I like to lie to myself that I’m pretty good at wallpapering over my neuroticism despite willingly flooding the Internet with the contents of my mind, but when it comes to matters of lunch the cracks in the plaster split wide open. “Familiarity breeds contempt” is a stock-phrase that couldn’t be more truly applicable. I’m not referring to what’s being eaten, in fact I can plainly tell you I have not deviated from Pret-a-Manger’s Houmous Salad for nigh on two years. I mean to say it’s the employees in these places that can become all too familiar. What I’m looking for in a place is the exact polar opposite of Cheers.
As soon as a staff member recognises me and – confident in its friendly return – nods through the window as I scurry past, I am already thinking of how I can extricate myself from this arranged marriage built solely on a common interest in sandwiches. I consider The Nod to be a relationship deal-breaker because it’s invariably teamed with the concept of The Usual – I don’t want these people to form an opinion on me based entirely on a lack of dietary imagination. I say “these people” having previously been one of the very worst examples of “these people” in my first miserable job in a café, masterfully determining patterns every miserable day. In order to give the grey early morning office-workers some veil of personality, I bitterly assigned them personal codenames based on an item they repeatedly ordered. I would puppeteer them in the soap opera in my mind whilst staring blankly ahead at a plastic pot plant, silently polishing the espresso machine with a tea-towel: Did Soy Latte know that Cherry Danish was in here earlier with Bran Muffin and that in spite of all the talk of gym and the milkless coffee, she – the no good two-timing pastry – had in fact double-danished?
Once a codename was assigned there was no way of getting out of it. Try as she might, poor Cherry Danish was never allowed to order anything but a cherry danish, which perhaps accounts for the purchase of a local gym membership instead. Through the window I’d see Bran Muffin waddling carbohydrately up the street and would place, in readiness, The Usual on a plate. I saw a rejection of The Usual as a personal affront, one which involved the replacement of said Usual back from whence it came, and woe betide the customer who tried it. A change in pattern resulted in a hard reset – I would never remember their order again, and not a flicker of recognition would cross my pokerface if they made a forced attempt at reinstating their old favourite. It is little wonder I was summarily fired and replaced with a borderline-retarded sphere of a woman, who used the café’s distribution connections to order a meat-tray for the raffle at her wedding.
Perhaps you’d think given my history I’d be more sympathetic to staff and their codename game, knowing that aside from wanking freely into the Soup du Jour there is little other joy to be had in waiting tables. This is not the case.
For about six months I believe I was known to the employees in a frequented lunch destination as Aubergine Bagel. I liked the bagel place for its big window and for the fact that their barstools had armrests on them far smaller than the average bottom, meaning you were almost certainly ensured a place at said window barring some sort of group excursion of the terminally ill. Unfortunately, due to the size and general emptiness of the window, the idle staff could literally see me coming from a mile away and had all the time in the world to construct my Usual: a cheesey bagel sliced in twain, topped with houmous, grilled aubergine, lettuce, and tomato. It was spectacularly unspectacular, but I was into it. I was so into it that I never veered off this one bagel for fear of ruining a lunchtime by ordering what might be an inferior choice. And so after three days of this it became My Usual. By the time I got there on the fourth day, I had no choice: they proudly presented it to me on a plate, and even left it at My Seat in the window. The coffee was already brewing.
This continued for six months. Six months of forcing that bagel down my throat, the cold black slick of marinated aubergine skin becoming more of an endurance test every day. Occasionally I would secretly cheat on the bagel place and get a chicken baguette from a deli down the road. The next day I would guiltily return to my faithful wife and she would say, “Where have you been? Have you been on holiday? I didn’t see you yesterday. Were you sick?” and push that aubergine bagel across the counter with a welcome-back-I-hope-you’re-feeling-better smile.
The guilt became too much, the aubergine even more so. I resolved to break it off. I wouldn’t tell them, I would just not go there anymore. I’m a grown adult, I have free will! Who needs a window to stare out of when you’ve got the dark, dank staircase out the back of a comic shop, anyway? Sure I worked just around the corner but I could adapt my route around London – I could take backroads. There are infinite backroads and alleyways in London!
For a year I lived in hiding. Occasionally my heart would pound as the bus took an unexpected detour past the window, empty as usual, and I would see the premature bald spot of the bagel man as his head hung sullenly behind the till. My guilt hung just as heavy.
A friend came to meet me one day at work. When I asked her what she fancied, lunch-wise, I expected one of three answers – Pizza Express, Wagamama, or I-Don’t-Know-What-Do-You-Fancy to which I would reply with one of the former two. What she actually said was: “Man. I could really go a bagel.”
A funeral dirge played in my mind as we shuffled across the street. I could see him through the window, marginally more bald than when I last saw him. He made no moves toward a bagel of any kind. He stood perfectly still. We opened the door.
“Hi!” I said, sweaty-palmed and excessively jubilant.
“Hello,” came his reply, and he offered no other words beyond it.
“Um,” I began, and in an effort to make good and forget the sordid details of my unfaithful past, I said, “So can I get uh, a cheesey bagel with grilled aubergi—“
“WE DON’T MAKE THE AUBERGINE BAGEL ANYMORE.”
My friend and I blinked at him over the sneeze-guard. He explained that they continued to make the grilled aubergine despite the fact that only one customer wanted it simply because that one customer was so faithful and regular that not a bit of it went to waste. And then that customer stopped coming. I pictured bins overflowing; an accountant, crying.
In my panic I ordered something else, something terrible – I had been right all along about those other menu options! – I even had the gall to hand over my loyalty card, two stamps away from a free bagel yet untouched for a year. He hole-punched it, slowly, looking not at the card but straight at me. Shaking, I took it from his hairy fist and placed it back in my wallet.
I found that card today, tattered and more pulp than paper. It’s one stamp away from a free bagel. But they don’t do the aubergine anymore. So, y’know.