by Sandra Mizumoto Posey

The day we drove through Pensacola, Florida was stiflingly hot, so we were relieved to see a Sonic sign along the road up ahead. We pulled our rental car into an asphalt slot and called in our orders over the intercom: a chocolate malt, a rootbeer float, and an order of onion rings with ketchup -- lots. In minutes, Nikki Summers glided up to our window on roller skates bearing our deep-fried and iced salvation in a paper bag.

Nikki is eighteen and she’s been working at this Sonic since it opened three years ago. She knew how to skate a bit when she started but "you pretty much learn on the job." Everyone has their accidents, she explains, but pretty soon you’re swerving out, balancing a load of burgers and drinks with ease. Nikki seems to think this balancing act is simple -- though it’s a feat I know I’d never master. But then Nikki also thinks her life is pretty simple. There isn’t much to do in Pensacola when you’re eighteen, Nikki tells us, but she and her friends take in the occasional movie, have dinner, and hit the few nightclubs that will admit them. The rest of the time she’s a student at Pensacola Junior College or "PJC" and serves up fries on wheels to locals and a few out-of-state folk like me who marvel that there is still a chain supporting rollerskating carhops.

The Sonic chain thrives in more than just Florida, of course: In existence since the mid-fifties, it currently boasts franchises in 27 states. It all started with the dream of Troy Smith to own a fancy restaurant. Purchasing land which housed both a larger establishment and a parking lot root beer stand, Smith planned to shut the smaller venue down, but found that it was more profitable. In time he installed a speaker system that would allow patrons to order from their vehicles and have food delivered by carhops. The word "carhop" itself dates back to the early twenties when servers at Pig Stand in Fort Worth, Texas would "hop" onto an automobile’s running board to deliver food. Running boards have long since disappeared but America’s persistent preoccupation with cars and quick eats have given the drive-in restaurant enduring appeal. Eating in your car is more than a matter of convenience -- in fact many would point out that the act of balancing messy sandwiches in paper wrappers across laps and between gear shifts is possibly more difficult than the short walk into the dining room. But automobiles embody all we cherish: they are emblems of freedom, mobility and the attainment of the American dream.

Nikki has been mobile for a good part of her life. A military brat, she was born in Camarillo, California, moved to San Diego, and finally settled with her family in Pensacola. Her American dream involves a possible career in court reporting but for now she’s content to hang out with friends and work at Sonic. "There are nice people here," she explains. For us, the customer, the rollerskating carhop might hearken images of a simpler time when cars were bigger and we had hopes to match. For Nikki, eventually there will be other places she wants to go, but for now the journey is from kitchen to car: "It’s just a job," she emphasizes. Some people, she says, peddle jewelry or do other kinds of work. "I skate."

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