No Free Lunch

My 6th grade year at Eastlawn Elementary School in ’74 and ’75 was formative for my character, at least on one front. The year began with a thrilling revelation for my little sister, Lucinda, and me, along with our Aunt Skyla, who was, incidentally, the same age as us, and with whom we lived in the same home at the corner of 9th and Main in Jeffersonville, Indiana. Also sharing the home, and the one next door, were our mother, our little brother, Rusty (when he visited us, since he lived with his father), our grandmother, a pair of great grandparents, three other teenaged aunts, one teenaged uncle, and let’s not forget Big Rita, who worked as a grocery store clerk and rented a portion of one of the houses as an efficiency apartment. Us three kids, Lucinda, Skyla, and me, were given the juiciest morsel of information: we were going to get our school lunches paid for in advance for the whole school year. We didn’t think to question this delicious news. The three of us brats immediately cranked up the gossip mill around the neighborhood, running to this one and that, letting it slip that providence had shone on us. Every kid on 9th Street knew our good fortune within hours. We were coming up in the world, and wanted everyone to know it. Hmph. We’d turn out yet.

Throughout that school year, I’d proudly whip out my tattered and worn pink lunch card while standing in the cafeteria line, and flash it around among my friends to boast about our family’s having miraculously come up with the funds to pay the entire school year’s lunch bill in advance all at once while the other suckers had the blue lunch tickets and could only afford to buy them a week at a time. They’d roll their eyes at me or punch me in the arm and tell me to shut up. I relished those moments. Hey, you had to get your glory where you could. The little people had to have their tickets punched each day. Oddly, my ticket was never punched. While somewhat jealous of this hole-punching ‘privilege,’ I decided it was not worth the trade off of giving up my paid-up pink card. So, I quickly dismissed my momentary lapse into jealousy to bask again in the glory of my good fortune.

One day, well into the school year, I was sitting in Mrs. Vandergriff’s class, just after a scrumptious school lunch of pizza (with American cheese on top) and two half-pint cartons of ice-cold milk. I loved the school’s cafeteria food. Call me crazy. Or, maybe it was just better back then. Mrs. Vandergriff was a short and stocky, boyish-looking teacher with a thick, brown bob hairdo and short 70s-style smocks and dresses that she comically wore a size or two too tight. She looked like she ought to be a P.E. teacher instead of English or Social Studies, or whatever it was she taught. I once was sent to the principal’s office by my Home Room teacher, Mr. Bland, for passing to a friend a note which was folded up into the shape of a tabletop-football triangle and contained the declaration, among other mindless trivia of the day, that “Mrs. Vandergriff’s skirt sure was short today.” The scrawled blurb was followed by a crudely drawn smiley face.

Mr. Bland, who was aptly named, was no McGruff the Crime Dog, and usually didn’t take notice of minor mischief. He was crinkled, greasy-haired, skinny, and wore a skinny tie and a skinny suit each day, always had dandruff on his shoulders, had a long, ample nose, which he enjoyed picking, and mostly gazed out the window of his stuffy, stale classroom, palm on jaw, pinky-finger in nose (we called him “Booger Bland”), while we worked on whatever project he had given us minimal and vague instructions to complete. He was probably in his 60s, and past the point of effectiveness as a school teacher, had he ever been gifted as such. He spoke a little like Bela Lugosi (the original Dracula). Not with the Hungarian accent, but with the raised eyebrows, back-tilted head, wide eyes, long upper lip, and slow dramatic annunciation of each syllable, that were all signature Lugosi. Standing in the principal’s office that day (his name escapes me), unable to deny the statement about Mrs. Vandergriff’s short skirt, and, after all, being caught red-handed, I settled into a remorseful and downcast look, drawing imaginary circles on the principal’s tile floor with the toe of my frayed red Chuck Taylor Converse sneakers (bought for me by my Aunt Drucilla, herself a teenager) until the questioning was over.

Anyway, back to Mrs. Vandergriff’s class on that fateful day. Still enjoying the memory of my pizza and milk with the occasional loud burp, someone came into our classroom and called Mrs. Vandergriff over to the door. The two conversed for a brief moment, and then the person handed something to Mrs. Vandergriff and left the room. Mrs. Vandergriff turned around, still standing near the door, and curiously raised my prized pink lunch card up in the air. As she did, she said, “Someone left their ‘welfare card’ in the cafeteria. Come and get it.” She emphasized the word “welfare.” Stunned and mortified, I slunked down in my seat and tried to look invisible. I caught the eye of a couple of my close friends, who also registered disbelief on their faces. No one said a word. I looked out of the classroom window in agony, begging for the hellish eternity to pass. My face was getting hot, and I started to sweat an itchy sweat that attacked my face, neck and arms. I had been exposed as a fraud.

Mrs. Vandergriff repeated her plea, but everyone sat motionless. After a few beats, with consternation on her brow, and then eventual recognition, she slipped my cruel, pink, scarlet letter into her smock pocket and walked back to her desk, directing everyone to return to the lesson which had been interrupted by the visitor at her door. Grateful that the immediate pressure had passed, I wanted to become a bug and just crawl right out the open window next to me. Perhaps I could join the circus or the army? I never had to see these people again, if I played it right. I would have to get started as soon as school let out. Where was the circus, anyway, or the army, for that matter? Surely, someone at one of those places could rescue me from this madness. Were they in bike distance? The humiliation of this disclosure was life-threatening for this 12 year old loud mouth. I thought I’d collapse and fall out of my seat dead. I had been duped. I was the real sucker. I resolved right there and then that, no matter what happened, I would never claim that hideous pink lunch card. I should have known, it being pink and all. The rest of the day passed without incident, and after school, no one brought it up to me. I was relieved, and on the walk home from school, tried to forget the whole thing. I was pretty hot at the grown-ups who’d suckered me, but, I figured, complaining to them would only humiliate them, too, so I dropped it.

The next day at school, it didn’t occur to me that lunch was going to be a problem. I had no lunch, and I had no lunch card. I simply couldn’t claim the pink monster, and bringing a sack lunch from home would have made obvious whose lost “welfare” card (emphasis on “welfare”) it had been, and, further, would have exposed me to the grown ups in the family who had colluded against me, albeit with more or less good intentions, I suppose, trying their best to provide for me, while hiding the embarrassing truth from me at the same time. If they found out, they’d make me claim my card. But, by the following day, I’d forgotten all about the previous day’s incident. I didn’t realize the jig was up until I was standing in the cafeteria line with all my friends and, by force of habit, reached into my pocket for my trusty, prepaid-a-whole-year-in-advance, pink lunch ticket. First, I panicked because I thought I’d lost it. Then, I really panicked when I realized I actually had lost it the day before, and was reminded of the circumstances regarding its recovery by the authorities. My panic found new levels of horror as I realized that I was next in line to order.

One of the nice old ladies behind the steam table said something like, “What’ll it be, sonny?” I froze. She said something again, which I now could not hear because I’d gone temporarily deaf. My friend, Bobby Moses, was in line behind me and nudged me forward and out of my stupor. A moment later, I heard him quietly say behind me, with a touch of compassion in his voice, “What are you gonna do, man?” I knew then that he knew what was happening. A jumble of thoughts were racing through my mind at a snail’s pace. I was curling my toes in my sneakers and squinting at the menu board behind the old lady at the steam table, trying to think of something to say. Suddenly, I blurted out, “I’m not hungry.” She looked at me quizzically, head cocked behind her rhinestone encrusted cat-eye glasses, but seemed to accept that.

I remained in line, moving along with the other kids who were either picking up their full trays of fresh, hot, yummy-looking food, or else ordering a couple of cartons of milk to wash down the homemade lunch they’d brought. If I just hung on, I’d get through the line undetected and sit with my friends while they ate. They were kids and would buy any excuse for not eating that I came up with. Tomorrow, I would definitely need a plan. You always needed a plan. I was stupid not to have seen this coming. I got to the table with my friends, and without warning, waves of hunger and cravings came over me as I watched my pals woofing down their lunches. The kids with the blue “sucker” tickets, or jingling cash they’d brought that day, had Salisbury steak with mashed potatoes, brown gravy, green beans, and a roll. I was biting my nails, it looked so good. Bobby saw me looking at his two outrageously gorgeous peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, with the big smushy white bread, lovingly overstuffed by his mother that morning with the utterly delectable peanut butter and jelly that was now oozing out the sides and onto the wax paper in which she’d wrapped them. Without a thought, Bobby picked one up and handed it to me. Then, without a word, picked up the other one, took a giant bite, and slid one of his two cartons of milk over to me with the back of two fingers, while still holding onto the sandwich. I instantly loved this kid for loving me. Gratitude washed over me, humility and gratitude. I dug in, and we all laughed, and kidded, and enjoyed our lunchtime together.

I never claimed that pink monster. I never brought my lunch from home. For the rest of the school year, Bobby repeated the same gesture without ever discussing it with me. We became close friends. He’d invite me over after school sometimes for more peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. His mother knew I was from across the tracks, but she overlooked it. Bobby introduced me to his sisters and his dad. Oh, to have a dad. Once in a while, we’d swim in Bobby’s freezing cold above-ground pool. It was unbearably icy, but we shivered with glee, screaming at the top of our lungs in anticipation of the cold shock, each time we launched ourselves into the air for another canon ball or belly flop. His house was sort of at the edge of the school’s property and backed up to a railroad track that divided the school’s property with the adjacent neighborhood in which Bobby and his family lived. We sometimes put pennies and nickels on the tracks that we hoped to return later and find smashed. I have such good memories of Bobby, and his family, and his home. It seemed so wonderfully normal. I’ve never forgotten his kindness. Bobby Moses is part of the reason that I can’t see people in trouble and ignore them. Young boys in trouble especially break my heart. I lost an inch or two of my innocence that year, but I also learned two profound and enduring lessons.

“Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” – Proverbs 16:18

“A friend loves at all times.” – Proverbs 17:17

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25 comments on “No Free Lunch

  1. Hey Noel. This is Big Rita telling you I thought your story was great. Wish you’d of come and told me at the time. I sure would have helped you out with a sack lunch or some spare change. You were never from the wrong side of the tracks. We were all just poor, and trying to make it all work out. I still love you all. Love Rita

    • Rita, how utterly delightful to hear from you. It must have been more than 30 years. Thank you for your kind comment. I am glad you liked the story. Remember the time that same friend from the story, Bobby Moses, and I went all over the old Quarter Master grounds looking for old discarded whisky and wine bottles and brought them to you because we thought you collected them? Stupid kid, but I meant well. 🙂 Thanks for all you did for us back in the day. With affection, Noel

  2. Noel…. you’re such a wonderful writer, have you thought about a book? i’m loving going back and reading some of your old posts! You are truly blessed in so many ways, and a blessing to us.

  3. Noel, you’ve come a long way from those days. I remember that year. We was all poor. Those were good times, all things considered. Mr. Bland picked me up hitchhiking a few years later. Awkward, to say the least. Good memories, my friend!

    • Stanley, not sure if I replied to this before. You were the most ingenious and entertaining class clown I have ever know. I hope the Lord is blessing you! Noel

  4. Love you brother! You really captured a feeling I felt many times growing up.

  5. Noel… I passed this onto my parents. I have told my wife about “Bland, Bland the booger man,” but I think she thought I was making this up. Please give me a call some time. I would love to hear from you.

    • Bobby, may I still call you Bobby? It is so great to reconnect with you. Thanks for providing the content for this story through your exemplary character. I will call soon! -Noel

    • Bobby … I’m not surprised — you were raised by good people. I lived across the street from y’all, and was a few years older than you, and your parents were always kind to me. Noel, great, heartwarming story. BTW, I am Rusty’s step mother a in-law .. He’s a great guy. 🙂

  6. Awesome Noel. I felt like I was back at Eastlawn again. You are a great writer.

  7. Great post! I enjoyed reading it and found myself reminiscing to my school days.

  8. Thank the Lord for Bobby’s everywhere. 🙂

  9. Noel, I think I was gone from Eastlawn before this happened,but remember you, Lucinda and Skyla dearly, as well as Bobby…from the other side of the tracks. Take care, good writing!

  10. Noel, really enjoyed reading and felt like I was there too! Goes to show we don’t forget as much as we think…you are a wonderful writer!!!

    • Thanks, Cammi, for your encouragement. It’s so nice to hear from some of my old friends from school. You’re very kind to have left a comment. -Noel

  11. Keep writing Noel, this was very good and brought back so many memories.

  12. Loved it!!!! Made me cry happy tears!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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