Eat ’em Beat ’em
by Micah Ling
The mere mention of the word, “cafeteria,” conjures feelings of awkwardness and anxiety. There’s something about the number of choices and the trays; lines for the hot bar, the salad bar, the sandwich station, then more lines to pay and get condiments and napkins. The first version of a cafeteria in the United States was called the Exchange Buffet, located near the New York Stock Exchange. Their motto was “Eat ’em, Beat ’em” because you took food from the buffet, told the cashier what you’d eaten, and got out—sometimes without sitting down.
The Met Museum opened on February 20, 1842. In its permanent collection are more than 2 million works of art in 17 curatorial departments. The main building on the eastern edge of Central Park is 2 million square feet: what patrons actually see, is just the tip.
But, in the most impressive city in the world, in the most remarkable institution in the world, the cafeteria might as well be high school. You spend a lot of time trying to find a good spot to sit, and people turn to look when you enter the room. Everyone is dressed nicer than you, and has either packed or chosen to buy better foods than you. They have incredible salads, and containers of soups and curries that they must have prepared last night, or at the beginning of the week: maybe they have their own live-in chef, or they order pre-made lunches from some expensive delivery service. Maybe they’ve done all of this just so that they can subtly show off here: so that they can win at lunch.
In the middle of first grade, your father takes a job two towns over, and you have to switch schools. This is devastating. Your new school is totally different. There is an hour of recess in the middle of the day, which coincides with lunch. In an effort to avoid all of the students rushing to the lunch line at once, the school rings a series of bells. First and second graders get to go to the cafeteria on the first bell. Fifteen minutes later, the third and fourth graders are allowed to enter when the second bell rings, and so on. Once you’re in the cafeteria, you’re allowed to stay as long as you want, or return to recess whenever you’re finished eating. But you don’t understand. You think you have to leave by the time the second bell rings. Your first week at the new school, you “rush rush rush” when the first bell rings—to get your Styrofoam tray and find a seat. But every time, you barely get a few bites and the second bell rings: lunchtime over. You are defeated. You throw your tray—and most of your food—in the garbage and go back outside. Finally, finally a teacher sees you and realizes what’s going on: she phones your mother, who cries because your little mind is so cute, and so confused. Your mother explains the bell system so that you understand.
The first dining room in the Met’s staff cafeteria (Staff Caff) is lovely, with round tables and chairs, and a fountain with fake plants. The fountain room was a smoking lounge until 2004: right there, in the basement of the Met Museum. At one point, you could smoke everywhere in the museum. The fountain room is always full. The rooms beyond the fountain room get subsequently more and more depressing. The fluorescent lighting turns severe, the tables get larger and dirtier, until, at the very back, there is a series of lockers and vending machines. Every kind of vending machine you can imagine, with every vending purchase you could want: ice cream, candy, sandwiches, whole pickles. Next to the city of machines is a microwave. People venture to the microwave (all the way from the fountain room) to warm their food from home, and usually have to wait in line; but they do, patiently. This is routine.
In 1995 suburban central Ohio, you are granted freedom in eighth grade. You are finally allowed to venture out of the school cafeteria for the lunch hour. There are three options within walking—or running—distance of the school: Huffman’s Market—a tiny local grocery with a deli in the back, Seaside—a frozen yogurt café which sells pizza bagels and candy bars in addition to frozen yogurt, rice crispy treats, and giant chocolate chip cookies, and The Card Shop—basically some guy’s collection of baseball cards and comic books for sale. But The Card Shop also has a Nintendo, and every available game for rent by the hour or the day. You can spend all of your lunch money, and leave with just enough time to dart back to class. You mostly watch other kids play.
There are 2,500 employees at the Met, maybe more. That number includes retail staff and night staff, but not interns or volunteers, who also have access to the Staff Caff. Museum patrons constantly wander in looking out of place, but not knowing what to do, so just timidly getting food and then when they try to pay are told they’re in the wrong place. At least half of the employees eat in the cafeteria: more when it rains. Lunch is served from 11am to 2:30pm, but if you show up later than 2:15, it’s unlikely that you’ll get anything hot. The prices are subsidized by the museum, but there’s an annual price increase. Employees also get a discount at the other restaurants in the museum: 33% off, but the prices are outrageous—like an airport.
You spend two summers (2006 and 2007) working on a ranch in the middle of the Crazy Mountains in Montana. From 7-8am breakfast is served. From 12-1pm, lunch. At 5pm, whiskey is served: Bellows on ice. The couple who own the ranch, both pushing 70-years-old, sit on the porch swing and tell stories until they ring the dinner bell at 6pm sharp. There are long wooden tables: solid things, with long benches to match. The family sits together. The housekeepers sit together. The ranch hands sit together. The horseshoers sit together, and don’t eat much. The cliques don’t mingle: what would they say?
People come and go, of course, but many of the employees at the Met are mainstays. It’s anyone’s guess how long Jim, the human version of a squirrel (his hair, the look in his eye, the fact that he must certainly be a hoarder), has worked at the museum. His entire job is to bag the bags. There are multiple gift shops throughout the museum. Jim organizes the different sized bags—tiny, small, medium-small, medium, etc.—and then delivers them in a large bag. He retired a few years ago, but then came out of retirement when the museum was having a major event, and needed a lot of bags. Carva, the sandwich guy, desperately wants to get a job over at the new Breuer building, for no real reason: just something different, but not too different. He seriously takes his time making sandwiches, and depending how you order—which thing you ask for first—the same sandwich can vary from $3.50 to $7. And Thomas, who showed up to interview for an internship because his girlfriend was in the city, not knowing anything about the Met, and less than a decade later managed to become the boss of his department—photo archives.
In graduate school you take a job working at the local co-op in order to know people outside of academia. You work night shifts, 4-10pm, and get a “lunch” around 7pm. There’s a cafeteria-style hot bar with everything from vegan biscuits and gravy to raw “rice” risotto. You don’t like to sit with the customers in the booths because they try to talk to you like they know you, and the cooks always give you strange glances when you sit in the kitchen (you’re not one of them), so you retreat to your car at the end of the lot near the K-Mart. You listen to music and watch coworkers retrieve shopping carts. It is so peaceful.
People get excited over any change, but it’s usually the equivalent of changing a light bulb: just looking a little different makes you think something has improved. Sometimes the staff tries to “hook you up” by giving you a little extra something, but it’s always something you don’t want, like hot sauce or extra cheese on a sandwich with too much cheese already. It’s “stuffed peppers” on Monday and then, “stuffed pepper soup” on Wednesday.
It’s all a show.
There’s a restaurant in Chelsea called Cafeteria: it’s open 24/7. They serve $9 oatmeal, and $14 mac & cheese. The staples. The easy things. At New York City prices. The premise is comfort food. The motto is, “Simple.” It’s touted as a trendy spot to run into young partiers and hip celebrities. Cafeteria is a spectacle: a place to be seen, and watched.
You buy an overpriced sandwich, you look for a seat.
You wonder what this repetition is all about: you don’t know why you’ve felt uncomfortable eating lunch for your entire life. You want for there to be some unrushed version of lunch—one where you don’t have to file in and file out, and wait in lines, and have strange portions, and uncomfortable chairs, and sticky tables, and straws, and paper napkins. You want a version of lunch where there’s a seat for you in the fountain room, and you’ve got the best looking lunch of the lot, but no one is making a scene over it because you being the great is normal. Really, you just want to be the best at lunch. You want to be the best.
Micah Ling lives in the mountains of Colorado. Her most recent collection of poetry is Flashes of Life from Hobart Press. micahling.com
Photo source: Ken Eckert via Creative Commons
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