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Charlie Hatton
Brookline, MA

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Howdy, friendly reading person!
I'm on a bit of a hiatus right now, but only to work on other projects -- one incredibly exciting example being the newly-released kids' science book series Things That Make You Go Yuck!
If you're a science and/or silliness fan, give it a gander! See you soon!

Out to Lunch, In a Crunch

I have no delusions of being important enough to attract the universe’s attention.

(Frankly, I don’t really believe anyone else rates that high, either. The universe has an awful lot on its plate, what with the stellar fusion reactions and holding up gravity and supporting life every once in a while. I seriously doubt it has time to pause the cosmic dance just to tap you on the shoulder and tell you to change your hairstyle, or to quit your job, or that you should totally follow Vicky to the West Coast because it’ll, you know, be like a journey of self-discovery and stuff.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the universe wears ironic berets and reeks of patchouli. But I don’t see it.)

However. If the all-encircling Cosmos ever has stopped in its tracks to send me a message, then it was sent to me today. And that message, loud and clear, was:

Yo, home slice. You do NOT need to eat lunch today.

I choose to believe the universe was not saying that. Mostly because I very much felt like I needed lunch today, and as a general rule I don’t like to disagree with the universe. It’s pretty hard to come out on top of a fight with the universe. I don’t care how many Wikipedia articles you read.

“It’s pretty hard to come out on top of a fight with the universe. I don’t care how many Wikipedia articles you read.”

Nevertheless, it almost seemed as if something — maybe the Universe, maybe fate, maybe the Tea Party coalition? — some mysterious and unseen force was trying to prevent my midday meal. To what end? I don’t know. I could stand to lose a pound or six, sure. But does the universe care about that? When it’s constantly busy squeezing out quarks and barfing supernovae all over spacetime? No. No, I think it does not.

And yet. Here’s the thing.

I’ve fallen into a lunch meta-routine at my new job. I say “meta-” because at my old job, I had a ROUTINE. Bold letters, big and loud, capital ‘R’, capital ‘OUTINE’. My lunch — every day, rain or shine, come hell or high salsa — was a burrito. From the burrito guy, and it was not an easy relationship to end.

(My last day at work, I went by the stand and he’d thrown all my jalapenos out on the curb in a huff. Or a juff; I couldn’t quite understand what he said. Either way, it was not a pretty sight.)

I vowed not to fall into the same sort of lunchtime codependency again. And so, I now enjoy variety in my midday repasts. I no longer make the mistake of seeing just one lunch provider for my nooner noshing needs.

Instead, I see three.

Thus the ‘meta-‘ in ‘meta-routine’. In a neighborhood with fourteen restaurants, four pizza joints, a Greek bar, multiple middle Eastern cuisineries and a full-fledged food court, I go to one of the same three restaurants every damned day: the sandwich place, the takeout Chinese stand in the mall, and naturally, the burrito joint down the block.

(What can I tell you? You can take the guacamole out of the guy, but you can’t… well, something. You know what I’m saying, hombre.)

The goal was to dilute the lunching experience enough to prevent those uncomfortable-to-break bonds from forming in the first place — while still preventing the drooling mental shutdown that nineteen viable lunch choices would cause for me every day around eleven forty-five.

So far, it’s working. All my options are in one direction from the office. So at lunchtime, I don’t go right. I don’t go straight. And I sure as hell don’t consider going out any door but the front. Then I hang a left, walk a couple of blocks, and presto, I’m practically at one counter or another, ordering grub. No worry, no inertia, and the only drooling is if the burrito shack happens to have chorizo that day.

More importantly, there’s been no bonding with the servers. None of the burrito shop guys make eye contact. And the Chinese food people seem to think I look like everybody else. The sandwich place is run by this Middle Eastern couple who seem awfully sympathetic and nice — and I think she gave me a free soda one day. So I worry about them. They may need a ‘time out’. I’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime, there was lunch today. I had my usual three shots at it, which is two more than I’ve ever required in the same day. And I skipped breakfast, so I was more than ready for food by eleven thirty. Since the burrito joint is closest and the noon rush hadn’t yet hit, I decided to pay them a visit. Meaning, I practically ran across the street to their door.

When I entered, I could sense something was wrong. As usual, there were bodies pressed together near the register, chatting and spitting and sweating at one another. Only this time, there was no one on the other side. Nobody manning the meat grilling station. No one heating tortillas. The tamale steamers were scandalously unattended.

Turns out the place had lost power just a few moments before. Lost power, they said — in this day and age! So they were just hanging around, waiting out the brownout or tripped breaker or whatever was the problem. What they weren’t doing was serving any burritos.

(They could’ve made the food work. But the cash register is electronic. No juice, no dinero. So they came around the counter to see how the other half lives.

They still called me gringo. So it wasn’t very much different. Just a little darker.)

Fine, I thought. I’ll schlep the two extra blocks ahead for a sandwich instead. I rerouted my taste buds from pollo to chicken, and marched down to door number two.

Which was also dark. Not only was there a mysterious outage, but it was affecting a pair of food joints two blocks apart. My food joints, and I was starving. I got the hell out of there before the Eastern European couple pulled me in for a heart-to-heart, and made a beeline for the food court.

Surely, said I, the mall isn’t affected by this nonsense. They’ve got generators and adapters and such — you could never kick off all the power in that place. This is America, dammit. ‘The mall must go on.’

And sure enough, I entered the mall to find it as well-lit, well-cooled and well-manicured-mannequined as ever. I rounded the corner to the food court with just the slightest trepidation, but the stalls and booths were all bright and serving away. I hustled, stomach grumbling, to the Chinese food joint and started the usual dance.

Whatchu want?” the lady charmingly opened, pointing at various bits of mystery meat and tofu-like substance. I started her off the way I always do:

I’ll have the steamed rice, please.

I figure that’s the sporting way. I’m about to shovel three pounds of “chicken” and “broccoli” and “soy” sauce into my gob. The least I can do is give my body a fighting chance with the filler.

Usually, the lady slaps a couple of spoonfuls into my new best styrofoam friend, and we take turns pointing at dishes until I’ve got something edible. But not this time.

No white rice now. You want brown?

The thing is, I didn’t want “brown” — that is to say, fried — rice. Not even a little. I have a policy that at least one thing on the plate shouldn’t be deep fried, battered or slathered in gravy. And if it’s the thing at the bottom, all the better.

(Easier to push aside and leave that way.

Hey, I said I had policies. I never said I liked them.)

So I tried to get creative, while telling my stomach it could wait a few minutes longer before digesting any tasty-looking muscle walls it saw lying around.

Nah, I can wait. How long will the white rice take?

She wasn’t ready for that. I guess most customers hold their insolent tongues when told what is and isn’t available. Still, the sassy American devil is always right, as the saying goes, so she did her best to gauge the relative readiness of the white rice.

First, she lifted the lid of the rice cooker nearby. Unsatisfied, she walked the length of the counters, ducked into the back chittering at someone, and soon emerged with a firm look on her face.

“No. No white rice. Is broken.”

I thought about asking more follow-up questions. Like, how is the cooker out here beside you, but the guy who says its broken is in the back? And, how do you start a lunch rush without rice? But mostly, how does one fritzed-out cooker knock all the steamed rice out of a Chinese food joint? My understanding is that your people have been doing this for quite some time — probably before the first Ronco Automated Rice Fluffer came onto the market. Is there no “Sichuan old-school” way you can whip up a staple of a billion and a half people worldwide?

Put another way: Did the universe get to you, dammit?!

So I left. And I did what any starving, wary, universe-fearing guy with three strikes against his lunch options would do. I went to the fancy Au Bon Pain across the food court — a place where the universe would never think to look for me — and I bought a big-ass salad.

It went without a hitch. Because the universe didn’t even know who I was any more, man.

And I took that salad back to the safety of my desk and I ate the shit out of that thing.I didn’t care if it was rabbit food — or rabbit poop, at that point. It was lunch, and I was famished. Circuit breakers and rice fluffers and universe be damned — sometimes, a man’s gotta eat.

So was the universe talking to me today, telling me to maybe skip a lunch and see what happens? Maybe. I guess if the universe does talk to people occasionally, then the key is knowing when — and how — to listen.

Which is not something I’m good at, clearly. I’ve always listened to burrito shack guys instead. And they never tell you to skip lunch. Even the gringos.

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