Tuesday, January 5, 2010 was just like any other lunchtime for Henry Gammill, a sophomore at NYU who was home for the winter holidays and found himself at the In-N-Out Burger on Foothill in east Pasadena. Careful as usual not to block the driveway at Reina Insurance next door, Henry waited in the car lineup for his first meal of the day.
So far so good.
Inside the tollbooth-size kitchen, miracles occur 14.5 hours a day. The salty, hot burgers and fries are sacraments to generations of Californians. The service is reliably swift and friendly. Most wondrous of all, nobody ever seems to get hurt or mad inside this clean, orderly sauna of a restaurant. But today the line was moving a little slower than yesterday and the day before, taking nine minutes to collect his sweaty, boxed grilled cheese, animal style. (FYI, that’s with grilled onions and sauce.) Why nine minutes instead of the normal six? Something was up.
Then he heard a cheerful voice from inside the kitchen window, melodically posing an incredulous, “And this is the oldest operating In-N-Out in the country?” To which someone — Henry craned his neck to see — the manager? —answered, “Well, yes, that’s right!”
“Yeah, it was Huell Howser!” Henry said the next day, as we again waited in line at In-N-Out. “I wasn’t sure at first. But his name’s on his video camera.”
How did a 20-year-old recognize the name, I wondered. Henry set me straight, mock proud. “Huell did a series on all the California missions. We watched a couple of his videos in Mrs. Bosch’s 4th grade class.”
I pressed. How did he look? Henry answered almost protectively. “A little grayer — yeah, his hair’s pretty white. A good set of muscles on him,” He laughed at his own admiration. “Tall and cheery. Definitely recognizable.”
Was Huell inside the kitchen? With a camera? How’s that possible, that big, buff man in such a small space? Yes, he was inside the kitchen, talking to the manager, kindly and attentive, hoping he hadn’t caused any trouble by arranging to come by today. “No, no,” the manager assured, “we’re glad to have you!”
Did other people recognize him? Yep, said Henry. “He was so cordial and friendly. He shook hands, had little conversations with everyone who came over. Tattooed construction workers, guys with backward caps and little beards, people you wouldn’t really expect.” Henry paused, sifting through Huell’s visit. “Yeah. Kind of like he brought out the friendly in people.”