A Little Cafeteria Nostalgia

Friday, August 5th, 2005, 12:39 pm

On several occasions I have waxed poetic about the fantastic cafeteria run by the company that just hired me. Well, the last two days they just suprassed themselves. Today I had the fish sandwich and it was even better than usual. Golden brown, crispy without being dry, and nice big flaky hunks of cod or halibut or tilapia or whatever. And the mac and cheese? Sooo good, especially with a few shots of tabasco. All for five bucks, which is a few dollars less than the sandwich alone would command in your typical bistro.

Yesterday I had perhaps the best reuben of my life. First they placed the rye/pumpernickel spiral bread on the griddle, adding swiss cheese and saurkraut along the way. When the bread was nice and crisp they removed it to the cutting board and started loading the corned beef. But this wasn’t just some warmed-up lunchmeat–oh no. They had this humongous chunk of slow-roasted corned beef sitting there and they pulled pieces off with tongs (it was that tender) to assemble my lunch. About three solid inches of corned beef, the crunchy and still sour kraut acting as a compliment instead of the main ingredient. Plus two fistfulls of just-outta-the-fryer hand-cut french fries. Six bucks. No wonder I haven’t been losing weight the last month.

Great food, reasonably priced, with excellent service…it’s a wonder the place isn’t jammed. And it isn’t. There’s nowhere else close by to eat (a trendy new apartment complex next door just opened its own little cafe, but that’s no big competition) so either I’m missing the main lunch rush every day or lots of people bring their lunches. Maybe a combination of both. I’m not kidding when I say that, if this place was open at night, I’d come from home to eat dinner there.

We’re due to move into a new building at the start of the year, and I think there are plans to bring the cafeteria along. I hope to hell they do, although I seriously need to start walking again at lunch and not oogling the sweet-smelling onion rings. But today got me to thinking about other cafeterias I’ve eaten in. I like food, I like to eat, but sometimes you don’t have much choice where or what you eat. If you don’t have the time (or permission) to go offsite for a meal, you’re often stuck eating whatever the company/school provides. I realize that, over the years, I’ve been pretty lucky in my mandated food options.

All I remember from my elementary school cafeteria was that the chocolate puddding was really, really good. And that Nicky DiBucci once ate like 15 servings of the disgusting cole slaw. Today I love cole slaw, but after watching Nicky eat cup after cup of that glop it was a good 20 years before I’d even try it again. In my district all the kids were moved in the sixth grade to one school, and the food was brought up and served on the stage in the auditorium. I remember eating lots of soybean hamburgers and loving every bite.

High school there was a pizza line, a burger/fries line, a salad/soup line, and a rotating entree line. The burger line was always out the door, and to me the time one spends waiting for food geometrically reduces the amount of pleasure I derive from it. The hot dog I nuke in the microwave then dump on a piece of white bread to me is almost equivalent to the steak I have to defrost, season, grill, eat, and then clean up after. I usually got a salad or whatever was on the menu in the other line, where the most memorable meal was the pork turnover. A triangle of puff pastry filled with pork (or “porque” or whatever trade name the meat operated under), smothered with yellow (I don’t think it could legally be called “chicken”) gravy and a dome of mashed potatoes. Just say the words “pork turnover” in the presence of my high-school friends you get a reaction similar to Pavlov’s dog and the bell–salivating, moans, lamentations that they aren’t readily available.

Off to Penn State, where I presented my ID card at Pollack Commons and stepped into an all-you-can eat bonanza. The Freshman 15, indeed–I could’ve gained thrice that on the good grub they offered. Again, there were multiple choices every day, and there was a salad bar. Good food–great fish sandwich, great chicken sandwich (the famous “Cosmo”), good burgers, good soups, good everything. I fondly remember that New England clam chowder. To this day we pronounce “fajitas” like “fa-geetas” because Scott’s grasp of Spanish was tenuous at best. On top of all that, they had milk and ice cream from the Penn State Creamery, which makes some of the best dairy products in the world. Yup, I could’ve put on some serious weight…except that during my sophomore year I got on a health kick and lost like 25 pounds, mostly by denying myself this gorging opportunity and sticking to salad. I think back to all the regrets I have from my college years–my major, not acting the total bastard at the school paper, not saying different things to different girls at different times–I think my #1 regret is not really chowing down when I had the chance. Fat schmat. Lotta good it did me.

Because I majored in writing (the hell is that good for?) I took a job out of college working for a big downtown department store. It’s an old, stately building, a Pittsburgh landmark. Working there every day you could see how, over time, the building had been partitioned and re-ordered and jury-rigged over time to maximize the space. The floor I worked on was once part of a vast area set aside for Oriental rugs. Others in the credit department worked on the 9th floor, in conditions I can only describe as “squalor”. Had I worked there I think I would’ve quit. The carpets hadn’t been cleaned since…ever. The walls were covered with odd pen marks and icky brown stains and the dirty fingerprints of people who probably hadn’t worked there in 20 years. My friend Ted worked in a closet-like space the length and width of a bathtub–with four other people.

But let’s get to the cafeteria. No–first, a brief aside. My first day there I wear a suit, and come lunchtime I need to use the facilities. Thing is, I’ve no idea where the facilities are. The person training us takes me up to the 11th floor and shows me the restroom there. Thank God.

I open the door and walk into a cloud of cigarette smoke and an overall miasma of stale- and mustiness. The bathroom has 1 urinal and 2 stalls. There are five men standing and sitting around. There’s a guy in one of the stalls, squatting and smoking. I can see this because there are no doors on the stalls. No one seems interested in using the open stall or the urinal. Including me–I’m wearing a suit, and thanks to the big breakfast I ate I need to do a #2. I can’t do a #2 while keeping my suit jacket on, and there’s no door to hang it on. And ain’t no way I’m doing what I gotta do while five guys sit there watching me. It’s one thing to take a leak in a bar while guys flanking you do the same. It’s quite another to conduct this sort of transation in front of a captive audience, especially a group like this. Five men, all looking vaguely furtive, as if they feel guilty about something. I stood there like 10 seconds and I got the hell out of there.

I find my friend Ted and ask what the hell was going on up there. He says, “Why did you go up to 11?” I say that’s where I was told to go, and Ted says, “That’s the gay bathroom.”

Oh come now, this isn’t high school, there isn’t a “gay” bathroom and a “jock” bathroom and a “nerd” bathroom. “No,” Ted says patiently, “gay men cruise the store, pick someone up, and go up to the 11th floor bathroom to have sex. That’s why they took the doors off the stalls, so they couldn’t have sex in there.”

Peachy. Ted takes me to another bathroom on the 10th floor, this one is employees-only and has a lock. It was an oasis in the desert, a refuge from the storm. A place to do your business without five guys asking if you happen to know what time it is.

The bathroom was on 10, the cafeteria on 13. To get there you had to go up an escalator to the 12th floor (duh) which at the time I think housed the store’s coutour shop, one of the few places in Pittsburgh where a woman with the means could drop fifteen grand on a frock. From that floor you had to take another escalator up to 13, and to give you an idea of the age of the building, this escalator was made of wood. Wooden steps, wooden frame, the rubberized handholds the only artificial additive. It was almost like a 1-ticket amusement park ride, all clickety-clackety up to the top.

I remember the surroundings of this cafeteria more than the food. This one also made a good fish sandwich, but I do recall that they didn’t have the facilities to make a lot of food at one time. So if you got in line and they ran out of grub, you might be standing there for 10 or 15 minutes while they revictualed. The fish sandwich, I recall, came in a special with fries AND mac and cheese, and that’s what I usually got during Lent. A whole lot of food, which led to some embarassment the time I found myself in line with one of the Five Most Gorgeous Women I Have Ever Seen in My Goddam Life. I guess there was some sort of photo session at the store and there were five unnecessarily good-looking people together getting some lunch. The two male models were coiffed and pretty and had physiques like Terrell Owens. Two of the female models were merely beautiful. But the third woman was breathtaking–blonde, slender and graceful, yet still possessing an almost diabolical sexiness. Imagine the most fresh-faced J. Crew model blended with a bikinied and oiled Maxim cover girl. That’s her.

And they’re all talking about model stuff and going clubbing in Manhattan, which is intimidating to a provincial like myself, and I’m there in line ordering more food that the five of them are going to eat in total. I think this was the event that kicked off yet another weight-loss drive, and the cafeteria helped. They had these little styrofoam bowls filled with lettuce and some manner of salad (egg, chicken, tuna) and I ate these 3-4 times a week and took off some tonnage.

More than the food I remember place itself. The dining area was one big room, bordered on three sides by windows, giving you a remarkable view of downtown and beyond. For months, as I’d eat lunch, I’d watch a tiny figure on a window-washers scaffold painting the side of a building. The painter was named Judy Penzer, and over a long, long period of time she painted a mural, seven or so stories high, of various Pittsburgh sports heroes–Clemente, Lemieux, Lambert, Maz. To see her every day suspended a few hundred feet in the air dabbing paint on bare brick was pretty amazing. I’m terrified of heights, and I have no artistic skill whatsoever, so I was hugely impressed. It’s sad that the mural only survived a few years before the building it was painted on was demolished to make room for new construction, and sadder still that Penzer died when the TWA flight blew up off Long Island.

Adding to what I find are the somewhat eerie memories I have of the place were the people who worked there, a collection of sweet little old ladies who, to my mind, seemed as though they’d worked there since birth. There was a sense that time stood still in the cafeteria, that nothing had changed in a hundred years. What freaked me more than a little bit was the radio the cashiers would listen to, a huge, antiquated gizmo that, for all I know, had been personally autographed by Guglielmo Marconi. It had these heavy ceramic knobs and the speaker was covered by a scrim of faded brown fabric, and on at least one occasion I saw the air surrounding it shimmer from the heat it threw off. The cashiers either listened to the news or, more often, a station that played Golden Oldies–and I mean oldies from the 30’s and 40’s. The thing is, try as I might I never found a Pittsburgh radio station with such a format, which to my mind only deepened the Flying Dutchman quality of the place. My friend Ted went exploring in the store recently and the 13th floor has apparently been shuttered. I wonder if those ladies are still up there, serving a neverending line of spectral customers. Or maybe they retired and moved to Orlando.

OK, this has gotten a bit too long by a half, let’s move it along. My next job was in a big building in the city’s Strip District, and this cafeteria was pretty doggone good. Nice sandwich/salad bar, good soups, and 1 or 2 tasty entrees. Good grub. And then the chef, a nice enough guy in his twenties, decided to run off to Florida with my department’s administrative assistant. She was a major cutie, several of my co-workers lusted rather openly for her, and when she ran off with the cook they were pissed. So was I–the next guy they brought in couldn’t slice bread. Literally–they’d put bread out for sandwiches and it was like he hacked at it with hedge trimmers while blindfolded. Fortunately he quickly moved on to, I don’t know, performing Lasik surgery or something and a new company came in an stabilized things. Awesome chili, lots of beany goodness, and I often had surf and turf–chili and a tuna fish sandwich. Delish. And every Thursday was chicken salad day–lots of grilled chicken, olives, pepperocini, garbonzos. Plus a salt stick. Excellent salad, and according to my sources who still work there, still served every Thursday.

Then I moved downtown again, to the U.S. Steel building, where they have a rather unfortunate rule, cafeterically speaking–no open flames. So food either had to be trucked in from the bank’s other cafeteria a few blocks away (which I only ate at a few times and found to be absolutely SMASHING) or it had to be reheated in a microwave or some sort of electric oven. I ate lots and lots of soggy, baked french fries there.

The only saving grace was the sandwich station, specifically the Southwest Chicken Wrap. A tortilla is painted with Cajun mayonnaise, layered with Pepper Jack Cheese, stacked high with slices of grilled chicken, jalapenos, and lettuce. Roll it up tight and serve with dill pickle. A fabulous sandwich, and about the only thing I miss about that job, which nearly broke my spirit forever.

I always made sure when I was in line to get finagle it so Tony made my wrap, because he always filled the tortilla to bursting. There’s a tip for you–guys named Tony always take care of you in a cafeteria. My current eatery has a Tony working there and his Sizzle salads are big enough to choke a horse.

My last job had no cafeteria, so you either nuked your Lean Cuisine in the underpowered microwaves in the break room or you ordered out. I ate lots of Wendy’s chili and Subway and some terrific but fattening Buffalo Chicken sandwiches from a few local eateries. I can always tell whether my job situation is in the shitter by what I’m eating for lunch. If I’m eating half a chicken breast and green beans, the keel is even. If I’m eating an entire order of General Tso’s with fried rice, an eggroll, wonton soup, fortune cookie, and a Big Kat bar, well, keep me away from the windows and the gun locker.

This past week has been an exception. Work is fine–hey, I actually have a job again. But I had volleyball and no time to make a lunch and, doggone it, the food at our cafeteria is just too damn good to resist at times. Oh, goodness, did I tell you about the stuffed cabbage I had on Wednesday? Big as an Aussie rules football and so tender I cut it up with a spoon. And the mashed potatoes…OK, I gotta stop here, I’m drooling on the keyboard.

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6 Responses to “A Little Cafeteria Nostalgia”

  1. Matt Says:

    I am reminded of a local judge who is alleged to have frequented the dining room in that department store and the men’s room on the 11th floor. I remember that wooden escalator.

    I remember going with coworkers to one of the corporate cafeterias even though we had to walk several blocks to go there. Good, good food.

  2. Josh Says:

    You’ve gotta be talking about the Buffalo chicken sandwiches from Wings Suds and spuds. My mouth is watering as I type this. And to hell with our microwaves here at LA, your food always comes out tasting like popcorn.

  3. Donkeypuncher Says:

    awesome post geno.

  4. Mr. Parx Says:

    “OK, I gotta stop here, I’m drooling on the keyboard.”

    Me too. Listen, you probably won’t take this the right way, being that this post was about food and not about some Big Important Thing, but I believe this is the best thing of yours I’ve read. I really enjoyed it.

    Mr. P.

  5. sanc Says:

    Shit… You need to start a food blog. I just want to open my eyes and see it – Ok, my eyes are open… I’m typing and the skills are not that good. But it feels like I’m tasting this food… I just can’t feel it going down.

    good read

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