Category Archives: Children

Side Dish: À la Carte Observations

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Wrestling with Cheese Steak

One minor change in the way a packager wraps its product can screw up a person’s whole day.

Among my daily tasks is prepping two boxes of  “minute” steaks. This amounts to about a hundred sixty individual pieces, set out on eight trays and serving as the basis for Philly cheese steak sandwiches.

I myself have not eaten meat since I was twenty and in college, smack-dab in the mid-1970s. It just dawned on me one day: Hey, I don’t have to eat this stuff!  So I stopped.

Abstaining has more to do with my imagination and tendency to overthink than it does with any ethical concern–not that I don’t feel bad for edible animals, but I respect a respectful hunter, a nonwasteful eater, a compassionate farmer, the order of the food chain, and the cycle of life in general. Eat, drink, and be merry…just don’t force blood, guts, or calf’s liver tonic down my throat, thank you very much.

As you can surmise, then, I have no moral problem with this particular task. In fact, the shape, consistency, and snap! of the frozen meat sticks remind me of taffy, with the whole experience evincing the many happy summer hours I spent as a kid on the pre-casino boardwalk of Atlantic City, New Jersey.

See what I mean about my imagination?

To get the job done requires breaking each individually wrapped beef slice in half, folding it over onto itself, and letting it drop from its waxed-paper covering onto the tray, forming two rows of ten sticks each. Snap, fold, drop twenty times. Piece of cake, or meat, if you will.

Soon enough I had the chore down to a science, having hit upon the most efficient technique and the fastest rhythm, thus turning the exercise into a stream of unconsciousness that I came to look forward to.

“Beware,” Lynetta once said to me in her most knowing tone of voice. “Once you get used to something, it will change…especially if you enjoy doing it.”

And so it came to pass that Crispo Food Systems had “fixed” something that had not been broken. The new batch of cheese steaks arrived in pared-down wrapping: the discrete had been thrown over for the commingled. There wasn’t enough paper to separate each whole steak from the ones next to it.

The saltwater taffy of my youth had morphed into the bitter pill of my everyday existence.

From meditation to aggravation in one fell swoop. If the steaks don’t defrost enough, the portions not separated by waxed paper stick together. If they defrost too much, the meat falls completely apart. And either way I, she who has no artistic ability, am left reconstructing each slice.

One day I thought to enlist the aid of that utensil that looks like a supersized butter spreader to slide apart the pieces of meat that stuck together. But to no avail…

“Sick of cheese steaks yet?” asked Aunt Bea.

“Grrr,” I replied.

Just then Peony came out of her office to observe the situation.

“Hmm…,” she said as she put on a pair of latex gloves. “Gimme that thing.”

I handed her a hunk of frozen steaks.

“Bang! Bang! Bang!” She slammed it against the work table.

“Now try pulling them apart.”

“Wow,” I said, as the pieces separated much more easily. “Thanks, Peony!”

“If you’re gonna wrestle with cheese steaks,” she said,  “you can’t let them beat you.”


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[Check back soonish for more observations…]

Murphy’s Law Regional High School

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Before leaving work for the weekend, I dropped a suggestion in the central office squawk box: Rename the school Murphy’s Law Regional and change the mascot from a wildcat to a wild card.

MONDAY… I’m the kind of person who doesn’t laugh when people trip, fall down, or otherwise get hurt or suffer. Because, as I’ve said and you’ll know if you’ve been reading this blog, I am of a generally nerdly and earnest disposition. Of late, however, I believe I’ve caught a nasty case of schadenfreude from my developmentally disabled brother, who lives with me and who finds the foibles and failings of all humankind, including himself and his caregiver–yours truly–a hilarious source of enjoyment. Luckily this newly acquired condition applies to me only with regard to extreme weather events that I think will precipitate the end of the world but that, in fact, cause no appreciable harm. They’re mainly a vehicle for my imagination, enabling me to fantasize a natural end to the challenges of everyday life on planet Earth.

So on this gray, gloomy start to a new week, rain fell in torrents. It pounded so loudly on the ceiling  in the atrium, right outside the sandwich station, that I had to strain to hear the kids ordering their lunch. Harder and harder and whoa!

“It broke through the glass!” said Lynetta.

The water puddled on the exotic plant garden that sat directly beneath the usually sunny skylight. Then it began to overflow.

“Look at Tommy!” said Turkey on a Kaiser Roll Boy, pointing to the maintenance guy. “He’s trying to wipe it all up with that tiny mop,” he said, and laughed hysterically.

My mind began to wander as my body went into automatic pilot. Rip, rip, rip went the entire ceiling. No matter that there were two floors above this one. In my fantasy, water flooded the first floor. In  floated an ark from the Advanced Woodworking class. I gave up my place on it to Gross Sandwich Boy, so that he’d have more time to develop his impressive vocabulary.

I imagined standing in water up to my neck and Jesus coming down, saying, “Come on up, Lunch Lady. You’ve done a yeoman’s job with your brother, now come enjoy your reward.”

Then my mother appeared and said, “Excuse me, Jesus, but I beg to differ!”

And I said, “Hey, what’s she doing up there?”

Then Jesus rolled his eyes and sighed.

“You’re too forgiving!” I said.

“It’s my job,” he replied, and shrugged his enormous shoulders.

Talk about nerdly and earnest…

From somewhere inside my reverie I noticed we needed more hot sauce for the Buffalo chicken. Still not fully conscious, I turned and headed toward the cooler. By this time, the floodwaters from the atrium had seeped into the cafeteria, and in my haste…

Slip, slide, and away! I grabbed the cooler-door handles in the nick of time, and although I saved my behind from a nasty bump I couldn’t save my pride from a little bruising.

Everyone on the sandwich line applauded, and so did Lynetta.

“Thanks,” she said. “I was starting to hate this day, but now I feel better.”

I took a bow. “Glad I could provide some lunchtime entertainment,” I said, and carried on.

The rain stopped. Tommy came by with his little mop. And I somehow got through the day.

Tomorrow would surely be better.

TUESDAY… I was on hot-lunch duty, at the station across from Teeny, the pizza lady, and Bonnie, the cashier.

“Today will be like a mini-vacation,” said Bonnie. “No one’s big on meatloaf.”

“And no rain in the forecast,” added Teeny with a big grin.

Because my station was far removed from the seating area of the cafeteria, I couldn’t see the kids, but I could hear them. Considering that I was still embarrassed from yesterday’s mishap, I appreciated the relative privacy. I figured it would give me a chance to recuperate, so to speak.

The day went by quickly, mellow and uneventful, right through fourth lunch. I’d served the last of the six kids on the fifth-lunch line and breathed a sigh of relief.

Before I could exhale came a loud crack-bang-thud!

It was followed by a collective gasp and then dead silence.

Teeny’s eyes were wide as saucers as she stared at God knows what scene in the seating area.

“What?!” I yelled.

“It’s Coach Grant,” she said.

“Who shot him?” I asked.

Bonnie came around the corner and put her hand on my shoulder. “No one,” she said. “The chair broke, and he hit the floor hard.”

We watched as two EMTs came scurrying down the hallway with a stretcher, followed by Tommy with his mop.

The remainder of this day passed by in silence. No one applauded. No one laughed.

WEDNESDAY… The good news of the day was that, aside from a few stitches on his noggin and a concussion, Coach Grant was going to be okay. Two new lunch ladies were starting work this morning, and Lina would be training them before they were shipped off to the junior high across the road and the elementary school seven miles away.

“I’m gonna keep you back here in the kitchen today,” Lina said to me, as the delivery guy from Crispo finally showed up, two days late. “There’s lots of food to prep, and I’ll be busy with the new girls,” she added as she ushered them away from the kitchen.

“Yes, ma’am!” I said, thrilled to be hiding where it was safe.

I loaded up tray after tray of this, that, and the other. Cookies, chicken patties, Philly cheese steaks, popcorn chicken, french fries, burgers, and so on. With each new food item, I’d slipped on a clean pair of gloves over the previous pair.

By the end of the day, mired in all that latex, my hands probably weighed five pounds each and were hard as rocks. I couldn’t even bend them.

As I was ambling around the kitchen, grunting and imitating the Mummy, alarms began to sound. They were different from the bells that signaled the beginning or end of lunch and classes.

“It’s a lockdown!” shouted Carrie-Ann.

“Go close the shutter by the dishwasher,” Kerri ordered me. “And make sure you lock it!”

I managed to get the shutter down but my hands were too unwieldy to work the lock.

Aunt Bea stomped her foot and yelled at me, “By the time you get all those gloves off, we’ll all be shot.”

But I managed and then went to join the others in the storeroom, where we were instructed to crouch down and be quiet.

I couldn’t imagine which of the students would be a threat.

“You think it’s an intruder?” I whispered.

“Shhh!” Aunt Bea scolded me.

Carrie-Ann shrugged.

After the longest ten minutes of my life, we heard the crackling of the public-address system.

“Sorry,” came a contrite voice. “It was a false alarm.”

THURSDAY… I’m glad it’s payday, I thought to myself, because I really need the motivation to be here. Not that the hourly rate provides much impetus, but that’s a topic for another time.

It was Luau Day, and I was back on hot-lunch duty. Peony, the director of Food Services, made me wear a lei and a straw hat.

Denise must’ve seen the look on my face after Peony plopped the hat on top of my already visored head because she said, “Hawaiian women don’t wear straw hats, they wear flowers in their hair.” Then she swiped the hat off my head, plucked a flower from the lei, and stuck it in the bun on top of my head.

“Now go serve ham and corn bread.”

“I owe you one,” I whispered to her on my way out with the food cart.

With each new lunch period, I endured the requisite jokes–“Hey, the lunch lady got lei’d!” and “Where’s your grass skirt?”

“I’m glad I’m serving chicken parm,” said Teeny.

“Oh, it’s okay,” I said. “It could be worse…”

“What’s that smell?” asked Bonnie as she rounded the corner and stood near our stations, sniffing.

“Oh my God!” screamed Teeny. “It’s a skunk!”

A bunch of girls were yelling. “It’s loose in the building! We’re getting out of here!” And they ran out the doors and into the parking lot.

Just then, Lina appeared. “Stay put,” she said. “No one leaves her station.”

The odor became more pungent. I closed my eyes, held my nose, and tried to recall skunk-spray antidotes as I resigned myself to a smelly fate.

“Look!” said Teeny, and she pointed toward the hallway.

I turned around, and we both watched as people from Animal Control ran in with traps and other equipment.

After a minute, we saw Tommy go by, with his mop.

TGIF … The last day of this godforsaken week was finally here. I was so happy that before I left for work I played that awful song by teenaged YouTube sensation Rebecca Black. “It’s Friday” blasted through the speakers on my computer, and I sang with it in my worst screechy voice.

I was almost afraid to step inside the school, but really, what else could go wrong?

Nine, ten, eleven, twelve o’clock. All’s well.

It was one o’clock, and I was picking up the leftover hot and cold food, along with all the dirty trays and stuff from Teeny’s station. After a few minutes, I noticed that the other lunch ladies had disappeared, and I was alone.

It was quiet. There were no bad smells. I didn’t see Tommy and his mop. So I figured it was no big deal and made my way into the kitchen.

All the lunch ladies were in a huddle.

“What?” I asked.

“Didn’t you hear the police sirens?” asked Lynetta.

I shook my head from side to side.

“Ohhh…,” she said.

“What!” I said.

“Mr. Perry…,” she said, and trailed off.

“Who’s that?” I asked.

“One of the assistant principals,” said Kerri.

“Did he fall off a chair?” I asked.

“He fell from grace,” said Lynetta.

Aunt Bea glared at Lynetta and barked, “Stop being so dramatic!”

Then she looked at me, “He’s an addict,” she declared. “The cops caught him buying prescription drugs in the parking lot.”

“They’ve been watching him,” said Denise, “and they finally caught him in the act.”

“He teaches English,” said Carrie-Ann. “The kids love him.”

“He’s a track coach,” said Bonnie.

“Not any more,” said Teeny.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen to him,” said Kerri.

Another teacher behaving badly, I thought to myself. This school needs an exorcism.

“If they let him retire,” said Aunt Bea, “the bastard will get an eighty-five-thousand-dollar-a-year pension.”

And the lunch ladies need a raise…

Before leaving work for the weekend, I dropped a suggestion in the central office squawk box: Rename the school Murphy’s Law Regional and change the mascot from a wildcat to a wild card.

Garlic Bread Brouhaha

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Character Counts: Everywhere, All the Time

That’s what it says, painted on the north wall just past the front entrance to the school. Beneath the admonishment is an illustration of six Ionic columns, pillars of virtue labeled Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring, and Citizenship.

I see this peripheral-vision eye-catcher every morning on my way in to work, and being of a general nerdly and earnest disposition (when not giving the stink eye to mean girls who make me feel like I’m back in high school), I take the message to heart.

For example, one afternoon I forgot to count the leftover milk pints in the dairy case. It hit me just after I’d clocked out, and for a split second, feeling dead tired, I imagined playing dumb to myself and just continuing to make my way out the door and into the freedom of the parking lot.

Trustworthiness…

But I couldn’t, so I turned back and confessed to Lina, my boss.

“Don’t worry about it,” she said, and waved me off. “Go home.”

“But–”

She gave me a look, as if to say, “Don’t mess with the Lunch Lady Supervisor. She might be skilled in the art of silent intimidation.”

Today on my way in, though, something was different. The message of the north wall had been sullied. Plastered smack in the middle was a flyer: “Comedy Hypnotist! $6! October 29!”

Well that didn’t take long, considering school had started less than five weeks ago.

A wave of foreboding washed over me, but by the time I entered the kitchen, put on the first of many pairs of latex gloves, and began to prep the cookies, I’d moved on to new concerns.

This would be my fourth day on hot-lunch duty. Monday was “Breakfast for Lunch,” and the girls squealed with glee as they defected from the wrap line. Tuesday was neither here nor there, with soft tacos, rice, and refried beans. Wednesday was meatball subs with star-shaped taters. Happy Boy was elated. “Meatball subs!” he exclaimed. “Oh my God, star-shaped potatoes! This day just keeps getting better and better!”

After he’d floated off, the lad behind him looked me straight in the eyes and declared, “Boys in high school should not be talking like that.”

“Who’s to say…?” I said. “The ability to find the joy in small things will serve him well in life.”

“OK, Confucius,” the budding cynic replied as he arched his eyebrows and swiped the lunch tray from my outstretched hands.

So today, Thursday, I’ll be serving “Italian pasta and meat sauce with garlic bread.” The sides were green beans, faded and from a big can, and steamed spinach–decidedly not sautéed in olive oil with garlic, but, mercifully, with butter sneaked into the pot by our kindhearted cook, Carrie-Ann.

I expected the garlic bread to draw familiar faces from the sandwich line, and it did.

From first lunch through the third, all was well and good and (at least partially) yummy. By fourth lunch, news of this hardy favorite meal had reached the masses, and the line of salivating students was twice the size of any I’d ever seen on sandwich duty.

After about ten minutes of dishing out the food, I noticed there were only three pieces of garlic bread left–not enough to dispense to the eight or so people left on line. I wasn’t the only one who spied the looming dilemma.

“Look at that!” came a booming voice. “There isn’t enough garlic bread for everyone!”

“Don’t worry,” I said, looking up to find that the panicked would-be diner was actually a teacher behaving badly.

“Everyone,” he said in a tone of voice many octaves louder than before, “listen up. We should all protest this craziness! What’s wrong with you people?” he said, looking directly at me, who is about one-eighth his size and not responsible for the amount of food prepared or brought to the steam table. “Why not enough garlic bread? We need more!”

He started to bang on the counter, and I decided it was time to use the red phone.

I dialed into the kitchen, and to whoever it was who answered on the other end I spluttered, “I need more garlic bread–stat!”

“It’s OK,” said the next person in line, a noble young lady named Phoebe. “I’ll have mine without the bread.”

“I’ll be back,” I said to her as I dished out a heaping serving of pasta and meat sauce, “and when I return, I’ll find you, and you shall have garlic bread.”

“Either way,” she said. “It’s all right,” and she gave me a big smile, then cringed when the booming voice spoke again, inciting the kids to riot.

When I got into the kitchen, Carrie-Ann told me we’d run out of bread, but to fear not, as she grabbed a bag of hot dog buns. We basted those things with the speed of comic-book superheroes and popped the tray into the oven.

While we waited the two minutes it took to toast the bread, I told Carrie-Ann about the teacher gone wild. “Who is it?” she asked.

“I don’t know his name,” I said, then added, “Paunch de León.”

“Ohhh…Mr. Jones. He must be extra hungry today!” she said, laughing.

When the bread was done, I ran out and back toward my station. On the way I spotted Phoebe and gave her the best-looking piece.

As I neared the steam table, the kids cheered. I noticed that Mr. Jones was at the front of the line.

“We let him get in front of us,” one of the girls whispered to me. “There are more important things to protest over,” added another.

“You’re good kids,” I said.

“Character counts,” said a boy from the back of the line.

Everywhere, all the time.

“Meeet My Teeeeeeeenagers!”

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All teenagers look alike.

This phenomenon is even more pronounced when one is a newbie Lunch Lady in a regional high school with an enrollment of a thousand students, at least seven hundred of which file through five lunch periods in a cavernous space and are seen “through a deli case, darkly.”

For two weeks I couldn’t tell the boys from the girls or one race from another or the blonds from the brunettes from the redheads, pink stripes, or rainbow hairs. The unpierced might as well have been the lip-disk-ear-plug peoples of eastern Brazil.

The short kids might as well have wobbled in on stilts, the tall kids crouched down on skateboards; the happy kids come dressed in black and wearing berets, the surly kids arrive decked out in Hawaiian shirts or flower-power tees and petting Tribbles.

There were two boys in particular who, after my first week–and only a four-day one at that!–would appear at the wrap station and exclaim in a state of astonishment, “I come here every day, and you still don’t know what kind of sandwich I eat!”

“Some provolone and wry with your whine?” I eventually responded. Because I couldn’t very well tell them the truth…

You all look the same to me.

But, mercifully, by the middle of week three some of the kids began to distinguish themselves. So, without further ado and in the paraphrased words and cadence of my favorite reality TV star, “Meeet my teeeeeeeenagers!”

Red Chicken Girl: Medium height, jet-black shoulder-length hair. Not a word passes between us. We look at each other, poker-faced. I point to the Buffalo popcorn chicken. She nods up and down. I point, one index finger to the shredded cheese, the other to the shredded lettuce. She nods up and down. I wrap. We nod. It is done.

Shredduce: “Real” name, Abigail. Tallish, brown hair, smiling visage. With a slip of the tongue she has coined a new word for “Yes, I’ll have the shredded cheese and shredded lettuce on my wrap, please” and earned a forever place in the heart of the new Lunch Lady, who, unbeknownst to Shredduce, is an editor by trade.

Lehddurce: My name for all the Iberian exchange students who pronounce lettuce in this way. Hearing it is a highlight of my day. Thank you, Foreign Student Exchange Program!

Gross Sandwich Boy: Chicken salad, tuna salad, bologna, American cheese, and barbecue sauce on a roll. Oh yes, he did…

Bad Karma Girl: Mousy brown hair, dismissive, stern-faced, chunky, angry. Took an immediate past-life-association dislike to me, proclaiming aloud, “SHE can’t do it right,” to which I responded with a Mona Lisa smile and sustained unblinking stare, staying focused until she looked away first. The next day brought an outright “I don’t like HER,” for which she received my unnerving full-on pooh-eating grin. Never mess with the Lunch Lady. She might be skilled in the art of silent intimidation.

8 Mile: A veteran of Juvie. One day I say to him, “Every time I hear you yell, ‘Yola,’ I think about my cousin.” “That ain’t no cousin,” he says, “that’s Juvie slang.” I ask him, “What’s it mean?” but at the same time we say, “Never mind!”

Angel Girl: Appeared out of the blue on the very day I was sent to work the hot-lunch line. “Hey, you’re the sandwich lady!” she says, smiling. I say, “We are wrap traitors.” She laughs. “Did you get promoted?” she asks. “Exiled,” I say. She says, “I love when ‘they’ hire new people who are nice. I love it when you make my sandwich.” “Awww…,” I say, and mean it. “I love it when sweethearts like you make my day. Thank you. Mmmmwah!” I have not seen her since, and so I logically conclude that she was a guardian angel sent to shore me up on a day I felt like quitting.

These then, for now, are my teenagers. But be advised: “Any resemblance to actual persons–currently in school or graduated–is purely coincidental.” 😉

Boobies, Boobies Everywhere!

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The last kid on the fourth-lunch sandwich line has been served. I lay down my knife, exhale, and look over at my mentor, wrap master Lynetta. She is eerily quiet, scanning a wide swath of the cafeteria without moving her head.

Zoro had his sword–Phft! Phft! Phft! Lynetta has her laserlike vision–Phhfft! Phhfft! The mark of the L is emblazoned on the wall in front of us, a hundred feet away. Something’s coming.

“Have you noticed,” she says to me, still not moving her head, just those eyes and not even in my direction, “how so many of the girls have such big boobs?”

Being well endowed myself, I tend to ignore that sort of thing, so I had to think about it for a second. “Yeah, you’re right,” I said, incredulous as I realized the accuracy of Lynetta’s observation.

“You know what my theory is?” she asked without giving me a chance to amplify my response.

I shook my head and raised a curious eye. “No. What?”

“I think their bodies are stimulated by what they see and hear on TV and the radio and the kind of example their parents set, what they see and hear their parents do.”

I. Am. Speechless.

I blink, I Dream of Jeannie–style but without the crossed arms, and open my mouth, but nothing comes out.

Lynetta smiles.

“That’s brilliant,” I say, smiling back at her. I don’t know what impresses me more, that the mother of seven kids would even hint at blaming the parents or the theory itself. Visual stimulation. Auditory stimulation. And on bodies in the midst of the maturation process, and affecting the brains of teenagers, which scientists have already deemed to be sui generis.

Lynetta gets down to the business of prepping for the last lunch. She has a satisfied look on her face. It is sincere and unsmug.

“Damn…,” I say once and then again, tugging discreetly at my bra clasp. Is it getting tighter, or is it me?