Probably the only thing that I liked about my time in high school was the cafeteria. As a student, I was aware that we it relatively good. I’d heard horror stories from friends about their cafeterias, about green meatballs and slimy cold-cut sandwiches. Our cafeteria had its problems, like it was too crowded, just barely big and efficient enough to feed us all. But in terms of food, it wasn’t a bad place to be forced to eat five times a week.
That is, like I’ve already alluded to, if I ever made it inside. When I say that it was crowded, picture sixteen hundred boys trying to buy lunch from a counter approximately the length of a school bus. It was like, the bell rang, and it was this insane dash to drop all of your stuff off at your locker and then race down to the basement to try and not be the very last person on that line that was already snaking out of the cafeteria and into the hallway.
Equally worse was that, because of the size of our student body, and the inverse size of the cafeteria, lunchtime was split amongst four periods. At my school, once you received your class schedule, it was cemented, that was it for the whole year. Which meant that, if you were fortunate enough to be assigned one of the two middle periods, you’d be eating somewhere around lunchtime.
Fortune had it that for two of my high school years, I was mandated to have a lunch break that started at ten-thirty in the morning. It was terrible. In addition to rushing downstairs, buying food, finding a spot to eat, and then eating it, I had to try and load up on enough snacks to hold me over for the rest of the day. Which was really just wishful thinking. By the time two o’clock rolled around, I’d be starving again, with still another two hours of boring classes to sit through before I could make my escape and go to Seven-Eleven for hotdogs and Slurpees.
I guess I shouldn’t complain. I never had to suffer the indignity of that last lunch period. I think it started around two in the afternoon. Which meant that the majority of your school day would be spent fantasizing about a lunch period that, when it finally happened, you’d get down and find a cafeteria ravaged by everybody else in school. Was there even any food left? I’d heard that it was mostly scraps, unwanted sandwiches and diet sodas.
Whatever the logistical problems, our cafeteria was pretty decent. The school published a monthly calendar, detailing exactly what would be on the menu every day. And it was always something different. We had pork rib heroes slathered in barbecue sauce, chili in a giant bread bowl, occasionally they’d even send out for White Castle hamburgers.
On top of the hot lunch option, there were also various deli sandwiches, Arizona iced teas, and, what I thought was the coolest, a soft-serve ice cream machine. I truly looked forward to lunch every day. For under ten dollars, I was able to buy basically whatever I wanted. Yeah, that’s a lot of money for a high school lunch, but I was eating like enough for three people, so it was money well spent.
The only time things got tricky was on Fridays during Lent. It was a Catholic school, so they refused to serve meat. The insult of it all, BLTs replaced with LTs. Disgusting. That’s not a sandwich. Frozen Ellio’s pizza. Gross. I’d eat cold pasta salad until I felt my hunger pangs subsiding somewhat, hopeful that it might be enough to last me until I could make it Taco Bell after school.
Sometime during my junior year, the school installed a Slush Puppy machine. If you’ve never had a Slush Puppy, it’s basically a poor man’s version of a Slurpee: the slushy ice was dispensed separately, mixed with your choice of flavor from these syrup dispensers. There were several options, cherry, grape, tropical, great, terrific, but the one at the end was a mystery. Shocker. That’s all it said, shocker.
So of course, you put way too many teenage boys in a cafeteria, you give them a flavor option with a ridiculous name like shocker, and it immediately became everybody’s default choice. The peer pressure to order shocker was enormous. Everyone was doing it, shocker, shocker, shocker, were you going to be the pansy that ordered raspberry? Even the teachers jumped on the shocker bandwagon. I remember one of the gym teachers, this crazy lacrosse coach, he came up to my table one time, we were all drinking Slush Puppies, all shocker, of course, and he was drinking one too, he goes, “You boys drinking shocker? Huh?” and he inspected all of our cups, making sure it was all colorless shocker, before going to the next table, his hand in the air with his ring finger tucked in his palm.
Of course, shocker was disgusting. It didn’t taste like anything. It was like a pure lemon but without any of the lemon flavor, only the incredibly sour sensation. Nobody enjoyed drinking shocker, but this mania had overtaken the entire student body. Who was going to be the first one to take a step back and say, all right guys, I don’t really like this, I think I’m going to try peach. It wasn’t going to be me.
And then months later the cafeteria workers put up these notices. Apparently nobody read the instructions, but shocker was supposed to be a sour additive for any of the other flavors. You’d get your cherry, and you’d add a squirt of shocker to make it sour. Orders came from high up in the school’s administration, no more solo-shocker Slush Puppies. And everybody let out a really dramatic, “Come on! That’s not fair!” but really we were all just relieved.
Now and then I’ll find myself in a rut with my adult lunches. Everything feels boring, sometimes I can’t muster up the motivation even to go out and buy a simple sandwich. I find myself thinking back to my high school lunch period, every day something to look forward to, a different meal, some stupid high school conversations. If we were lucky, somebody would drop their tray on the floor and, in unison, the whole student body would scream out, “Heeeeeey, dick!” before erupting into a wild laughter, the lunch moderators scrambling to hand out random detentions in a toothless effort to calm us all down. It’s crazy, the things that I look back on with fondness.