School Lunch Is Killing Me 

by

04/10/2022

Neighborhood: Upper East Side

“Lefty, what did you do with the hard boiled egg?” I worked the words out of the side of my mouth. I was Jimmy Cagney in “White Heat” and I wanted to take this place apart. 

“It’s in my pocket, and what’s with the Lefty crap?” John said.

“Lefty, we’ll know more in a few minutes. Are you sure the egg is safe?”

“Yes, you idiot. It’s safe; it’s tucked away in a Kleenex,” John snapped.

Our squawking drew Sister Adrienne’s attention as the lunch hour was winding down in St. Stephen of Hungary on East 82nd Street in April 1964. The nuns didn’t allow talking. The more you talked the longer it took you to finish your food. 

“John and Thomas, put a lid on it. You have two minutes, two minutes, misters, to finish your food. Do you hear me?”

“Yes, sister.”

John, facing me across the table mouthed a silent, “You’re dead, stupid.”

I made a face back at him. I thought that the nun was behind me. I was wrong.

“Young man, did you make a face at me?

“No.”

“Do you think this is a joke?”

“No, no, no, sister, I have allergies and sometimes I scratch the inside of my nose by moving my face around. This is good in case it itches when my hands aren’t free.”

Sister Adrienne let out a long exhale that caved her chest in.

“Well you both can sit there till the ice skating rink is done in Hell. There are poor children starving in China. You both dwell on that fact.”

John gave me a nasty look. I was convinced part of a nun’s final exam involved making the case to the Mother Superior that there was a connection between kids finishing what was left on their plates and fewer kids starving in the world.

John had put the egg in his pocket because he had no intention of eating it, and because our prison guard wouldn’t let him leave the basement cafeteria until his tray was cleared of all food. 

Daydreaming about getting news that Mom was dead was my vengeance for her forcing me to eat this crummy school lunch. Mom had done the math after first grade. She was losing two hours of her day picking me up, taking me home and feeding me, then returning me to school. At the start of the second grade I was put in the school’s lunch program, or as the older kids called it the “Pain Meal Plan.” You could not bring your own lunch to school. The Parish was greedy for profit and knew that the only way to make money out of the school’s lunch program was to up its enrollment. They paid an old lady called “Ma” to cook for 150 kids. Her specialties: boiling green meat brown and adding spoiled vegetables into the soup.

While John settled his egg in his pants pocket, I rearranged the cold white beans on my plate for the sixth time. The smiley face was gone. The beans were now a crucifix. Sister Adrienne could take this a few ways. My hope was that she’d appreciate that I was thinking about our Lord. She went another way and identified my bean work as further proof of my defiance. She loved that word.

“Thomas, your defiance will lead you to ruin. Not only will you not get out of here to play with the other kids, but if you don’t finish the beans and the half of a sandwich still on your plate, you will stay after school as well.”

Sister Adrienne’s foot kept time throughout her speech. Watching her shoe tap reminded me of a hoe down.

“Well swing your partner…” I pictured her in a straw hat, overalls, and checkered shirt with a red kerchief, telling us to dosi-doe…then I remembered the pickle I was in. I moaned, picturing the other fourth graders playing box ball in front of the school.

“Sister, I’m not feeling well. This is the best I can do.”

“Try harder,”

“I’m feeling weak.”

“Bite it. Chew it. You’ll get your strength back.”

“This is not meat.”

John whispered, “I am Spartacus.”

Watching John enjoy the nun’s and my back and forth, I was positive he couldn’t have been happier if he’d just won a million dollars. I pictured him sitting on a pile of money. 

The sandwich, a plug of greenish-brown ham, was thick enough to sit in front of Snoopy’s doghouse as a doormat. It curled on the edges and was bookended by stale wheat bread and a globby spread of margarine. No mayo, no mustard, just margarine. It was sickening. I gave up salvaging any of the remaining lunchtime but I had no intention on staying after school. It was 70 degrees and sunny. The park was screaming for me to get over there as soon as I could.

St. Stephens, 1st grade, 1962

Back at the gulag, John actually liked white beans and thick chunks of ham. He made sure he showed me every half-chewed bite in his mouth. He’d drop his jaw all the way down like a ventriloquist’s dummy in a state of awe, leaving his hangar open and giving me a bird’s eye view. His eyes would stay on the nun and follow her around, and only when she was looking at him would his mouth close shut. After his final satisfying swallow, with an audible “aaahhh,” he was ready to make his break. He gave me a last smile and made a head motion towards his empty plate, wiggled his eyebrows and bid me farewell.

“See ’ya, numb nuts.”

John held his empty red tray up in presentation to the nun. I wanted to kick him in the ass. While the sister looked John over, I slipped a handful of white beans into my pocket and rushed back to my fork. I felt the cold beans gook up against my leg, but I’d deal with that later.

With John gone, it was only Sister Adrienne and me. She was ready to give me her full attention. 

Looking at my plate, she said, “Well, you’ve made some progress.”

I smiled sensing something behind the stone eyes. 

“Yes sister, I’ve done all I can.” I said with a pathetic smile trying to look like Dondi, the Italian orphan in the comic strip.

“Can I go now?”

A glint of kindness muscled its way round her iron mask.

“You can leave the rest of the beans but you have to finish the sandwich.”

Well, she might have well as told me, “You don’t have to jump off the building, but I’m still setting you on fire.”

I pushed the beans aside, mashing them for good luck, and centered the sandwich. I wanted to get a good look at it. I figured centering it in the middle of the plate might make it look smaller. No luck. Maybe if I imagined it was something else…I mean really, really, really imagined it was, say, a boiled hot dog, American cheese or liverwurst. Yes, liverwurst, that’s meat right? Then maybe I could eat it. But it was hopeless. The scary smell coming from in between the bread slices closed off any chance I was going to trick myself.

I stared down at the thing and tried to clear my mind. I was ready to wait till the Pope had a baby. I had my guns on. Sister Adrienne put on her holster. The streets had cleared and the bank and the barber pulled down their window shades. The clock in the steeple said twenty to one. The standoff began.

At one o’clock we’d be due on line in front of the school getting ready to return to the classrooms. I had twenty minutes before I went into the penalty situation – staying after school. There was no more conversation. We both took turns looking at each other, looking at the clock, looking at the sandwich, and looking at our feet. I kept thinking she wanted to pick her nose but wouldn’t do it in front of me. I guess that’s because my nose needed picking and I wasn’t going to do it in front of her either. Did you know that the second hand on a clock doesn’t just spin around without stopping? No, it stops each second then with little jerks does it again fifty nine more times each minute. I wondered if my turtles, Joe and Lenny, missed me when I was at school. Little nuggets like that kept me going until loud shoes smacking the wood floor interrupted my daydreaming. I looked up and saw Father Edward.

“Excuse me, Sister Adrienne, I thought lunch was over.”

“It should be.”

“Sister, I can come back a little later.”

“No Father Edward, please take care of your business.”

“No that’s okay, thank you.” The priest left.

Sister’s eyes followed the priest’s shadow long after he left the room. She liked the priest. Everyone in the school knew that. Father Edward had been a Marine chaplain and he still did his exercises. Sister got all jelly-legged when he was around. Playing Olive Oyl to Father Edward’s Popeye, I thought of balling the sandwich and putting it in my pocket. I decided against it. Sister Adrienne would probably pat me down on my way out. When she wasn’t looking, I tried sticking the sandwich inside my sock but the elastic band was too tight. 

Then one word pulled the string attached to the light bulb in my brain, “Margarine.” There was enough of the stuff on the bread to stucco a wall. I slipped the two sandwich pieces apart and pressed the wet sides firmly to the bottom of the table. As Sister Adrienne turned back toward me, I chewed on the imaginary wad of pig in my mouth. I faked a swallow and got up to show the nun my tray, though it really wasn’t necessary at that point. And yes, she patted me down on my way out while looking around me to see if she missed something. As I left the lunchroom, her mumbling behind me sounded like an old car trying to turn over on a cold morning. 

I headed straight for the boy’s room to dump the beans. They came out of my pocket in broken parts. I threw them into the toilet bowl on top of what remained of John’s flushed egg. I owed him one, and would plot my revenge later. My Timex watch said one minute past one. School lunch was killing me.

***

Thomas R. Pryor’s work has appeared in The New York Times, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, A Prairie Home Companion, New York Press, Underground Voices Magazine, Opium Magazine Online, Our Town, The West Side Spirit and Ducts. His short stories are published in Thomas Beller’s, “Lost and Found: Stories from New York,” Larry Canale’s, “Mickey Mantle – Memories and Memorabilia,” and Three Rooms Press, “Have A NYC 2.” His memoir, “I Hate the Dallas Cowboys – tales of a scrappy New York boyhood,” was published October 2014 (YBK Publishers).

His blog “Yorkville: Stoops to Nuts,” was chosen by The New York Times for their Blog Roll and his weekly radio show was featured on the Centanni Broadcasting Network. His newspaper column ran in Our Town and The West Side Spirit. Thomas appeared on PBS’s TV series: “Baseball: A New York Love Story,” NBC’s “New York Nonstop,” television show and radio’s “This American Life.”

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§ 9 Responses to “School Lunch Is Killing Me ”

  • Joseph Samuels says:

    Great story. I can still smell the stomach turning aroma of the cafeteria. The slabs of thick bologna and salami on white bread. I went to Saint Monica’s, our lovely Nuns would threaten us with a transfer to Saint Stephen’s. The Nuns would say Saint Stephen’s Nuns washed your mouth out with soap. Our Nuns only verbally abused us, until Sister Marie Scheils lined all the boys up in my class and gave us all two good slaps on the face.

  • Jeff Loeb says:

    Great, great tale, Thomas. Loved it all the way. Reminded me of my own nun confrontations, especially fifth grade. I think back with fondness decades later over my many losing bouts with Sister Mary Flagellata, as I came to call her later on. Thanks so much for the memory goad. Jeff Loeb

  • thomas says:

    Thank you, Jeff. Love it!
    The ultimate threat: transfer to St. Stephen’s.
    The girls in St. Monica’s could beat up the St. Stephen’s boys. You would enjoyed the safe ride. Nuns are another story. The girls in OLGC could beat up our fathers.

    I have a photo of my fourth grade class picture taken in April 1964, the month the story happened. Check it out on my blog.

    yorkvillestoopstonuts.blogspot.com

    be well, Tommy

  • thomas says:

    Joseph, thank you! Yes, as you went from third floor to second floor on the stairway at St. Stephen’s you began smelling the rotten celery in the mysterious soup that we called “vomit with cheap vegetables.”
    Regarding our nuns, my head involuntarily smacked the blackboard a few times over the years. Only time I was glad I got a short crewcut, when the nun tried to pull my hair but came out with nothing.
    be well, Tommy

    yorkvillestoopstonuts.blogspot.com

  • Otto Barz says:

    Us public schoolers ate no better, but less of it, as no one gave a rat’s ass. Indeed, that was one of my favorites! No, wait, anyone remember Taylor ham?

  • Al Hauser says:

    To Tommy and Joe S, back in the 50’s they made us eat a turnip, parsnips and beet concoctions, evil food. Yes, nuns At St. Stephen’s had a reputation, I can vouch for that

  • Thomas Pryor says:

    Thank you, Al & Otto, what a weird thing it was, getting steadily hungry through the school morning and see the mystery meat pop in your head like a car accident.

    The smells from the kitchen coming up the stairs as we descended to our miserable meal. Made you tear.

  • stephen fisher says:

    As usual a brilliant read. Feel as if i was there.

    Have know Tommy as a friend on social media for over 10 years now and always look forward to new work. Thanks for the chuckles Tommy!

  • Thank you, Stephen, for your kind words on the story. I hope all is well across the pond, Sir, take care, Tommy

§ Leave a Reply

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