I got hot breakfast, too (a blue ticket), in exchange for my service in the Safety Patrol. The overcast atmosphere of the cafeteria at breakfast time left me feeling a bit melancholy, drawing down my energy and honing my resignation to the impending school day. It seemed like there was always one basketball bouncing languidly across the floor, echoing plaintively, moping. The gym teacher supervised the morning cafeteria, authoritative whistle around his neck. If it was rainy out −and it often was− the half-lit cafeteria/gym served as the early morning recess area as well as a place for kids such as myself to scarf down a toasted hamburger bun (leftover from the previous day’s lunch) with melted American cheese, some canned pears and a carton of milk. I think sometimes there was the industry-standard hotel pan full of institutional-type scrambled eggs, the kind that are materialized from a carton of powder (or at least tasted like they were), but there was never any ketchup to make them more palatable. I didn’t really care what was on the menu, I just loved being able to sit down to the warm blanket of predictability. The nourishment was just a happy side-effect.

I came to look forward to the sight of the cafeteria ladies every day. Their tidy uniforms – baby blue paper hairnet; white apron and clear plastic gloves; little red apple logo on the nametag that read “Cynthia” or “Lynnette” – belied their imperfect lives. They referred to their husbands as “my old man.” They scratched their itchy foreheads with the back of their gloved wrists, and coughed into their elbows. They got a wicked case of The Mondays. They silently ticked down the minutes until their next smoke break behind the school dumpsters, after the bell had chased all the kids back to class. I wanted desperately to be one of them.

Incidentally, by the time I started sixth grade, my dad had a steady job and we no longer qualified for food stamps, but my folks were still usually short on cash and they heartily encouraged my precocious financial independence (lunch money was cutting into their cigarette budget).

So I earned my lunch every day by donning that proud uniform of the proletariat and joined the cafeteria lady workforce. Though I chose to do this for myriad reasons (not the least of which was to get out of 4th period 15 minutes early), a major one is that I’d be relieved from the rejection of having nowhere to sit in the cafeteria − in fact, I wouldn’t even get to eat until the cafeteria had already mostly cleared out. The daily white torture of looking for a seat in the cafeteria in middle school was not the bromidic downer that every overachiever tells to garner some sympathy. It was low-grade psychological warfare. I’d scan the room with my tray, hoping for a seat at a table with someone halfway “normal,” but was usually exiled to Siberia with the other poor kids anyway. It was much easier to just skip to the end and spare myself the humiliation. Middle school is a cesspit of despair and a Petri dish of sociopathy. No one escapes that.

Unsurprisingly, working in the cafeteria ended up being one more way for me to alienate myself from my peers. My thick glasses and shoddy, mom-selected (or worse: hand-sewn) clothes were the first alert to my peers that I was an easy target for bullying. My propensity for pointing out Mrs. Reinhorn’s spelling errors in front of the homeroom class was another tip-off. But if all that didn’t warrant the derisive name-calling and attempts to lock me in the girls’ room, then my paper hairnet and plastic gloves surely did.
My socioeconomic status was perfectly exposed behind that plexiglass sneeze-guard, yet I felt somewhat protected by it. Even if all I really wanted was to become microscopic, I had nothing left to hide and had no choice but to suck it up and get over it. Behind that plexiglass, I was one of the crew, in the trenches with the other poor kids (and the grown-up poor kids).

I mostly washed dishes or served the vegetable dish at the end of the line, but was sometimes left in charge to take the teachers’ lunch orders from a Dutch door that led from the cafeteria kitchen to a secret lair where the teachers ate their lunches. A teacher would lean in the window and bark out her order, or if I saw her coming, I’d sometimes surprise her by remembering what she always ate and announcing her order before she had a chance. Serving the teachers their lunches offered me a glimpse into their preferences, a secondhand peek into their private lives. One of the younger teachers used ketchup as salad dressing, changing my opinion of her forever. This was an insipid use for ketchup – even I knew this, and she went suddenly from being cool to completely déclassé.

Sometimes instead of putting the teacher’s money in the cash box, I stuffed it into my apron pocket. Sometimes I went into the walk-in refrigerator and drank more than my daily allowance of chocolate milk. I defended this behavior in my head by telling myself that I was entitled because of the shitty hand I was dealt, the one that required I work for my lunch at 11 years old.