My vegan wrap was something of a mess that day.
I’m not vegan. Nor am I remotely a vegetarian. I just occasionally take advantage of other people’s dietary principles to find something light and low-calorie, but filling and delicious, for lunch.
I would have taken it cold, but the girl at the cafe had thrown it on the panini grill so resolutely, so automatically and with no room for questioning or debate, that it seemed unthinkable to say anything against it. Anyway, once something has started heating, you don’t want it to take it half-heated. You might as well go all the way.
When I unwrapped it at my office and took the first bite, a dried-up chickpea fall onto my desk. It left behind an indentation in the tortilla, so I guessed it had been stuck to the outside and likely had cooked on the grill that way. Probably the order directly before mine had come undone or lost a few bits and pieces as it was removed.
I picked up the chickpea and ate it.
Then I was surprised by a dried cranberry. It was stuck to the tortilla like a jewel. I took it with a bite as if it belonged there. Could I really say it didn’t belong there? No big deal.
I don’t like to be particular, but I amused myself with fantasies of a different me — one who might be bothered by a stray chickpea in his lunch and an errant dried cranberry encrusted on his tortilla.
“It’s a good thing I’m not allergic!” I might shout after marching the three blocks back to the cafe to complain. “But I could have been! Are you this careless with everyone?”
The barista might look back at me blankly. She might shout back. She might call the manager over. She might ignore me. She might cry.
But I would never do such a thing.
“You know, I have half a mind to demand my money back!” I might declare. She’ll gasp.
“But I won’t,” I’ll finish. She’ll be so relieved.
And then after a pause, I’ll say, “Well, the least you can do is offer me something for free. A coffee or a sandwich or something. A bagel? A cookie?” And then I’ll throw up may hands and storm back out.
Of course I’d never be able to go back there after such an episode. It would be too embarrassing. Such a come-down. They’d spit in my food. And I would be driven into the arms of the pizza place at the corner or the more-expensive gourmet shop across the street selling locally sourced sandwiches and self-righteousness. Or even worse (for my tummy) — Chinatown.
Well, they do have a nice courtyard at the gourmet place. There’s a tree that rains down these lovely purple blossoms to scatter in the gravel among the handbags and table legs. Maybe that would’t be such a bad thing.
But how could I be bothered by the “special features” of my lunch that day? Even if I were allergic.
There was one person that day, however, who was particular. You might say picky. She was a couple places in front of me in line. She was in her mid-20s with her hair neatly tied up but threatening to unravel. She wore a loose-fitting summery dress, heavy glasses and ironic shoes.
She made it very clear to everyone within earshot that she was a vegan by asking questions each of the half-dozen items on the menu that she was considering.
“Are there any dairy products in your bread?” she asked. “Do you know if the quinoa is certified organic?” And “You’re sure the caesar dressing is vegan? Because a lot of caesar dressing has anchovies in it.”
The barista patiently answered all her questions while pouring coffees, making change, calling patrons to pick up their orders, swiping debit cards. Eventually the vegan visitor determined that the vegetarian salad was sufficiently cruelty-free and took a leap and ordered it, to go.
When the girl stepped away to gather the order, the vegan called after her, “Oh, hi! Hi. Um — and what do you serve it in?”
“Huh?” She stopped in her tracks and peeked back around a stack of bagels.
“The container. What’s it made out of?”
“Yeah, is it styrene? I’d rather not have a styrene container. If you could, like, use something else — or wrap it up in paper or something …”
“Styrene?” said the girl. ” Like styrofoam?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Polystyrene. Heh, you know, you might remember me. I’m the one responsible for stopping the city from using polystyrene containers in the cafeteria at City Hall.”
She paused to let that information settle in. She got no response.
“No. Yeah,” she continued. “We petitioned the mayor. Remember? We fought for a year. It was a landmark victory in this municipality in the war against petro-chemical-based food service containers. So, I can’t take anything out of here in a polystyrene container.”
“No, we use plastic,” said the barista.
“Plastic, huh?” said the vegan. She seemed disappointed. Maybe she was deflated by the early shut-down of her anti-styrene diatribe. Maybe she hated plastic just as much. “You don’t have any paper products?” she continued. “I mean, that’s not great either, but at least it’s not plastic.”
The barista wearily, silently, held up a large, clear plastic clamshell that every patron recognized as their standard to-go setup.
“Oh, no,” said the girl gravely. “I can’t do that. Can’t you just give it to me on a plate? You have plates, right?”
“Yeah, we use plates,” she said, gesturing around the room toward all the customers who were eating sandwiches, poking at salads and spooning up soup from several varieties of mismatched ceramic crockery, “but not for takeout.”
“Oh, yeah. Well… But I promise I’ll return it. I work just around the block. I’m in this neighborhood all the time.”
The girl looked dubious.
“I swear. I’ll take it around the block. And then I’ll wash it, and then I’ll bring it back.”
Ugh, this was all taking so long. I just wanted to make a quick stop. I felt a kinship with my fellow patrons, shifting as they were from one foot to the other. Woe betide the poor soul who just stopped in for a coffee or an Orangina!
I couldn’t argue with Miss Vegan 2011’s choices, but her timing was supremely annoying. There is no styrofoam here, lady. Just take the plastic and go. Recycle it. Reuse it. Make art out of it. We were not so much anxious to leave the cafe as we were for her to leave the cafe.
The barista called downstairs to the manager, who eventually gave the vegan permission to take a ceramic plate away — temporarily — after some pointed questions, a few sighs and some eye-rolling.
“I mean it,” said the manager. “You bring that back, OK? OK. Alright. Goodbye.” Her Israeli accent gave her voice an authority missing from the middle-ground American accents of the rest of us.
And that was it.
If she kept the plate, they would recognize her the next time she came in. We would all recognize her, we regulars, having now witnessed so intimate, yet public, an examination of her culinary preferences.
She left. I never knew if she returned the plate or not. I’ve never seen her since. But I bet she washed that plate with bio-degradable soap.