If I made you a mix tape any time between 1995 and 1997, chances are it had the songs “Philosophy” or “Video” somewhere among the twenty-something handpicked tracks. Ben Folds Five was my band, kicking out the insanely catchy pop-piano jams I’d belt at the top of my lungs while driving, the discovery I wanted everyone I knew to get excited about too, the quirky trio striking a deep chord in my heart.
If I had a few extra dollars to blow on a quick study-break lunch during my time in Chicago as an impoverished journalism student, odds were strong that at least once a week I’d be throwing my cash down at Potbelly Sandwich Shop in Evanston. There was nothing fast food about the ingredients, especially the vinegary hot peppers so strong they landed like bombs on the tongue, and best of all, the sandwiches were big enough they could feasibly last for two meals if I resisted the urge to wolf both halves down. My time with my Potbelly sandwich was sacred—just me, spicy turkey and swiss, and the latest issue of The Onion.
One summer day in 1998, flipping through radio stations as I cruised down the Turnpike to Pittsburgh in my little white Ford Escort, my fingers and ears caught a familiar piano riff: it was “Brick.” Ben Folds Five was actually being played on mainstream radio.
A few years ago, strolling down Market Street in Philadelphia and starving as usual, I started pushing and coaxing Dan into a trip to Tria for lunch. “Or we could go to Potbelly,” he replied, pointing to the sandwich shop that appeared like a mirage on the corner. It was true. My grad school staple had finally planted its flag on the East Coast.
We’ve got the word “schadenfreude” to describe “happiness at the misfortune of others,” but is there a word to capture the elation mingled with disappointment that strikes when the band you’ve been championing for years finally makes it big? You’re really happy for their success, but there’s a part of you that realizes your love for them will never be the same again. They’re no longer your little secret; the crush you’ve been nursing for years is now everyone’s Tiger Beat pinup.
Mainstream success didn’t quite prove fatal to Ben Folds Five, nor did it diminish my love for their music; though the band split up after their third record, I’ve kept nostalgic tabs on Ben, Robert, and Darren’s doings for the past decade with their albums both together and solo popping up in rotation on the iPod shuffle and Ben appearing on my TV as a judge on The Sing-Off. In December, Ben confirmed the trio’s reunited with a new album on the way soon. Can it be? I’ll have a whole new group of songs to sing in the car?
And after thinking Potbelly was lost to my past (except as a once-every-two-years pit stop during a trip to Chicago), I’m enjoying a renewed love affair with my old paramour. Instead of unnerving and disappointing, the entire experience remains exactly true to my memories. It’s comforting to have Potbelly at my fingertips when I want it, crunching into a warm and juicy hot pepper-laced turkey sub, washing it down with an IBC root beer and a bag of Zapp’s potato chips. Just like old times.
I guess selling out’s not so bad when it’s sandwiches we’re talking about. There could be worse fringe benefits to hitting the big time.
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