Out to lunch
My book club is currently reading a book called "Bird by Bird," authored by Anne Lamott. The book is about writing, and while the subject may sound somewhat dull, it's actually a lively read rife with small profundities. Miss Lamott at one point gives her class a writing assignment: "Write what you remember about your school lunches." This set me to thinking and the more I thought about it, the more I realized what a poignant life experience the eating of those lunches actually was.
Let's flip back a couple hundred years to when my buddies and I were in grade school. There was a cafeteria, but at our tender ages, it was off limits. Instead, we ate lunch at our desks — you know, those old fashioned ones that look like they'd be at home sporting an inkpot and a quill pen. PB&Js, egg salad (no, we didn't worry about the mayo spoiling), and bologna sandwiches were the order of the day. I, however, would frequently be in possession of something called a "Knocker." This was actually a knockwurst, a very short and fat sausage that I would stick my thumb into so that it appeared that my thumb was swollen. My friends and I thought this was hilarious. The fact was, though, it didn't taste that good and so I seldom ate it.
When we graduated to Junior High, we were at last permitted into the cafeteria. This was a large and ancient putrid green room, just the color to enhance your appetite. After getting your meal ticket punched by a volunteer, you would proceed to what was known as "the line." Here you picked up a tray, pushed it along a track and told the cafeteria ladies what you wanted. The offerings were usually some form of macaroni and cheese, Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes and gravy and to round the whole thing off, beets. If not beets, soggy canned spinach. Today's cafeteria staples, pizza and a leafy green salad, were unknown.
The cafeteria ladies serving up these delicacies were elderly, at least in our eyes. They wore a makeshift casual uniform consisting of a shirtwaist dress, large white apron and a heavy black hairnet. But sterile gloves? No one knew what they were.
Once we were in high school, we were allowed off campus, and so we finally got to go out to lunch. And it occurs to me that we were actually guilty of being out to lunch in the other meaning of that phrase; when we left, we left two of our classmates behind in the cafeteria because they were too poor to join us and even if they hadn't been, they would not have been invited. Both very overweight, they spent all of their time together and we rarely if ever spoke to them. No one teased them—they just didn't register with us. It makes me sad now, but as I said, we were out to lunch.
When the noon bell rang, we barreled into town. This was a brisk 10-minute jog each way, and it was stressful, because we only had 40 minutes for lunch. In the good old days, if you were late getting back to school, there was hell to pay. So we arrived at "The Coffee Cup," which was the local greasy spoon owned by a husband-wife team. She waited tables, he cooked. What I remember about her was that she never took orders, but kept them in her memory. What I remember about him is that he liked a little alcohol in his greasy spoon. I also remember how we were all crammed into tiny little booths and how hot and sweaty everyone was. We often had to wolf down our burgers and run back to school in order to make it on time.
So what I remember about school lunches is that they were cause for both indigestion and reflection. Lord knows, running back to school with a barely chewed hamburger in one's gullet is cause for indigestion. And leaving those two lonely girls behind is cause for reflection.