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Lunch Break


by Ken Mondschein



Where you eat lunch in this city is a matter of class. Lately, I've been going to an old-style luncheonette, owned, like all such places seem to be these days, by Greek immigrants. The place is one of the last of a dining breed: They make a superb egg salad sandwich for a buck less than the $4.50 the yuppie "food bar" charges, and I can get a cup of good New York coffee—and two refills—for about a third of what Starfuck's charges. You have to open the bathroom door by sliding a butter knife they keep on the draining tray between the latch and the frame—the waitress showed me how, and, with this knowledge, I feel initiated into the inner sanctum. The diner is a comfortably blue-collar place, like the neighborhood in Brooklyn where I grew up, filled with guys who read the New York Post back-to-front.

Me, I like to spend my lunch hour at the counter, drinking my three cups of coffee, with a highbrow-type book like Commodify Your Dissent open in front of me. I sit by the grill not just because it's warmer or because I can flirt with the waitress, but because it gives me the best observation post. I'd rather watch the chaos than read. During the lunch rush, the staff moves in efficient patterns of balletic violence, the waitresses squeezing past one another, the busboys joking in Spanglish, the old guy at the grill who barely speaks English, his hands unencumbered by the plastic-bag gloves they wear in the corporate cafeteria, neatly bisecting a corned-beef on rye like an iaido master.

It's not too much different, in a way, than what goes on in my office, twenty-three floors above the street, where people are also always demanding that they be given what they want right now. Rather than isolated from the rest of humanity in climate-controlled little cubicles, though, hunched over plastic-and-glass computer terminals, tearing their hair out over bits of data, the diner staff is actually doing something, making something, giving it to people, running, yelling, arguing. The diner has an animalistic vitality that is wholly alien to the civil, bloodless protocols of my workplace.

If I were to go out on a date with a girl like one of the college-educated, left-leaning types whom I work with, and I told her that I worked as a short-order cook or an auto mechanic or a welder, never mind what my degree is and what languages I speak and what books I read, or this Web site or the book I'm writing: I'd never get a second date. Sure, she might sleep with me, hoping that maybe I'd impart some of my blue-collar machismo on her, but as future boyfriend—or husband-material—forget it. It's a function of class: Working with your hands lacks status.

But I don't feel that way. The more we try to crawl our way up the ladder, the more enslaved we are.


Make me a sammitch and send it to

Posted December 24, 2002 4:18 PM






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