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Charlie Hatton
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Food Court Follies

Near my workplace, directly across from my office building, there’s a food court. I visit it often, usually at lunchtime, and I’ve noticed a few strange things happening over there. Here’s a small taste from the menu:

No Soup for Anyone

For the first couple of years I was there, the food court sported a joint called ‘The Original Soup Man‘. It sold, astonishingly enough, soup. And precious little else. In the depths of winter, they did a pretty brisk business. This is New England, and nothing warms the soul on those days where you can’t feel your lower extremities more than a nice cuppa chicken noodle or Italian wedding.

In the middle of June, not so much.

So, last summer, the place went out of business. Just couldn’t peddle ‘hearty’ during those months where people are ‘sweaty’, it seems. Of course, really, what with global warming threatening to turn all our homes into beachfront cabanas — or ‘exciting opportunities in near-shore partially-submerged property ownership’, as I’m sure the brochures will tout — it was just a matter of time, anyway. Give it a few more decades and hot lunch soups will join the dinosaurs, bellbottom pants and Trapper Keepers on the list of things that were all the rage during their time, but which seem strange and foreign to modern observers.

That’s not the weird thing. Frankly, businesses in that food court go boilers up all the time, and are replaced by the next bunch of yahoos in half-assed uniforms with a soda machine, sneezeguards and outrageously marked-up combo meals. In the last six months, at least three failed restaurants have been replaced by new contenders. But not the soup people. For close to a year, the booth has remained empty, with only the ghosts of lobster bisques past to haunt the place.

“At this location, you’ll be served by some soft-spoken fuzzy-lipped dude whose family hails from the Indian subcontinent, and you’ll either like it or you’ll buy your overpriced wilted lettuce and soggy bread elsewhere.”

(I’m not sure how a bisque would work up a proper haunting, mind you. Maybe you’d get a scalding hot sensation on your tongue as you walked by, or the odd feeling that you were being watched by some brothy bits of poached shellfish. It doesn’t seem all that ominous, really.

Not like a borscht haunting. Those cold-blooded bastards will terrify your ass. Haunt your dreams and everything. Not cool.)

Why will no one assume the Original Soup Man’s mantle? I assume it’s fear. The founder of the company is none other than the inspiration for Seinfeld‘s ‘Soup Nazi’, a few years back. And even though the franchise started in New Jersey — and the original owner has sold his share and left the country, reportedly — there’s still that specter hanging over the place. Like at any moment, the S’Nazi might show up at an Arby’s or Orange Julius occupying the space and bark, ‘No booth for you‘ and wreck up the joint out of spite.

Either that, or somebody peed on all the sinks and counters while they were packing up shop a few months back. Which would be awfully wrong and juvenile and disgusting.

But it might also explain the aftertaste in the turkey gumbo. Suddenly, I’m sort of glad no one’s taken over that place.

Duck, Duck… Tikka Masala on Wheat?

The remaining food court shops just about run the gamut of cultural culinary offerings. And they hire ‘appropriate’ personnel to man the ladles, grills and registers, to put the consumers’ collective mind at ease.

For instance, there’s a fast food Chinese place right in the middle. And, sure enough, the girls working there are all, so far as I can tell, Asian. Not from China, perhaps, in any meaningful — or even trivial — sense of the word. Maybe most of them were born in the U.S., of Asian parentage. Or they’re Korean. Or they just like to screw with passersby when they thrust toothpicked bits of dubious chicken at them, squealing, ‘Free sampa! Free sampa! Wha, you too good for free sampa?!

I don’t have these answers. Investigating further would involve approaching the Chinese food restaurant, and those ‘free sampa!‘ girls scare the living shit out of me. I cross all the way on the other side of the food court, any time kung pao chicken is on special. Those people are crazy.

And yet. They’re also appropriate to the style of food — arguably, at least. And so it goes for the other fast food facades around the court. The burrito place has a Hispanic guy cooking. The sushi joint has other, more subdued Asians manning the place. The McDonald’s hires pimply-faced young greasys. The coffee shop features uppity old matron types. The Dunkin Donuts employees are all overweight and roundish. All is as it should be, given the food offered in each establishment.

Then there’s Subway, the sandwich shop. Which apparently exclusively employs skinny mustachioed Indian guys. Which is fine — but I don’t see the connection. I’m not sure who I’d expect to see at a sandwich house, particularly, but maybe it’d be a mix of all sorts of people, from all over the world. An International House of Po’ Boys and Grinders, if you will.

But no. Not at this Subway. At this location, you’ll be served by some soft-spoken fuzzy-lipped dude whose family hails from the Indian subcontinent, and you’ll either like it or you’ll buy your overpriced wilted lettuce and soggy bread elsewhere. That’s just how it is. And I don’t know why.

I do know that eating at that Subway always makes me hungry for chicken biryani, though. Or a nice hot curry. Maybe if I could wrangle a couple of those Indian dudes into the old Soup Nazi’s booth, nature would take its course. I’ll work on that.

Two Girls, One Chub

Finally, I offer a tale of temptation, or adaptation and of sausage stromboli. Not necessarily in that order.

I mentioned the McDonald’s. The employees there come and go, like nuggets in a Fryolator, but there’s at least one who’s been there for quite some time. At least a year, and possibly quite a bit longer. I notice her for two reasons — I walk directly by the McD’s on my way to the office (though I never stop there for food; hell, even I have my limits, people). And this girl has an oddly striking set of features. She’s Asian, and she looks like a duck. In much the same way that Russian gymnast Svetlana Khorkina used to look like a duck back in her Olympic days.

(Of course, Khorkina doesn’t look like a duck any more. She’s all grown up, and spends her time modeling and sportscasting and posing next to award statuettes.

So now she looks like an old duck. In a blond wig. With man hands. I can’t say I saw that coming, really.

Or ever need to see it again, thanks all the same.)

The thing about this McDonald’s duck girl is that she’s looked pretty much the same since I first noticed her. No ballooning of the weight as she sucks the fry grease out of the traps at night. No greasening of the face and fingers because she’s mainlining Filet-O-Fishes on her coffee breaks. This girl is in the McDonald’s, but not of the McDonald’s, clearly.

Contrast her to the poor little waif who started working at Sbarro around the corner a while back. I remember seeing her, and thinking, ‘My, what a fragile-looking young thing. I hope she doesn’t collapse under the weight while she’s spooning out meatballs.‘ Tiny little girl. Skinny. Gaunt. Possibly undernourished.

That’s before she scarfed half her weight in pepperoni, apparently.

The ‘little’ girl has been steadily growing over the past few months, and while she’s by no means ‘big‘ now, a transformation is clearly evident. She’s the one horking down slices in the break room, or snurfling lines of spaghetti when there’s no one else looking. I don’t know where she’s from originally, but there are a few Italian pounds hanging on her frame that weren’t there when she signed up for work.

The question is, why? Why does one person succumb to the lure of ever-present food, while the other seemingly resists all temptation? Is it willpower? Rigid self-discipline? Does the McDonald’s have a better set of surveillance cameras?

I can’t say. All I know is that Sbarro girl is either eight and three-quarters months’ pregnant, or she’s been ‘stuffing her crust’ with company vittles. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, exactly. I just don’t want to be waiting in line when she goes too far, has a Veruca Salt moment and explodes marinara sauce all over the food court. That’s nasty and uncalled for. And I’m much more of an alfredo guy, come to think of it.

So there you go. The things you might notice in your local food court, if you just take a moment and look around. Of course, you might notice other things, too — like the soup guys whizzing down their booth, or the Sbarro chick working up a good midday forehead glisten.

And let’s face it. Who’d want to miss that, eh? Bon appetit.

Permalink  |  2 Comments

2 Responses to “Food Court Follies”

  1. Hmm…our very small-town Subway seems to traffic in underweight teen girls with lip rings and badger-striped hair. I scooped one of them up off her kitchen floor bespeckled with whiskey and barf and carted her off in the ambulance for an evening of lively stomach pumping. I tend to keep walking when she’s working, since the vivid memory of her yelling and throwing up at me kind of kills the ‘lets eat a sandwich’ vibe.

  2. Charlie says:

    I dunno, SM.

    ‘Yelling and throwing up’ is usually about how I feel after I’ve eaten a Subway sandwich.

    Might make me nostalgic for a six-inch BMT on wheat, actually.

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