Gardner’s white bread in the yellow bag, butter, a leaf of iceberg lettuce, a slice of bologna; a Twinkie, Zinger or HoHo; an apple; 15 cents for a carton of milk. If we were taking a field trip we could bring a can of pop wrapped in aluminum foil to keep it cool.
Once when we went to the Outdoor Lab to track squirrels and pick wild mint leaves someone came across a grass snake all curled up and green in the main building where we were to eat. There would be no going in until the snake came out, but I think we should have lunched right there jowl to jowl with the tired green thing whose world we’d intruded upon.
Instead, a high school boy clomped through the building armed with a broken stick and heaps of bravado, scooped up the snake and emerged victorious, snake curled and perturbed above our heads.
We filed in, paper sacks twisted tightly in our cold, early morning fingers and reformed our social groups in coagulating masses.
Where ever we were, lunch was always a proving ground–who would sit by Suzy, what secret was passed around behind cupped hands, sleep-over invites, weekend spoils, copy-cat jealousy–they all made their play. Our lunch bags stayed the same. Until 5th grade.
Homeroom lunch ticket sales on Thursday afternoons didn’t concern me unless I conned Ma into some spare change for a couple weeks worth of pizza tickets. Every week without fail the lunch lady left her steamy pots and dusty hairnets behind and trundled through the hallways with a plastic cart, tickets and lock box.
Now, I always tried to stay under the radar in school and most of the time did just fine by that, (except when I got conned into taking the fall for the “Vaseline on the window sill” incident, but that’s another story). As it was, my wallflower tendencies usually kept me out of the lime light even though I always had my ear cocked for the slightest sign of recognition.
That recognition came just before 3 o’clock on a Thursday afternoon. The lunch lady called me out into the hall. I weird-walked, (people say I have a weird walk, I don’t know) out of the room with my usual “somebody said my name” crimson face on and approached the ticket cart.
She glanced at me, pulled five tickets off the roll and handed them over with a sealed envelope. “This is for your mom,” she said and moved on to the other kids.
I didn’t know what was up at the time, but was mildly excited for the prospect of tater-tots and hot dogs everyday. As it turns out, I would be eating hot lunch for the rest of my tenure at Monroe Elementary.
See, when I turned 11 Ma and I moved into an apartment building. This would be the beginning of the “only-child years” as I like to think of them, all my siblings off and living their lives, Ma and me left to our own devices. The apartment was in good shape, 2 bedrooms, upstairs with a balcony. It was also low income housing which led the way to all sorts of marvels, namely free lunches, government cheese and crocks of cheap peanut butter.
Lucky for me my friends didn’t cotton to any pretensions involving hot lunch. They may have even been a little jealous that pizza day was always on my agenda, while bologna on white bread got permanently scratched off.
But like that cozy snake in the middle of the woods the natural order of things was upset, because standing in line for a country-fried steak assures your place at the table is already filled.