The Lunchroom Victory: A Memoir

from Crossroads

In the winter of 1956, when I was in Miss MacDonald’s Fifth Grade class at Tuxedo Elementary School,
my mother lost her job at the cotton mill. It had been a bad year for farming, and my dad had no money and no job either. Things got lean and my mother had trouble finding the quarter each day for lunch money for me. Knowing that some students worked for their lunches at the cafeteria, she called Mrs. Barnett who managed the lunchroom and arranged for me to work for my noon meal.

Miss MacDonald, my teacher, was not pleased when I told her I would have to leave class early every day to go to the lunchroom. Lunch period began at 11:30, but I had to leave at 11 to refill sugar jars and salt shakers for each table in the cafeteria. Also I stacked milk in cartons on the counter where students passing with their trays could easily reach them. The three girls who also worked for their lunches did similar tasks. I was the only boy serving in the lunchroom.

The two Anders sisters who worked in the kitchen for Mrs. Barnett, Elise and Estelle, elderly and unmarried women of liberal girth, were very kind to me. They showed me where everything was, and heaped my plate for the lunch I had to eat quickly before the other students arrived. The students came to the cafeteria in shifts, beginning with the first and second grades at exactly 11:30.

My main job was to clean the plates for Estelle, who was the dishwasher. I had to grab the silverware off each plate and toss it into a separate pan, throw the wadded napkins into a trash can, and scrape the plate into a garbage barrel. At first I tried to clean the plates with a spoon, but Estelle, a huge woman with black eyes and heavy brows, told me that was too slow. I had to work fast to keep up with the volume of dishes handed through the window.

“Just use your hand,” she said.

I was reluctant, but the plates heavy with leftovers piled up quickly as students hurried to play before classes started again. I rolled up my sleeves and wiped a dish with the heel of my palm. It worked as if my palm had been designed for the purpose. I wiped off rice and mashed potatoes, half-eaten beets, coleslaw, pinto beans. Some of the food was still warm. I scraped away cornbread and broken crackers. Hardest to clean was gravy or smeared filling from pies. It took skill to wipe jelly or ketchup off the china. The dishes
had to be clean before Estelle would accept them for the wire basket which she lowered in boiling water, then lifted out smoking to be rinsed with a hose and left to drain and dry.

At first I was ashamed to be seen by the other students, scraping their leavings into the barrel. “Hey bud,” they wouldsay through the window as they tossed the soiled plates on the heap. Some said, “How do you like your new job, Robert?” I especially dreaded facing my friends through that cafeteria window, my hands covered with the muck of half-eaten lunches. Some, though warned not to, put chewing gum on their plates. Chewing gum was almost impossible to wipe off a dish, and Estelle made me check the bottom of each plate. Bubble gum was the worst, for it melted in the boiling water and left pink strings stuck to all the dishes in the wire basket.

As I got into the work I began to take pride in cleaning each plate quickly. I got faster and faster. With most I could wipe the plate clean with two sweeps of my hand. In two or three days I learned to clean plates as fast as they were handed through the window. After the second day I did not let a single wad of gum get by to foul the washed dishes.

Estelle and I sweated and laughed as we worked side by side. I cleaned hundreds of plates and handed them to her. I never dropped a single one on the cement floor. I learned to watch out for bits of sweet potato or juice or gravy that would splash onto my shirt and pants.

After all the plates were scraped and the students had left the cafeteria, my work was still not done. While the girls who worked for their lunches swept the cafeteria and mopped, and cleaned all the tables, and gathered up the sugar jars and salt shakers, I had to take the barrel of paper trash out to the wire incinerator behind the school and make sure all the napkins and paper cups and wrappers were burned. I sometimes struck match after match to get wet napkins to kindle.

When I finally brought the barrel and matchbox back into the lunchroom Elise or Estelle would give me a sweet roll or sweet potato they’d saved for me. And then I hurried back to the classroom.

By the time I reached Miss Macdonald’s room I would have been gone about two hours. She glared at me as I entered and told me to take my place. When I sat at my desk, I noticed that my hands, though I’d washed them, still smelled of cinnamon or sweet potato, butter or vanilla, and my pants were spotted with flecks
of dried food. Miss Macdonald frowned at me all afternoon. The other students mostly ignored me, jealous that I’d been able to get away from class so long.

The strangest part of my work in the lunchroom occurred later that winter. I had been working for my lunch about two months when Mrs. Barnett called the four student assistants to a conference. She said the county health department required all employees of restaurants and cafeterias in the county to take a course in safety and sanitation, to be taught each day for two weeks in the city hall.

“I know this sounds silly, but it’s required,” she said.

The classes were to be taught at ten in the morning and four in the afternoon. We students would attend the morning sessions and she and Estelle and Elise would go in the afternoon.

One of the girls, named Mary Gladys, asked how we would get to the city hall eight miles away at ten in the morning. Mrs. Barnett said she had solved that problem. The driver of the bread truck who delivered loaves to the cafeteria each morning at 9:30 had agreed to let us ride in his truck to town. And when the class was over at 11 Mary Gladys’s father, who drove a school bus, would pick us up at the city hall in his car and drive us back to school in time to work for the lunch hour. We would have to eat our own lunches after we finished working each day.

It was thrilling to get to go to town each morning. When I told Miss Macdonald I’d be leaving the classroom each day at 9:30, instead of 11, she frowned even harder than usual.

“Might as well not come to school at all,” she said.

I told her the sanitation classes would last only two weeks. All the other students looked at me with envy as I swaggered out of classroom at 9:30 in the morning.

It was a real adventure to ride in the bread truck every morning to town. We did not get to go to town all that often. There was only one seat in the truck, for the driver, so we students had to stand, holding onto the racks where the bread was stacked in wire boxes. The driver ignored us as he whipped the wide truck around
curves, but warned us to stand back from the window so no one could see us and tell his boss.

The classes at the city hall were an odd affair. They were held in a basement room and taught by a very glib man in a brown suit, who worked for the State Board of Health in Raleigh. We four were the only children there. The rest of the participants were waiters and waitresses, cooks and managers of cafeterias. Everyone smiled at us on the first day and then mostly ignored us.

The instructor welcomed every one, and then said, “Last night I ate at a restaurant in this county and the waitress who served me spat in my food.”

Everybody in the class gasped.

He looked at a smartly dressed woman in the front row and said, “No, Mrs. Clemson, it wasn’t your restaurant.”
There was laughter.

The teacher then explained that the waitress who took his order licked the tip of her finger before turning a page on her check pad. And then she had served his food with the hand she had licked. Her spit may have gotten into his food and on his plate.

He said a hundred people in Charlotte had almost died of poisoning because a baker had made cream puffs without washing his hands. Germs from an infected sore had gotten into the cream puffs.

The instructor told us to always wash our hands and to always wear hair nets or caps when working in a kitchen. He told us not to serve food that had been left out of a refrigerator. He told us he had found rats in bread safes and milk cans, and he’d seen ovens so filthy they turned his stomach.

When the class was over we ran out to the street where Mary Gladys’s mother and dad waited in a long black car. Mary Gladys had eight younger brothers and sisters, and we climbed into the back and held young children on our laps as we rode back to Tuxedo. Mary Gladys’s mom and dad sang gospel songs all the way to school.

Because we were late getting back from town I had to hurry through my chores faster than usual. And I was later still getting back to the classroom. As the sanitation class wore into its second week, Miss Macdonald’s frown got darker and darker as I slunk back into her classroom and other students giggled when Miss MacDonald said, “Welcome back, world traveler.”

When it rained I couldn’t use the incinerator behind the school, but had to burn the paper trash in the school furnace in the basement. The janitor had showed me how to put on the heavy glove and swing open the iron door to reach the blaze. But when I used the glove and tossed paper into the fire I seemed to always get soot on my clothes or on my face.

On the last day of the sanitation class it was raining hard and I was late getting the trash to the basement. I must have brushed my face with the sooty glove, for when I got back to Miss Macdonald’s room and crept to my desk the other students began laughing. I looked around and saw they were all laughing at me.

“Come up here, Robert,” Miss Macdonald said.

I walked up to her desk and she took a tissue from a drawer and wiped my face. When she got the soot off my cheek she turned me around to face the class.

“This is what you get for gallivanting all over the county instead of coming to class,” she said and spanked me hard on the seat of my pants.

The class laughed again, but this time it was a laugh of solidarity. I grinned at them and felt good, because in some way I could not name I had won. I had gallivanted around the county, and I had missed classes. I had irritated Miss Macdonald and I had earned my lunch, and I had been spanked, and I had gotten away with it.