up with other warm fast-food bags on the seat beside them. The workers form their own stereotypes. They say the Mexicans like banana splits and black customers can be so picky that if you don't make it exactly right, they want it for free.
"I'm ready!" a customer shouts.
The driver of the car has three piercings thru his lip and eyebrows. "Only in Stockbridge," Cisco says. "They a disgrace to Atlanta." His co-worker, Karl, a black high school senior, nods in agreement. "You know that."
The assembly line of humanity keeps rolling forward. One man is covered in tattoos: animals, a spider web and a swastika. His female passenger is also a mural of ink. A baby is smiling from the car seat. The driver passes his money up to Cisco. Each knuckle on one hand is tattooed with a letter:
Cisco turns away from the window. Keeping his voice low, he tells Karl, "that man got a Nazi tattoo." Karl leans over to steal a look. The customer senses Cisco and Keith gawking but his face registers no emotion. Cisco gives the man his ice cream cone, mocha-colored fingers wrapped around the white napkin that covers the cone, and into the outstretched knuckles that spell S-K-I-N.
As soon as the man puts the car in gear, Cisco whirls around and spits out a rap.
I represent the South
where the niggas stay scared.
red mouth, nobody mouth as red as mine
down south affiliated with that Georgia pine.
The pace quickens. Cisco hustles around in his big pants. Ali the night manager begins to shout. "Hey, drop me 15 pieces of chicken strips!" A woman pulls up in a turquoise Cougar with Mardi Gras beads dangling from the mirror. She has four orders, and four envelopes of money. "What is taking y'all so long?" the next car demands over the speaker.
The Dairy Queen is no meatpacking plant. But you make ice cream cones for $5.75 an hour and then come face-to-face with a shiny new Navigator at the drive-through window, a fine-looking woman behind the wheel, and all you can do is hand her the cone. There are so many reminders of what you aren't.
By the time the DQ closes at 10, the asphalt under the drive-through window is a spillage of coins, napkins, relish packets, cigarette butts and a maraschino cherry. Cisco goes out and sweeps it up, one scrawny boy with a broom and a dust pan, singing the "Welcome to Atlanta" re-mix.
The Ku Klux Klan members who used to stand at the intersections at lunch time in their pointed hoods asking for donations are gone. But now life out there is as mixed up as the Dairy Queen on a Friday night. On Tara Boulevard, Clayton County police are investigating some Latin Kings who shot up a quinceanera. The putt-putt golf course is now an Asian game room. Families are living in extended-stay hotels for $174 a week.
At the DQ, what signals the passage of time is the arrival of new merchandising material. After the Scooby-Doo promotion starts, a new employee named Faisal Khan joins the crew. Faisal is 14 and Pakistani. He grew up in a one-bedroom apartment next to the gas station his dad owned near the Atlanta airport. His hobby is designing Web sites. He's saving for college.
His first week at DQ, Faisal is whacked by the velocity. "I want one small dip cone and one medium cone," a customer at the drive-through orders. "And make the medium kinda little 'cause it's for a girl."
"Can I have a number three without pickles, small Sprite, small Oreo Blizzard, a medium sweet tea, and that's all," says the person in a car with a Braves license plate.
Faisal falls behind. He may be an ace at school but this place is something else.
"Can you grill that hot dog for me?"
"We don't have a grill."
"Does that mean you can't grill it?"
In time, though, Faisal no longer needs to look at the diagram of how to make a Blizzard. With his first paycheck, he buys his mother clothes. He is slender and quiet, with Phase One of a moustache. He covets almost nothing, and exists in a solitary focus. "If you're gonna be somebody, then you gotta do some things you don't like," he says. In the summer, Faisal attends Muslim day camp and works at the DQ on Friday nights. From the counter he can see the drag racers who gather in the Big K parking lot across the street. They gun their engines and smoke cigarettes before tearing out for the back roads. Faisal is at the register one Friday night when a hot rodder walks in, striding toughly and wearing a gold rope around his neck with a big diamond "R."
The mild-mannered Faisal folds his thin arms across his chest and cops enough attitude for all the playas in the Dirty South.
"S'up?" he says.
In 1998, Dairy Queen was purchased by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. With total revenue of $450 million a year, DQ is the eighth-largest restaurant chain in the United States and is expanding worldwide.
The employees at the Stockbridge store are unaware of their role in the global market. What's happening right in front of them is all they can take.
A customer is trying to scam Faisal for a reduced priced banana split. Employees are supposed to speak only English, but someone is barking Urdu over the roar of the milkshake blender. Someone else is nuking Indian food in the microwave, a forbidden practice because American customers don't like the smell of curry with their ice cream.
One of the employees takes his break in his black Cavalier in the parking lot, blasting the hardcore Christian band, Cast Aside the Fallen.
Farzana notices Cisco giving a customer ice water in a 32-ounce cup. She explodes. "This is not a free store!" she yells. "This cup costs the DQ money!"
Cisco struts off, muttering, "I'll put the 50 cents in." He starts to bob and the words fly out in razor rhymes.
Although they say we're free, we're not.
I act like I'm loving life but I'm not.
Employee Karl Griffin comes into the DQ in a panic. He's wearing his Hardaway silks and new pair of Jordans. Karl had planned on getting a room at the Holiday Inn Express for a party but he lost his $40. He looks everywhere for the money but can't find it. The DQ crew pitches in $38.
Riz Momin has reserved a table at Maharaja, an Indian restaurant in the Atlanta suburb of Tucker. It's his mother's 71st birthday, and he has arranged a surprise dinner. The DQ baron arrives wearing a white starched shirt with gold cuff links. His wife and two sisters -- each work at one of the family-owned Dairy Queens by day, their polo shirts spattered in butterscotch and strawberry topping -- now appear in punjabi. Ali arrives a bit later, his new Motorola V-60 phone clipped to his belt.
Riz has just purchased his ninth Dairy Queen, adding to his string of three Orange Juliuses. As he expands his empire, some DQ operators still hang signs on their leader boards that say, "AMERICAN OWNED." At the Atlanta regional meetings of DQ operators, the Indians sit on one side of the room and the white owners on the other. "The whites don't even say 'hi' to the Indians," Riz says. "It's hard."
He has his rags-to-Armani immigrant narrative, but he still doesn't have the one thing he most wants: respect. The fast-food business launched him; now he wants more. His latest brainstorm is to open a chain of "As Seen On TV" stores.
They sell products such as the Flowbee Haircutting System, Bug Wand, Bye Bye Blemish and Juice Man II. In the hours before his mother's birthday party, he scoped potential mall locations and investors. "If I open my wings wider and talk to the people, they will join me," he says.
At the Indian restaurant, the table is stacked with gifts, and there's a sheet cake from the Danish Bakery. When Riz's mom walks in, she clasps her hands to her face. The family lines up to pay homage, with Riz leading the way. He presents his mother with a small box. She opens it and her eyes fill with tears.
"Real diamonds," a sister of Riz whispers.
The 3 o'clock crew drifts in one Friday afternoon. They start refilling the vats of syrup and stacking new sheaths of cones. Cisco is missing. Lately his grandiosity has been increasing.
He's gone from home for days at a time, and he talks about how deep life is at the Bowen Homes housing project in Atlanta. "You either from the hood or you from the suburbs," he'll say. "I'm 'hood till I die."
The truth is, Francisco Montanez lives on a cul-de-sac in a modest two-story house, where the dining room table is set with cloth napkins twisting out of the ice tea glasses.
The afternoon Cisco is a no-show, an Indian supervisor picks up the phone. "The Cisco is never late," she says, as she dials his grandmother's house. "Hello, can I talk with the Cisco?" As it turns out, the schedule was changed and no one told Cisco. He materializes an hour later, carrying his blue DQ polo.
"You gotta get you a cell phone, boy," Ali says.
Cisco says, "I ain't got as much as you."
Ali orders Cisco to wipe down the storage freezer.
The first Confederate flag of the shift arrives. Cisco carries a bucket and a scrubby toward the freezer in the back, making up a rap about a place called DQ Town.
for these play-ahs
The DQ in Stockbridge keeps its employees much longer than most fast-food restaurants. Still, life moves on. Farzana stays as a $7-an-hour assistant manager, but in September, Faisal quits to focus on ninth grade and Xavier quits to focus on varsity football.
Ali is transferred to another DQ store in the Riz empire. A plan for his life? "I don't got one," he says. "I'm too lazy, for real."
Cisco gets fired for erratic work habits. He is now enrolled at Morrow High School as a ninth-grader.
Riz Momin buys three more Dairy Queens, opens two "As Seen on TV" stores and launches a costume jewelry boutique called Accessory Necessity.