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Rant #144
(published July 24, 2003)
Lunch Lady Memoirs
by Leah Stephens

Today, June 6th, 2002 is the first entry in the Lunch Lady memoirs. As I do every day, I wake up at 5:30 am, get dressed and drive to Scuola Vita Nuova which is five minutes away. Vita Nuova or The School of New Life is located in the Bisceglia Italian Cultural Center which is situated in a very poor area. It sits on Independence Avenue which is riddled with prostitutes, crack addicts and other freaks. When I drive to and from work, I avoid looking at most of the people on the street and so far have not run into any trouble. Sometimes, I can't help it and I stare at the prostitutes on the Avenue, and they turn around, see me staring at them, and for a split second , sensing the attention and eye movement, think I am a John, and wave at me, but when realizing I am a woman, their half-wave falls, they turn around and keep walking. And, one time I watched a woman stumble and grab onto a newspaper dispenser and then partially faint. She was high. Sometimes when I am taking out the trash, a hooker will ask me, "Hey, you gotta cigarette?" to which I respond, "No, sorry". The one thing about that neighborhood I don't like: everyone stares at everyone. People don't mind their own business on Independence Avenue, they are looking to get something from anyone who happens to be around. I hate it.

After I go around to the back of the school (the director of the school—Gina Valente—locks the front door every day) I enter the kitchen where I hastily put on my apron and then unfold the chairs in the dining room. Then I set the tables with a napkin and a fork. The dining room isn't dingy nor is it beautiful. On the east wall of the dining room, there is a very long color photograph of various kinds of food: bread, tomatoes, eggs, grains, meat and celery. On the back wall there are black and white photos of Italian women from the 1940's. These Italian women used to cook in the same kitchen in which Ellen and I cook. We use the very same stove they used. It's wearing out and we have to stuff a folded napkin into the door of the stove to keep it closed because the hinges are completely worn-out.

We fired our other co-worker, Michelle, last week because she never showed up for work and never bothered to tell us why she couldn't come in. There is an account of her and her friends in the book, Dead End Kids which was written about the kids from the Northeast neighborhood, many of whom are dead or in jail for drug offenses, robbery or murder. She herself was arrested not too long ago. The story she told me goes as follows: she apparently was pulled over by a cop for speeding. Instead of telling the officer her true identity, she lied and told him that she was her sister. Immediately the cop got her out of the car, handcuffed her and she was arrested. Michelle didn't realize that her sister was wanted for homicide. Michelle is also 7 months pregnant. She couldn't do a lot of the lifting in the kitchen anymore, so she asked Ellen to help her. I helped her sometimes, too. Michelle missed many days of her 8 month career at Vita Nuova. The last total was 16 workdays. She was absent because of the following reasons: feeling sick, court dates and probably laziness. In addition to having to appear in court for lying to an officer, she had to go to court to testify against one of her male "friends". The story she told me was that one night while she was hanging out at this "friend's" house, she got pretty drunk and the next thing she knew, he locked the front door and beat her to a pulp with a baseball bat. She told me that after the beating began, she pretended like it wasn't happening and sort of blacked out. But she called her mom right after it happened and left a horror-stricken message on the machine. She heard this message later and she said it sent chills up her spine because she had blocked out a lot of what happened. I found out later that the guy never showed up for court and was supposedly in Mexico.

Even though Michelle is pregnant, she smokes menthol cigarettes (MENTHOL—can you believe it! The worst kind of cig), routinely gives her boyfriend hair relaxer treatments (which involves lots of exposure to horrible chemicals), uses bleach with bare hands and talks about how much fun she will have drinking and partying after the baby is born. Many months later, I found out that she missed her last check-up with the doctor. When she finally gave birth, the baby was dead. It strangled itself with her umbilical cord. The baby had been dead for ten days inside her belly.

After I set up the dining room, I try to rapidly gulp down some coffee in the hopes that it will wake me up. It usually doesn't work this early in the morning. I drink it anyway. Ellen is frantically preparing breakfast and today she made one of Gina's favorites: Swiss Toast. This dish is comprised of a grilled hot dog bun that is cooked with egg batter. It's grilled on both sides and served with fruit jelly. Most of the kids didn't like it very much today, although some of them wanted seconds.

Later on in the day, Miss Julie's class arrived. I brought them the Mary Poppins tape I promised last week. Then Julie stood up on a chair and began changing the time on the lunchroom clock. She had noticed that it was five minutes slow. Ellen and I stopped her and told her that we had been ordered by Gina to move the clock back five minutes. Julie looked at us dumfounded. We told her that the slowed clock helped keep the kids in the lunchroom until 8:05, so Gina could mark off each child for breakfast. The school gets money for each child who eats breakfast in the dining room.

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