American horror story: cafeteria

My elementary school’s cafeteria was a reliable source of embarrassment for me. It was the “lunch room.” I didn’t know the word “cafeteria” yet. It was also the school’s gym, which doubled its the power to humiliate. But we’ll save all of that for another time.

Lunch marked a time in the day when we kids weren’t operating with the safety lines of our parents or teachers. Freedom without experience can be terrifying. 

I once tried to pay for a 25-cent ice cream sandwich with a dime. Paying for something by myself, asking for something I wanted, in front of all those people, rather than simply being supplied with it — it was embarrassing.

The humorless food server looked me up and down and shook her head. She was so fed up with naughty boys, she wouldn’t give good boys a chance. But I swear I’m not trying to cause trouble! I just didn’t understand why my silver coin didn’t work when everyone else’s did. She didn’t have the patience to explain it to me. “It’s not enough, hon,” was the best I got. And she turned me away, confused and crestfallen and feeling cheated.

The entire lunch room seemed to operate under the watchful patrol of the dragon-like lunch lady, Miss Salamoni, whom we cruelly called Miss Salamander. 

The only thing more shrill than her voice at top volume was the whistle hanging around her neck, which she blew furiously with every infraction of The Rules she could spot. And there wasn’t much she did not spot. She could see an upraised middle finger from 50 paces, hear a muffled body-part-related insult above the din of the packed tables.

She stood in the center of the room flanked by the two trash cans, making small talk with the girls and keeping a steady, unsympathetic eye on the boys. Behind her tinted glasses, I could never see where she was looking until she singled out with a hooked finger the unwise child who dared cross her. Her hands were like talons, her pointer finger as straight as a shotgun except for the last knuckle, which bent like a barbed claw.

I was unlucky enough to catch her attention her one day when I ran to one of the trash cans to spit something out. “No!” she called out, lunging for me. “Don’t throw up in there, dear.”

She took my by the shoulder and pointed me toward the door.

“Go to the office,” she said. “Tell Mrs. Stockman you’re sick.”

But I didn’t need to throw up. My mouth was full of something awful, and I just needed to get it out. I had taken a bite of my peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich and sipped on my Hawaiian Punch raspberry fruit punch juice box, and the flavors and textures were not mixing well. But my fervent desire to avoid angering Miss Salamander outweighed my need to wretch. And with my mouth full, I could hardly protest anyway.

The secretary Mrs. Stockman sent me immediately to the sick room adjacent to the office. I lay on a cot, taking deep, controlled breaths through my nose, desperate not to swallow a drop of the vile stuff. I heard the lunch bell ring, the tromping herds of children heading back to their classrooms. Mrs. Stockman was tapping away at something on her electric typewriter. I was so alone.

When it seemed I’d been there long enough to have made some kind of improvement—had I actually been sick, which I was absolutely not—I dared myself to get up off the cot and spit the soaking, steaming, stinking mess into the trash can. They’ll know it was me, but what else can I do? 

To this day I can’t stand the flavor of raspberries. If that counts as scarring, I guess I got off easy.

Careless lunch room mistakes not only pitted us against the uncompassionate adults. Sometimes it created awkward tensions between friends. I thought I might just die the day I sat down in front of my friend’s lunch and accidentally took a bite of his sandwich.

Officially they were called subs. It was actually a microwaved ham and cheese sandwich on a roll. The roll may have been one step up from a hot dog bun, but it was still a ham sandwich. It wasn’t much, but we looked forward to them, because they showed up only occasionally in the rotation among our daily standard options. It gave them an air of scarcity. And we were smart enough to know then that whatever there is least of must be the best.

At the beginning of the day, each student getting a school lunch had to choose a strip of colored construction paper to indicate his or her choice: Orange for pizza. Red for hot dog. Blue for cheeseburger, and so on. I don’t remember the color for a sub—green? Those tickets always went quickest. Conversely, the special of the day—something like mixed vegetables of meatloaf—was always the least popular. We were smart enough then to know that whatever is unfamiliar is probably bad.

We held our tickets until we traded them and our little envelopes of money for a waxy cardboard tray sealed in plastic film.

The pizza was roundly recognized as disgusting, but we ate it anyway. It was pizza. It had a thoughtless, mass-produced quality that I always objected to—too few pepperonis and not enough cheese on a peppery red sauce and a soggy, doughy crust. Second to that was the cheeseburger, which had the disadvantage of being both rubbery and grainy at the same time. The hot dog was the worst. Nothing like the dogs of backyard barbecues, the ends of these were always shrunken and overcooked, and the bun was always toasted to a crisp. They tasted of sadness and frailty.

Many kids threw away their lunches if they didn’t like them. The waste of food horrified me. I usually ate whatever was given to me, whether I liked it or not—a philosophy stamped into me by my mother and father. There were starving kids in Ethiopia. I saw them on TV commercials. How could I waste food while those little African kids were starving on the other side of the world?

So when my friend Gary and I sat back down halfway through lunch—we must have been coming from the bathroom or the milk line or something, because I know Miss Salamander would never have let any of us simply wander around—I just tore into whatever was sitting there in front of me.

I had misjudged my seat by one and was sitting in his place. It all happened in one fluid motion. My butt hit the bench, I picked up the sub, I took a bite—so confident that it was mine, so completely outside consideration that it wasn’t. The instant I took that bite, I realized my error. I dropped the sandwich, and before I could even chew, I spit the bite out into my hand and dropped it on the table. My face turned hot, my ears pulled back, my hair stood up, and I slid over in shock.

Gary took his seat.

“I’m sorry. Oh my god. I’m so sorry,” I said, eying Gary’s molested lunch, half of a sad, congealing ham and cheese sandwich and a limp, damp, abandoned morsel bearing both my bite marks and his.

We were smart enough to know that our saliva was probably deadly. He had his germs, and I had my germs, and never the twain should meet. Also, we knew about AIDS. He could not possibly finish eating it without grave risk.

I had taken a bite from the end he was eating from. I wondered if I should swish my mouth out.

Gary gathered his thoughts then crushed up all evidence of my crime and pushed it away gently in front of him.

“That’s OK,” he said. “I’m OK.”

There was no escaping it. I had spoiled his lunch. He wasn’t going to eat because of me. I knew he was being kind when he said it was OK, but it wasn’t OK. It was terrible. Everything was ruined.

It was one of those moments when you don’t realize how happy and confident and normal you are until suddenly certainty is dashed from your hands to shatter on the speckled, polished PVC floor tiles below. The contrast is so stark, like stepping outside on a 20-degree day barefoot in your pajamas to drag the trash down the driveway. Startled and suddenly very much awake, all you can do is look down at your feet and wonder why you can never seem to find your slippers.

I offered Gary my as yet untouched sandwich, and he politely declined. His martyrdom only pushed me lower. Should I throw my lunch away, too, and refuse to eat, in solidarity with him? But no. That was tantamount to stealing food from those starving Ethiopians.

We both sat in silence for a moment, neither knowing what to say. I picked up my sub and took a bite, chewed remorsefully and choked it down. I still remember the warm, salty, dry and over-cooked ham, the runny, textureless processed cheese, the bitter bile of humiliation rising in my throat.

I found myself speechless. Someone, thank God, changed the subject.


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