Tuesday, September 6, 2011

New Century Wholesome Cooking Company

“Here we are,” a man’s voice says, “two old friends sharing a meal.”
I look up from my sandwich, curious to see what my fellow diners are up to, but there are no couples at any of the tables. There is an old man, though, just to my right, hunched over a small white plate, smearing faux-butter onto a hard roll.
He makes eye contact. I look away, concentrating on my BLT. It’s made without bacon. They use some sort of meat-substitute that tastes like rubber. The “B” stands for “better-for-you-this-way.” 

I think about how much I hate the New Century Wholesome Cooking Company, and how I’d never have come here in the first place if they didn’t have such a clean bathroom. I think about the aqua and peach tiles on the bathroom floor and the fascinating little pattern they make, where sometimes the aqua is in the center of the star and sometimes the peach, depending on the way you tilt your head, or blink.
I figure it must be safe by now. I look up again, but I figured wrong. The butter and roll guy is still looking at me.
“Two friends,” he says again, “sharing a sweet repast,” and he lifts the roll in my direction, like he’s making a toast.
I’m tempted to give him the Robert Di Nero line from “Taxi Driver,” only I know he’s talking to me, there is no one else he could be talking to. 
“I don’t think so,” I tell him, and my tone could be a lot nicer. 
“But we could be friends,” he says, and he smiles, not too big, but big enough. He is not in possession of all of his teeth. Not by a long shot. 
I can find no distraction in my no-BLT. If I had chicken salad, it would be okay. What I wouldn’t give for a chicken salad on white bread, lots of mayo, hold the mustard. Plenty of distraction there. 

But the no-BLT, snuggled in its 7-grain wrapper, bean sprouts up the wazoo, fake mayo, anemic tomato, holds absolutely no escape for me.
I shake my head at the old man, but I don’t say anything mean that I’d be ashamed to have my mother overhear — my mother whose lifetime motto has been “make nice.”
“I’m a lot like you,” he tells me, “I don’t always trust people either.”
What is this, analysis hour?
“I’m not a scary person,” he goes on, “and, I don’t like sex.” 
At least that’s what it sounds like. He’s chewing on a piece of roll, it’s hard to be certain. Maybe he doesn’t like the number six; or sets. Sets of what? Why don’t I just leave? 

How could I have gone out for lunch without a book? The New Century Wholesome Cooking Company does not provide People magazine for its customers’ reading pleasure. 

My no-BLT, what’s left of it, is getting cold. It is now more repulsive than ever.
He swallows. I wait.
“The last time I had sex,” he says, “Mickey Mantle was playing in the World Series.”
He’s definitely talking about sex . 
“That was a long time ago,” he adds, “but I don’t miss it. I don’t like what I see these days, people having sex wherever you look —  on bicycles, in trees —  it’s not hygienic.”
Oh boy, sex in trees. What am I doing here?
“But not me,” he says, “I don’t have sex in trees or anyplace else. So we could be friends. We could just talk. I’m a good talker.”
I consider, for one insane moment, telling him my theory about how a person can only have a maximum of eight friends at a time, after that there’s just not enough self to go around. 

I could say “Sorry, I’d like to be your friend — go for walks, eat rolls, stay out of trees — but I’m all booked up. Eight friends: I’ve got them. No room for you.” 
I don’t say this. Of course I don’t say this. It’s a moronic theory. I could have 100 friends. I could have a zillion. Didn’t I vow, just last week, to try to live more like Mr. Rogers lived? Mr. Rogers would never turn his back on a new friend. He’d say “welcome to the neighborhood, neighbor.”

I am not Mr. Rogers. I am not going to take this old geezer home with me and feed him some solid food. He looks like he could use more than a roll and a skinny pat of fake butter. He looks like he could use a nice bowl of something hot and hearty. Soup, maybe. But I don’t cook. I am not the friend he’s looking for.
“My name’s Joe,” he says. He smiles at me again. It’s really not such a bad smile. I’m already getting used to the gaps. “My friends call me Uncle Joe,” he says, “but you don’t have to if you don’t want to, just do it if you feel like it.”
“That’s okay,” I say, and I don’t know what I mean by that. I feel like I’m going to cry. 

I don’t want to cry into my lousy no-BLT. I don’t want to cry in the New Century Wholesome Cooking Company, where my cousin’s ex-lover is the dishwasher, and my best friend’s roommate's aunt is a waitress. Where I should never ever have come, except they really do have the best bathroom in town. 
“Joe,” I tell him, pushing myself away from the little round table, standing up, swinging the strap of my bag over my shoulder, “Joe, I gotta go now.”
He pops another piece of roll into his mouth. “It has been illuminating, my dear,” he says, between bites, “positively illuminating. Most refreshing conversation I’ve had all week.” 

He swallows. He smiles. 

“You’re a good person,” he tells me, “you are pure good. Now go out there and make somebody else happy, just like you did for me.”