Prestidigitation

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When someone found a finger in the chili at Wendy’s, the world was shocked. “Someone bought chili at Wendy’s?” the world asked. “Really? Huh.”

It was no urban legend, like the old myths about someone finding a deep-fried rat in a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, or a nest of spiders in a Taco Bell burrito, or ground beef in a Big Mac. This really happened!

The question, of course, was WHOSE FINGER IS IT? Or maybe I should say, also with the caps-lock on, WHOSE FINGER WAS IT?, for I believe once you have deposited a fingertip in a vat of chili, you have relinquished your ownership of it. But verb tenses aside, the finger had to have come from someone. None of the Wendy’s employees were missing digits — lucky this occurred in San Jose, Calif., and not, say, Alabama, where doubtless several people present would have been missing at least one. The woman herself had all 10 of hers. So whence came the finger?

That remains a mystery, but in the meantime, the woman who claimed to have found it in her chili, 39-year-old Anna Ayala, has been arrested on a charge of “felony attempted grand theft.” Turns out she didn’t “find” the finger in her chili. She brought it with her from home (presumably; maybe she just found it on the floor at Wendy’s) and pretended to discover it in her food.

These are not the actions of a normal person, obviously, but it does make sense in today’s climate of lawsuits and settlements. There’s no question: If you were to ACTUALLY find a severed finger in your chili at Wendy’s, Wendy’s would eventually pay you millions of dollars, even though the discovery of body parts in one’s food causes no actual harm to the discoverer. So you can see Anna Ayala’s reasoning.

What she didn’t count on was modern technology revealing her as a fraud. News accounts indicate that tests were performed on the finger that concluded it had not been cooked — meaning it had not come from the chili supplier and would have to have been introduced into the chili at the store AFTER the cooking process. And since no one at the Wendy’s where it took place was missing a finger, that meant it could only have happened after it was served to Ayala.

So apparently there are tests you can do to determine whether something has been cooked? Do people study this in college? How often does it come up, one person insisting an item has been cooked and another person claiming it is still raw? It sounds like a game Letterman would play on his show: “Has This Been Cooked?”

But I digress. Ayala turns out to have a rather litigious history. Police say she and her children have been involved in 13 civil cases in California and Nevada. Ayala says she once successfully sued El Pollo Loco for $30,000 after her daughter got food poisoning there, though El Pollo Loco says they haven’t paid her anything. Nor should they. I say you eat at a place called The Crazy Chicken, you take your chances.

Wendy’s estimates it has lost $2.5 million in business because of negative publicity resulting from Ayala’s claim, but I suspect some of this lost business is because they precipitously increased the price of a junior bacon cheeseburger from 99 cents to $1.29. (What, did junior bacon suddenly become more expensive?)

Santa Clara County Assistant District Attorney called Wendy’s the victim of a scam. “We are urging Americans to go back to Wendy’s and enjoy a safe meal,” she said in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Indeed. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if we do NOT go to Wendy’s and enjoy a safe, finger-free meal, the terrorists have won. In a similar vein, Wendy’s spokesman Joseph Desmond said, “Please come back to Wendy’s, because we do serve wonderful hamburgers, shakes and everything else” — even though Wendy’s does NOT have shakes, wonderful or otherwise. A Frosty is not a shake, Mr. Desmond. A Frosty is delicious, and it is chocolate, but it is not a shake. It is a Frosty.

But still I wonder where Anna Ayala got the finger. And did she find it somewhere and then decide to use it to her advantage at Wendy’s, or did she hatch the Wendy’s scheme first and then set out to find a finger? Either way, she is one of the many people I’m glad I don’t know, although I suppose she would be useful for getting free stuff at restaurants, particularly — and you knew this was coming, and I can only apologize for it in advance — finger food.

Ah, the great Chili Con Finger story of 2005. It was a great story when everyone believed it was true, and it was even better when it turned out she was lying. I am glad we have crazy people like Anna Ayala in the world.

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