What is it about school cafeterias that send chills down our spine? Could it be the bubbling, oozing, jelly like taco meat or hard crusted dried out noodles in the mac & cheese? Maybe it’s the token “lunch lady”, complete with a hair net and food-stained uniform, who begrudgingly slops a mess of food on your tray. Whatever the reason, we all have experienced the dark pit that is school lunch, including myself. In this situation, I’m what you would call a survivor, a pioneer of sorts, that rebelled against the burnt lasagna and the overcooked cheeseburgers. I saw an opportunity and capitalized on it. I was in fourth grade at the time and as always, since birth, I was addicted to food. Each day I would open my lunch bag and peer at the disappointment before me. A sad picture of bologna, cheese and mustard sandwiched between two soggy pieces of bread. This was unacceptable and I was determined to find other means of nourishment!
My mom had been working nights after my sister was born so I was no longer being blessed with gourmet Italian cuisine. Well, I wasn’t going to let that ruin my always anticipated lunch hour. I had connections and I was ready to call in my favors. At my elementary school I had the option of partaking in recess after lunch or being an aid for teachers and office personnel. No way was this fat boy going to run around a hot playground, so needless to say I chose to help out in the office. This ensured I could network with the staff and principal in hopes to use their power in the future. I guess you could say my business instincts kicked in at a young age. I became acquainted with the head janitor, Mr. Valentine, and I would often see him in the cafeteria cleaning up during lunch hour. On a particular “bad” lunch day I found myself stuck with yet another generic sandwich. As I sat there staring around the room I noticed Mr. Valentine stepped up to my table. He just looked at me straight in the eye and said “What’s wrong kid?”. Mr. Valentine was from the days when you didn’t complain about what you didn’t have and you were thankful for what was given to you. Unfortunately I wasn’t in that frame of mind at the time and neither was my stomach. After explaining my dilemma he grabbed my sandwich and walked into the cafeteria kitchen. After a few minutes he appeared at my table and dropped a fresh, hot, chicken sandwich into my hands. To this day I have no clue where this thing came from. It was of high quality, nothing like the rubbery imitation food the school usual served. Without hesitation he looked at me and said, “Now you just keep bringing me those sandwiches your mom worked so hard to make.” I agreed with a large grin and for the remainder of the year we would trade lunches. I became known as the kid who traded food with the janitor… and yes I’m very proud of that! Mr. Valentine became a great friend and I would often help him out during my recess period until I eventually went off to middle school. However, I never forgot his kindness. This was bigger than my search for a better lunch and became a life long bond over food. It taught me to appreciate people, no matter what their story, because we don’t meet people by accident!