More Sauce, Please.

>> Thursday, May 24, 2007


The girl at the cafeteria where I work has no love for serving.

I should know -- I’ve served. I waited tables for two years, and I’m currently working pro-bono in my home for two demanding little regulars. Ok, maybe I don’t have “love” for serving, either, but I certainly have respect for the position, since I myself enjoy being served very much.

But this girl’s shoulders drop a notch when I walk up to her counter. We’ve met before. Granted, I’m particular. I like a certain amount of pasta and a certain amount of sauce. Sometimes I like to mix sauces which really throws her.

“I can’t do that,” she says. I stare blankly.

“You can’t put a little of one sauce on top and then a little of the other on top of that?”

“I can’t do that.”

I sigh. I take a deep breath. For now I assume there must be some cafeteria regulation that forbids the mixing of sauces. Perhaps it’s simple sauce discrimination. I’m tempted to leave the counter and then come back and ask for the second sauce on the side. But I don’t. I’m becoming embarrassed by my own peculiar demands and decide it’s time to move on.

Which is good, because on the way out I notice a sweet little drawing on a napkin pinned to the bulletin board. Above it there’s a sign that reads “Napkin Notes”. It’s Elizabeth’s!

The other evening, my husband brought the girls by so we could all eat together before my class. For some bizarre reason, I was really excited. I’m always excited to see my girls, but this was different. I wanted them to see where I eat lunch.

Don’t ask me why. It seems almost juvenile. It was the same sort of excitement I had when my mother visited me in elementary school. When she did, I got a chance to say, “This is my school! This is where I sit. These are my friends.” When my girls visited, I got a chance to say, “This is my work! This is where I eat. These are the virtual strangers that serve me and take my money.”

I guess either way I was saying, “I love you. I want you to know me.”

At 36, I sometimes feel out-of-place in the cafeteria filled almost entirely of college undergraduates. They’re usually chatting away with their friends, talking about dating or their current class loads. I stand alone, wondering if I’d look silly in a skirt that short. At the checkout line, the undergrads hand over their student pay cards and walk on through. When it’s my turn, I put down my tray, fish through my wallet, and hand over some cash, likely irritating the cashiers by interrupting their "line flow". That’s a good way to describe how I feel at the cafeteria: I’m against the flow.

But it was fun walking in with my family. I was proud. The undergrads may have their backpacks, iBooks, and blackberries, but I have my girls. I enjoyed pointing out the various food stations to them. “Look ladies, they even have chocolate milk. Want some?” As we paraded from station to station, all eyes were upon our small, jubilant group. Even though we were still clearly out-of-place in this setting, I didn’t feel out-of-place with my girls.

As I showed them around, I wanted to say to them:

“Remember the quiet, dark time before you were born? You’ve been here before! You climbed these steps, ate what I ate, was served one sauce at a time, and sat at these tables. Look girls! This is how it looks from the outside!”

While we ate, the girls were loud and messy. Wonderful! I felt like I was part of some cool, rebellious click, lost in our own world, yet relishing the attention we received. We laughed. We made faces. We burped. Elizabeth drew a picture on a napkin.

We’re apart at least 40 hours each week. In some small way, I wanted to share that time with them. When they’re at school, they can envision me in my “other” environment. Maybe Mommy’s in her cubicle. Or maybe she's at the cafeteria. That may be wishful thinking on my part. Most likely their only thoughts during the day are of tire swings, playing dress-up, and acquiring seconds of apple sauce. But I think of them often.

Now when I return to the cafeteria, it’s not some lonely place where I don’t belong. It’s “our place”. I may not have my brightly-colored posse with me, but they’re always in my heart. And if I forget, there’s a little napkin with silly faces drawn on it near the door to remind me.




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