What The Hell Are You Eating?

Cater This by Sean Murphy: Your Cup Runneth Over September 24, 2008

Filed under: Cater This,Jobs In Food — whatthehellareyoueating @ 6:46 pm
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(Between 1979 and 1986 I worked in the catering department at the University of Arizona Student Union. These are some of my stories.)

It should’ve been easy – lunch for thirty two in the President’s dining room (or PDR as we called it). Four round-tops seating eight apiece of which I was only responsible for two. Piece of cake.

Lunches were never much of a hassle anyway, it was dinners that sucked. At night everybody wanted to hang out and talk while we paced in the wings, waiting for them to leave so we could bus the tables and set up again – but lunches were pretty cut-and-dry; get’ em in, get ‘em fed, get ‘em out.

I’d served this group before – The Daughter’s of the American West, a social club of feisty senior-citizens bussed up from Green Valley every month to reminisce about the good ol’ days of cattle branding, barbed-wire fences and killing Indians. They never gave me much trouble, at most I’d have to reheat a plate or keep replenishing Sweet’N Low but not much else. What could possibly go wrong?

Here’s what went wrong. I’d bought the marijuana from this guy named William. William was an acid casualty who worked down on the loading dock and was perpetually intoxicated. None of us knew what unholy cocktail of illegal substances kept him going eighteen hour days with a grin plastered across his face, but it had to be potent. We figured he was shooting massive amounts of speed and snorting fat lines of some really arcane, voodoo-ritual shit – powdered adrenal glands, South American bat droppings, dried monkey blood…crazy goodies from his private stash.

On special occasions he’d come upstairs and help us out by manning the electric meat-cutter, slicing sheet after sheet of blood-rare beef, grinning like a jackal – gore spraying everywhere – until his apron was as red as his eyes. Surprisingly, he never lopped off a finger while doing this but it still made me queasy.

To supplement his meager wages William sold drugs from his basement locker – a place as heavily trafficked as the break-room vending machines. If you wanted anything he had it, or could get it – weed, hash, ‘ludes, mescaline, coke, anything to take the edge off the filth and the grease and the mind-numbing sameness of the daily food-service routine.

I usually went with weed. Something about being high made the mounds of silverware I was forced to sort every day seem manageable, it even made them look kind of cool.

When deep in the warm hum of a good buzz, scraping leftovers into the churning trough of the garbage disposal became a Zen-like experience, watching in fascination as different foodstuffs mashed and mulched together, spiraling in the grey water, forming some ghastly new creation that looked like a T.G.I.F.’s appetizer.

Being high also made it a lot easier to forget that I was wolfing down food left behind by complete strangers. You’d think if nothing else we’d have been allowed to eat a little something but that wasn’t the case. For as little as we were paid, upper management never fed us, you could even get fired if they caught you eating something destined for the trash. It was too much to bear. Most of us were literally starving students and the waste we saw on a daily basis was appalling…and irresistible.

So we adapted. We ate from the garbage cans (just the top), snatched handfuls of food off busing trays like raccoons, and learned to “eat around the bite.” Most importantly, we became masters at feeding ourselves quickly, quietly, and discreetly. Only the stealthy survived. Management was everywhere – you had to be on your toes, able to strike like lightening whenever opportunity presented itself.

We ate wherever we could but the dish room was the best. There, we were surrounded by food like an all-you-can-eat buffet – half a bread roll here, slice of pie there, chicken leg, corn cob, hot dog, pork chop, the variety was impressive.

It was in the dish room that our powers of deception were at their peak. At any given moment, if a supervisor walked in at least three employees would’ve had mouthfuls of food but you’d never know it to look at them. Another two would be eating whole meals safely out of sight behind the huge aluminum dishwasher. It was nothing for me to polish off a steak and potato dinner in under ten minutes from a crouch position. I could do it even faster if I was high.

As far as I was concerned, marijuana was a godsend, the great lost spice. Not just a flavor enhancer but a sense heightener, instinct sharpener and time burner. That said, I should tell you that I was typically a low-grade, Mexican shake kind of guy. I never really cared for the zombie stuff. On this particular occasion however, I had been caught off-guard.

To be fair, William had tried to warn me. He shook his head, blinked his goggly eyes, and cautioned, “Righteous green bro…fuck you up good…purple flake…total bake.” Whatever Bilbo, just hand it over. I was young and invincible. Like I said, what could go wrong?

Minutes before lunch started, I ducked into a little used stairwell and lit up. Almost immediately I realized the error of my ways. After three puffs I began to notice things I never had before…tiny things…weird things…things like little bits of debris on the steps….the way my plastic shoes echoed off the walls…cool…odd things…funny, I could tell what a little scrap of food was just by the texture…Salisbury steak…we hadn’t served that in months…weird…..my shoes were shiny…very shiny…I could see my face in them, it was all fish-eye looking…like I was knocking on somebody’s door…is that what I looked like through a peep-hole?….creepy…..hmmm… now what was I doing?

Oh yeah, time to serve the Daughters.

Somehow I found my way back to the room and started serving. I only had sixteen people to feed but I was having trouble keeping track of who they were. They all looked the same. They all looked so…old. I kept waiting for the other server to make the first move and then I blindly follow her lead. I’m maintaining.

As I make my coffee rounds I gradually become aware that some sort of geriatric pissing-contest is going on. Instead of swooning over the exploits of Buffalo Bill, the Daughter’s of the American West are debating over which one of them suffers from the most physical discomfort.

Grabbing cup and saucer from the right (serve from the left, beverage from the right, serve from the left, beverage from the right) I can’t help but listen in as they rattle off infirmity after infirmity like so many trophies; lupus, shingles, goiters, gout, and a bunch of other shit too grisly to mention shoot across the table like poker chips.

Standing back and pouring, I keyed in on a flare-up between the two top sufferers. As each made a compelling case (drip, drip, drip) for her own superior misery (drip, drip, drip) the table seemed evenly divided over whose life was more of a living hell (drip, drip, drip). I heard something odd and looked down at my hands, which somehow didn’t look like my hands, and realized in horror that coffee and pot were nowhere near cup and saucer. Coffee and pot were over purse on floor. Holy shit, it was almost full too.

Apologizing profusely, I quickly set the cup and saucer back down and braced myself for a denture-rattling tirade followed by a nasty public firing. Instead, the woman whose purse I’d just violated assured me that everything was okay. “Don’t feel bad young man, everyone spills things from time to time.”

Surprised by her composure (maybe it was the lupus, rheumatism, and angina) it suddenly dawned on me that she thought I was apologizing for spilling coffee on the saucer – that I was a refined professional who considered getting a little dribble on the china a punishable offense. Yeah right. She had no idea of the liquid tragedy taking place at her feet. Yow.

Apologizing once more, I got the hell out of there, gave the other server the rest of my joint to cover and prayed that evaporation would work its magic before I was found out.

Amazingly, I never heard a single word about it. Maybe her purse had soaked everything up, maybe the weed made me think I’d poured more in there than I actually had; maybe she’d written it off to senior dementia. Either way, I would live to serve another day.

After they’d left and I was clearing the tables there was even a tip waiting for me. This was unheard of in the stingy world of institutional luncheons but there they were, two shiny dimes. I suppose she could’ve left them by mistake, deposited on the table while rooting around for one of her pills, but I like to think they were compensation for my classy style and impeccable manners. I scooped them up and proudly popped them in my pocket.

If I learned anything from serving the Daughter’s that day it was that the elderly were more generous and forgiving than I’d ever given them credit for. I think.

I also learned that there was a laundry list of horrible physical ailments waiting for me when I got old.

Oh yeah, one more thing, if you’re stoned out of your mind, look before you pour.

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