Cafeteria Lines

by Terry Bar

Gripping my tray more tightly than I realize, I stare at the Swedish Meatballs bobbing in viscous gravy. If I remember my Crayolas accurately, the color is “Burnt Umber.” We’re in an IKEA in Charlotte, and oddly, shopping for relatively cheap, perpendicularly-structured furniture makes me hungry. But not Swedish meatballs hungry. The term “mystery meat” hovers in my consciousness.

I move to the salads; I see a grilled chicken Caesar that seems gluten-free if I remove the croutons and check the dressing carefully. I grab a bottle of water, follow my wife and daughter to the checkout line, pay too much for what we’ve selected, and then begin the search for a table.

As we search, hoping not to share a table with other harried strangers, I drift to other scenes, other cafeteria lines from my southern past. I think cafeterias are the great eating-out-equalizers of our culture.

But I could be very wrong.

*****

When I was a boy, I noticed every aspect of my cafeteria world in 1960’s Birmingham, Alabama. Usually these serving-line excursions followed a doctor’s appointment; lunch was a salve for my collective childhood shots: polio, smallpox, diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough.

Back then, Birmingham’s two main cafeterias– the local chain, Britling’s, and the national, Morrison’s–seemed interchangeable. While Britling’s on the Highland was closer to my doctor’s and so fit our lunch schedule, Morrison’s was the choice for evening faire.

Morrison’s was more exotic, or at least I thought so given that its walls were covered in jungle-themed murals with tropical plants surrounding the serving lines. Somehow, I felt anxious looking at these murals: at the almost faceless natives in various stages of undress following each other in lines that seemed intentional. Maybe it was the “restless native” picture I got from watching all those Tarzan movies. All I know is that during our time at Morrison’s I listened for drumbeats and worried through my supper.

On very special occasions, so special that I’m not sure now what the occasion was, Mom would drive us into Birmingham to meet my Dad after work, and we’d eat at Morrison’s and go to a movie. Patrons dressed for cafeterias back then—the late 1950’s—as if they were dining at The Four Seasons. Women in fur wraps and pearls; men in sharp suits and fedoras.

I’d go through the line anticipating all I’d get, which in reality was the same thing every time: hamburger steak with a dill pickle slice on top; mashed potatoes and English peas. And milk to drink. For dessert, a bowl of brightly-cubed Jell-O, usually either green, blue, or red, but never orange or yellow. The highlight, though, and I’m not sure why even now, was the breadsticks. I had to have these no matter what, and I’d begin eating them before we got through the line. They were hard, salty, and even now I can taste their crispness.

While the women dishing out our selections were white and wore off-white maid’s uniforms, at the end of the line, all patrons were met by the waiting staff dressed in clean white linen coats, dark slacks, high collars with bow ties. Now here was the floor show: waiters would carry five or six trays balanced together up and down their extended arms, or two trays held aloft, every item on that tray remaining perfectly still until they were expertly arranged at our table, each item in its perfect place in front of the appropriate diner. I can still see my brother in his steel high chair banging his spoon, or me asking for ketchup or Heinz-57 Steak Sauce. I see the waiter pleasantly returning with my treasures, and my Dad leaving a quarter, or maybe 35 cents on the tray.

And I see myself glancing back at the serving line and noticing the waiters taking their places again, ready to attend the next group of patrons who are waiting patiently to be waited on. The two lines—waiters and “waiters”–continuing their convergence. Though I see it all clearly, I think nothing of the fact that all the patrons look alike, as do all the waiters. I see nothing amiss here in the Birmingham cafeteria-world of my boyhood. Nothing, to my wide blue eyes, is out of place, aside from those murals. Cafeteria lines entice. We’re all waiting for something: a blue plate special; deviled crab; a rare slice of prime rib. For me, as I grew and my tastes changed, I graduated from hamburger steak and breadsticks to trout almandine and garlic toast. But when I asked for my trout, I was forced to look at that other fish choice next to it; the one swimming in a sea of oozy liquid with some strange black line running down its middle. This was “broiled mackerel,” and never in all my cafeteria experiences did I see anyone request it. It was visible, but off-limits: there to be seen but never actually touched. Two fish emanating from the same ocean but swimming in vastly different pools. Of course, the world was changing too.

*****

By the time I became a teenager, waiters disappeared from most cafeterias. Patrons carried their own trays, and there were other differences too. Maybe the clientele wasn’t as nicely dressed as before. Maybe the diners were older, or at least a higher percentage of them seemed much older than I realized as a child. I saw pairs of elderly couples dining alone; sometimes four elderly women at a table, all widows I assumed. By then, people of color were dining too, often dressed in Sunday finery.

At this point in my life I understood that cafeterias had always allowed for cheaper dining. A family of four could eat for $15-20 depending on how liberal the guy paying for the meal was.

And my Dad was no liberal. The cafeteria was still his preferred venue when he could find one, but my Mom began pushing for better faire, more ritzy spaces, and so I learned that the breaded fish that Britling’s offered could not compare to broiled, Greek-style snapper; lobster and crabmeat au gratin; or shrimp scampi. And Birmingham featured plenty of venues for fine dining.

For those who could or who wanted to afford them. When I got older I realized that cafeterias were a focal point for the elderly Jewish crowd, like my Dad’s side of the family. My grandmother lived in an enclave of red brick apartments that adjoined the Mountain Brook Country Club. This would seem to locate her in a fairly posh setting, but these apartments had not weathered time well. Maybe fancy enough in the post World War Two era when they accommodated young professionals like my Dad’s cousin Arnold, they now hosted the canasta crowd who liked to sit in backyard lawn chairs amidst crab grass and airing laundry. Every Sunday we’d visit this world. When I was just a little boy, one old man I remember especially well, Mr. Michaels, always spoke to me when I entered my grandmother’s “courtyard.” I say spoke, but actually, what he did was to Meow quite loudly to me.

“That’s just Mr. Michaels,” my mother would say, which somehow didn’t really comfort me. It never occurred to me to meow back.

My grandmother’s crowd saw the day’s highlight as being their evening excursion to Britling’s. As we drove through Mountain Brook village on those late Sunday afternoons, I’d notice all the elegant Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles slammed into the Britling’s parking lot. If you weren’t there by 4:45, apparently you lost the best places.

Normally, even through my teenage “cool” years, I didn’t mind eating at Britling’s, at least for ordinary occasions. The food still tasted good to me since a teenager’s palate is about as advanced as his hormones.

But I did balk one late fall day when my grandmother and aunt, who were supposed to be hosting us for Thanksgiving lunch, suggested that we take our meal at the cafeteria.
The last time they hosted our Thanksgiving meal, they had ordered the turkey and dressing from Britling’s, and my Mom had made the other side dishes: fresh cranberry sauce, asparagus casserole, sweet potato soufflé, fresh, homemade rolls, and for dessert, pecan pie and ambrosia. So the meal wasn’t so unusual, and Thanksgiving seemed relatively normal (though we were crammed into an apartment instead of dining at home, around our antique mahogany table).

But taking our Thanksgiving meal at a cafeteria? What sort of people did such a thing?
Thanksgiving to me meant being at home, being cooked for, and being served by my own family. As the years went by, I’d help when I could in preparation and clean-up, though my contributions overall were meager and scant. Today, I can prepare the entire meal, and if I’ve learned anything from this experience it’s that I hope that my circumstances will always allow me the good fortune to cook all day for my family.

Because on the Thanksgiving when I was fourteen, I had no say in the meal. My only option was to stand in line amongst people who, I assume, had nowhere else to go for their holiday meal. Or maybe, like my grandmother and aunt, they were just too lazy to bother.

So here we are, at Britling’s, ready to commemorate our country’s peaceful memory of that occasion when people of foreign cultures intermingled over wild bird and native maize, by standing in line, trays moving forward down the triple cylindrical track. My grandmother and Dad try to generate excitement:

“I think the turkey looks pretty good, and oh! They have sweet potatoes!!!”

“Look at all these desserts,” my grandmother marvels.

And there is pecan pie, cocoanut cake, baked custard. Even jell-o.

Yet I know that none of these delicacies holds a candle to Mom’s pecan or lemon chess pie.

And there is definitely no ambrosia.

I can’t stomach what I’m seeing. So I don’t.

To a person, everyone in our group selects turkey with the traditional sides. But as I move through the line, I see it: my traditional cafeteria choice. Trout, now called simply “fish” almandine.

“That’s what I want,” I say much-too-loudly.

Everyone looks at me.

“You want fish for Thanksgiving?” Dad seems incredulous. “No, get the turkey like the rest of us!”

But I can be stubborn too, and I stick to my independent and outraged guns.

“Nope, I want the fish, french fries, slaw, and garlic toast.” If only there had been breadsticks.

Dad is turning red. “Why do you want to be like this? Now get the turkey!”

But I just stand there. The battle lines are drawn, and as he glares at me, he also notices that the cafeteria line is standing stock-still and snaking way out the door.

What would the pilgrims, the Indians, or all the elderly Jews behind us think of this scene?

“Ok, just do whatever you want. I don’t care!” And he gets his tray and follows the rest of his family to a table next to a couple who are mouthing their turkey through extended gums.
We all take our places, and after I’ve smeared ketchup and tartar sauce over my food, I dig in like everyone else.

My aunt is savoring her eggplant casserole; my brother is wolfing down dressing. Dad has recovered enough to compliment the giblet gravy, but my Mom is eyeing me, certain that I’m unhappy.

And she’s right. The fish that Britling’s serves this Thanksgiving has never seen a good, much less a better day. It has the crusty breading all right, and the toasted almonds on top. But cut into, all it offers are bones and absolutely no white flesh.

“That’s no good,” Mom declares. “We’re getting you something else.”

“No turkey though!”

“Well, what do you want this time…what about roast beef?”

“OK, I’ll take roast, but no dressing or potatoes.”

Mom calls the manager over, and he accommodates us quite pleasantly, though he never admits that the fish is only a carcass.

My roast arrives, and all I get from the rest of the family are looks of pity and dismay.
The meal goes on; everyone seems content by the end. We leave Britling’s only a little worse for the wear.

But the next Thanksgiving we’re back at our house with Mom cooking everything, my grandmother and aunt gorging themselves, and me back in my accustomed seat, still not appreciating all that has been done for me.

*****

I wasn’t an avid stoner in college, but I’d indulge that favor if I finished all my work for the evening. From first grade on, I had been conditioned to do homework first and then play or watch TV.

In college, I considered myself one of the campus radicals, seeking to rectify decades of unfair curfew restrictions: Draconian visitation rights in male and female dorms; age restrictions for living off campus; the general administration sense that we were all just kids in constant need of parental advice. I wore my red hair down my back and my even redder beard bushy and free. Denim jeans and jacket, hiking boots, flannel shirts: I was an outdoor guy in looks, but my heart and body found more comfort behind my editorial desk in the campus newspaper office where I wrote scathing opinion pieces castigating the college’s venerable grandfathers—white-haired ancients who, I’m sure, would blanch even whiter were they forced to confront our daily cafeteria lines.

Our one cafeteria attracted student gatherings that went beyond mere eating. Some of us gathered there the minute the facility opened and stayed past the time when the weary workers, who of course we barely noticed, wanted to mop the floor beneath us.

Our cafeteria had three distinct serving lines. Two in the main hall, and one that you could be accessed through the kitchen, allowing a frighteningly full view of the “food preparation area,” although who among us would dare look too closely?

Being very stoned makes some people paranoid, others, unspeakably brave. Or very, very foolish.

So, after selecting the “veal parmesan,” the “field peas,” and the chocolate pie, my foolish self now faces the milk apparatus. I have three glasses waiting and begin milking.

Somewhere as that first glass is filling, I do what no one should ever do under the influence of potent marijuana: I try to think logically. And my thought is this: how exactly do I stop this flow of milk?

It’s a vexing question, made even more so because I have only two more glasses and when I’m done, what then? I quickly insert glass number two under the udder, and I’m really beginning to panic. No one sees me, though, and now the milk is flowing over the glass rim. I could be stuck here forever or at least until the machine runs out at which point we all might be ankle-deep in homogenized cow.

Fortunately, even a stoned brain kicks in when you absolutely need it to. At least this time it did. I look down at my two hands: one is holding my overflowing glass; the other is right where it should be, lifting the spigot.

“Just let go!”

I move to a table, get a clean tray, and transfer my food items as neatly as I could. I refuse to look back at whatever mess I’ve created, trusting, of course, that someone will clean up after me. By the time the cafeteria closes that night, I am “normal” again, forgetting my momentary lapse of decorum, not even noticing who had to do what for all our sakes.

I’m not always stoned, but I am always oblivious, unappreciative, and ungrateful.

*****

I truly don’t appreciate my cafeteria world until long after college—long after I leave the annals of undergraduate revolution and dope-smoking behind. Maybe the world grew sharper for me as I got married and had two daughters. We began taking them to our local cafeteria, the S&S.

Over our visits there, I relive the experience of watching one daughter demanding hamburger steak, macaroni and cheese, and jell-o habitually, with the other choosing trout almandine, mashed potatoes, and garlic bread.

And to my surprise, there are the waiters, wearing golden tunics and black trousers. They’re still balancing five trays at once, setting everything down in perfect table order. In a vaguely reminiscent gesture, I always leave several dollars for their tip, wondering if what I’ve seen and done is satisfactory, if it’s truly enough.

In the late 1980’s, I took a teaching position at a small, liberal arts college in rural South Carolina. Once a week, faculty could eat for free in the one campus cafeteria, an old-fashioned dining hall managed by an aging white man. The entire community showed up every Sunday lunch for his famous fried chicken, and at $3.75, it was a bargain.

Sure, the elderly white matrons who served us in the line were referred to as the “Blue Ladies,” not because of their hair color but because of their blue aprons and allusion to the school’s nickname: the Blue Hose. Sometimes I’d notice an African-American woman trying to separate all the discarded food trays when the conveyor belt stuck, but I never wondered where the conveyor belt ended and who or what was there, waiting at that special end place.

Until one day I did. Or to be exact, a colleague suggested that I go look:

“It’s below the main dining hall,” he said. “Just walk back through the kitchen and go down the staircase.”

So I did. It was dark there and very humid; a place where old trays went to die, or be re-sanitized. And down there were five or ten African-American men and women, middle-aged and up. At that moment they weren’t working because it was between meals.

“Hi, how are y’all doing?”

“All right. Just waitin’.”

I stood there for another moment but was just too embarrassed to linger.

Our institution cleaned up its cafeteria mess, eventually. The dungeon beneath the main hall still exists, and no doubt the workers haven’t changed much. But at least now the above-ground portion reflects an equality of race, though not of gender. Of course, most everything is self-service now, though if you want, there is still a very short hot food line with two entrée choices, and a cook-to-order grill.

And in a world where I’m not sure what I want or expect anymore, in an institution where we no longer have free meals once a week, I tend to bring my own lunch and when I do go out, clean my plate and tip heavily. As if I appreciate all that I have; as if I can clean up my own past, and that of so many others too.

Terry Bars essays have appeared widely in such journals as Full Grown People, Red Fez, Compose, Grounded Magazine, Belle Reve Literary Journal, and Marathon Literary Review. I teach Food and Literature, Modern Novel, Southern Film, and Creative Nonfiction at Presbyterian College, and live in Greenville, SC, with my family.
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