In Remembrance Of My College Cafeteria

20 Oct

The kind of grilled cheese Sue used to serve

The line was too long, yet again. It was week two of getting up late and shuffling down the sticky beer and vomit laden stairs which were newly minted with the sickly stench from Saturday night’s usual affairs: overzealous hook ups and wrong place wrong time throw ups. She ignored it, holding her nose, trying ever so carefully to keep her bunny slippers from connecting with the puddles. Upon exiting the stairwell, she sighed at the line, which wound around the mailboxes and through the doors of New College Dorm.   Everyone had the same idea. Trying to make it to the cashier at EVK (AKA the Evil Kitchen) before 2PM on Sundays was a USC freshman tradition. She knew that if she were going to have to endure the plasticky yet strangely comforting food that the Evil Kitchen had to offer, the one time that the place was redeemed was on Sundays, better known as Waffle Sundays. If she were so lucky to make it before all of the waffle batter was consumed by drunk co-eds jonesing to get their food fix and use their daily allotment of money before it ran out, she would consider herself lucky. The week would be off to a good start. But it was 1:50 and she was dubious.

Waffle Sunday was one of the few things that freshmen at USC could control. Not class times, nor work load. Not scary professors or tenuous friendships, not the lack of transportation or what they served at the Evil Kitchen the rest of the week…only on Sundays was EVK predictable and edible. Granted, they never mentioned that waffles had a million calories and she never really thought much about it. It was worth it for the comfort of knowing that she could make her own waffle. A sliver of independence and yet predictability in an otherwise unpredictable environment.

Kind of Like Sue

Sue smiled. She barely had teeth, but the large-boned, sometimes perky but most of the time angry, cafeteria lady embodied all the stereotypes. She always gave you too many mashed potatoes and not enough gravy. She would accidentally forget to fully clean out the Fruity Pebbles cereal container before putting the Quaker Oat Squares in, basically patenting her own new brand of cereal which likely made the Quaker man turn over in his grave. What Sue was most famous for was peddling her overcooked, burnt crust grilled cheese sandwiches. Sometimes they even had mystery meat attached. One could never be sure.   That morning, Sue asked her a question.

“Rough night?” was all she said.

It seemed strange to think that of all the possible people to ask that question to and at all the possible times, Sue had chosen her, the one without any trace of a hangover.

“Not really,” she answered, surprising herself. Sue looked down, uncomfortably. “But from the looks of it, all of them had one,” she covered, quickly.

Sue looked up, meeting her gaze. She smiled again, toothy and happy.

“Any waffle batter left?” the girl asked, gesturing across the room to the smoky waffle irons, caked with half-dried batter.

“Afraid it’s almost gone. You’d better hurry over there. But here, just in case…” Sue turned, opening one of the metal containers covering a mysterious liquid. She smiled impishly to reveal drizzling red strawberry sauce. Taking a spoon, she ladled it into a bowl and handed it to the girl.

“Thanks, Sue,” the girl smiled, earnestly. “That’s really kind of you.” She took the sauce and glanced around, making sure no other students saw. Otherwise they would flock to Sue like pigeons to bread crumbs. Sue knew it too, so she covered the sauce up quickly, to avoid a scene.

“Enjoy, dearie.” Sue said, grinning.

The was the only conversation she ever had with Sue before and after. She thought the waffle conversation might be setting a new precedent with Sue, but Sunday evening Taco Night came around and Sue was back to her grumpy self. After trying to make contact with Sue, the girl gave up, realizing that behind the thick, ill-fitting glasses, Sue’s eyes were glazed over. Maybe she had found a hidden bottle of booze in the kitchen. Or perhaps she had a fight with her daughter. Or her knee was acting up again. Whatever the reason, Sue didn’t find a need to connect with anyone that evening. She was doing a job and that job was going to get done.

The girl thought about it years later. EVK wasn’t really all that bad. Yes, the food was terrible, the service was even worse, and the letter grade given by the Department of Health was probably given begrudgingly after a persuasive argument made by some dean in some department who didn’t want to lose his job. But EVK was a gathering spot for those who needed to gather. It was a meet up before there were groups created just for that purpose. It smelled most of the time. Sometimes even like the night before. But there were waffles. For the days when everything else seemed off kilter and totally unpredictable, Waffle Sunday existed.

College was about connecting with people, sharing stories, and breaking bread together. So what if the bread was a few days old, glued together with a piece of processed cheese food, and slathered in butter? Or maybe it was overly drippy waffle batter turned into an undercooked waffle with a gloriously secret strawberry sauce made  lovingly by Sue the Lunch Lady. That was all part of the charm, wasn’t it?

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