When I think now of Rapid Ray’s in Saco and the perfect simplicity of its summery food, my thoughts turn to a bitter winter afternoon many years ago, a Volkswagen bus, and the perfection of hot, salty french fries.

The mid-1970s VW bus that putt-putted me through my childhood in Kennebunkport was blue with a white roof. I loved to sit in the passenger seat and slam eight-track cassettes of The J. Geils Band and The Police into the stereo, then crank up the volume knob.

When my brother and I sat in back, we slid seatbelt-less along the bench seats as my boozy stepfather skittered around sharp bends, grinding the gears. At the drive-in, we parked parallel to the screen, slid open the side door, and watched the movie sprawled in sleeping bags.

But that bus was most memorable for what it lacked: because it had been retrofitted with a Porsche engine, the heater-boxes did not align and it had absolutely no heat. Driving around in the winter, it was often colder inside the bus than it was outside.

Ray’s traveled in a mobile-home-sized truck in the 1970s. Photo courtesy of Rapid Ray's Facebook page

My brother and I sat in back with a wool blanket over our legs like some strange 1970s version of a horse-drawn sleigh ride and watched frozen breath curl from our mouths. The bus seemed to suit the chaotic state of our tumultuous little family unit.

Just as our hippy mom made questionable transportation decisions, her vegetarian cuisine choices were also a little too back-to-the-earth for a couple of active young boys.

My brother and I suffered through after-school snacks such as unsalted peanut butter on rice cakes or celery with cream cheese. Our birthday treat was an anemic but much-anticipated trail mix of salted peanuts, raisins and M&Ms.

It’s this combination of cold VW bus and home’s culinary shortcomings that makes my memory of the first experience at the burger and dog mecca of Rapid Ray’s so unforgettable.

I can’t recall exactly how old I was (perhaps 8 or 9 at the most) or why we were in Saco that afternoon (likely department store sale shopping), but I do remember my brother and I were being more trouble than usual (which is, trust me, really saying something). My brother was punching me under the blanket while I complained loudly, and both of us were whining about the chill in our fingers and toes.

My mother, still just in her 20s but already exhausted by us, offered something she rarely if ever offered: a deal. If my brother and I could keep our hands to ourselves and behave, she said, we could stop at Rapid Ray’s for a treat.

Back then, Rapid Ray’s was still a food truck, though it had graduated from the tiny roach-coach-style lunch wagon with room enough for just Ray himself to a mobile home-sized truck and a small crew of a handful.

 

Rapid Ray’s through the years. It opened in 1953 at a time when food trucks meant cheap fare for the working class. The Saco landmark has been at the corner of Main Street and Pepperell Plaza since 1986. Photo courtesy of Rapid Ray's Facebook page

My brother and I scrambled out of the VW and stood in the glow of Ray’s order window. The cold air was cut by the hot, heavenly odor of frying meat. We must have known intuitively that a grilled burger or steamed hot dog was out of the question, because we asked for two large orders of french fries.

In what seemed like mere seconds, a small, topless rectangular cardboard box with two paper cups of fries arrived in the order window. We snatched it up and scurried back into the bus, shrieking with joy like seagulls around an open bait barrel as we squeezed little piles from ketchup packets into the box.

The fries warmed our mitten-less fingers and the salt exploded on our tongues. I can still hear the satiated silence of that ride home.

TEENAGER’S OASIS

Years later I came to understand Rapid Ray’s as the institution it is to this day.

In 1953, when Rapid Ray’s opened, food trucks meant inexpensive eats for the working class, and the then-thriving Biddeford/Saco mills provided an endless supply of hungry workers.

One can only imagine what founder Ray Camire would make of some of today’s precious, often expensive food trucks, or the very idea of buying an artisanal cupcake from one.

Since 1986, Ray’s has been housed in a seatless, diner-inspired building on the corner of Saco’s Main Street and Pepperell Plaza. Ray’s is the very definition of a “landmark,” which is to say locals orient outwards from it, as in: “Yeah, they opened a new bike shop, up Main Street, same side as Ray’s,” or “That pub is in an old mill, down the hill from Ray’s, opposite side.”

When I was a teenager, Rapid Ray’s was THE late-night oasis after the food-desert of the Kennebunks shuttered tight for the night. Sometimes a group of us would caravan over in multiple cars.

Joshua Bodwell shows his daughter Elona old photographs of Rapid Ray’s at the popular fast-food spot in Saco that once delivered inexpensive food to mill workers in Biddeford and Saco. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

I’d order a double cheeseburger, french fries and chocolate milk, and the man at the counter shouted “Big One, fry and a choc!” Moments later, a man beside the man who’d taken my order would ask, “What’s on your Big One?” then slather my burger bun in seconds with ketchup, mustard and relish using tongue depressors bobbing in condiment containers.

My friends and I would stand with our boxes of food at the little ledges across from the order/pick-up window and eat and watch.

Customers smiled and laughed, made small talk with the men working the counter, greeted each other like old friends. And they ate: they scarfed down cheeseburgers and onion rings, devoured clam and cheese dogs. I swear, I have never seen so much chocolate milk consumed by adults as I have at Rapid Ray’s.

One night, a few brazen gulls waddled in through an open door and made quick work of every scrap of spilled food. Most nights, barflies staggered in for a fix of salt and grease after last call in a nearby tavern; they’d slur through an order, hand over a few crumpled bills, then silently wolf down their food.

The air at Ray’s always felt charged, but never threatening.

LONGING FOR WHAT’S REAL

Ray’s started as a food truck in 1953, but since 1986 it has stood in a seatless building on Main Street. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

These days, in the moments I crave fast food, I know what I’m really craving is Rapid Ray’s – it is, I imagine, the closest thing I will ever experience to McDonald’s when it was still owned and operated by the McDonald brothers themselves, before Ray Kroc got his greedy hands on the business and turned it into a real estate empire that happened to sell frozen burgers.

I don’t crave Rapid Ray’s for a high culinary experience, or even a quick, convenient bite. I crave it for something more than sustenance: comfort. And when I’m there I am buoyed by the glut of what is lacking in so many other dining establishments: authenticity.

How those Rapid Ray’s french fries tasted on that winter afternoon of my childhood in the back of an unheated VW bus is, to be honest, somewhere out beyond the manmade limitations of written language.

I can say, though, that when I think back on those particularly difficult years when my mother’s and stepfather’s drug-and-alcohol-fueled marriage was faltering and tenuous, I remember those french fries as a rare transcendent moment of unguarded happiness.

Joshua Bodwell is the executive director of the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance. He is currently working as the series editor of a three-volume edition of the collected short stories of Andre Dubus.