I fell in love for the first time in 1974. I was barely ten and didn’t know squat about sex, so I’m sure it was platonic love or puppy love or some other clumsy form of the affection, but nonetheless it was love. And leave it to me to fall in love with someone who couldn’t possibly return my affections. I had fallen head over heels for Gilligan. Not the show. The character.
I’d come to realize as an adult that I’m attracted to the skinny, awkward, boyish type, so in retrospect it makes perfect sense. At the time, it didn’t. I just knew then that as soon as Bob Barker’s show Truth or Consequences was over at 6:30 every night, I would get to see Gilligan. My favorite scenes were at night when he’d crawl into his hammock and have some bizarre dream. I just wanted to crawl in there with him and spoon until morning when I’d sneak away before the skipper woke up.
I began drawing pictures of him in my Trapper Keeper and scratching stuff in the margins like BB + G. I never knew his last name. Eventually, I just started writing B+ G to keep It simple. I knew I was smitten when one Saturday afternoon, I took my dad’s eight-track of Neil Diamond out to his truck, popped it in the tape deck, and sang along to Song Sung Blue, which I dedicated to my love.
Back then I had the attention span of a gnat (some today would call it ADD), so by the end of summer, I was completely over my lovable idiot and ready for something new. I still felt a void in my life, so at the start of fifth grade that fall I took a job. I thought it would clear my head and give me a fresh new start. I got hired to work in the cafeteria at Madison Elementary School.
I didn’t take the job because I wanted to work. I took the job because I was poor. I wasn’t paid with money, but that was ok because the pay was something far more valuable: Food. My parents were poor when I was a kid, and with four of us, they couldn’t afford to sign us up for hot lunches. But we weren’t poor enough to qualify for free lunches, so we were stuck taking our own. I was in fifth grade and already aware that I was living in a class system. And within the class of you’re-so-poor-you-have-to-pack-you-own-lunch, I was also at the bottom. Most kids who brought their own lunches had lunch boxes. GI Joe, Barbie, Bugs Bunny, and each one came with a matching thermos. I brought my lunch in a brown paper sack.
Every morning when I got up for school, there’d be four of them lined up on the counter, our names neatly printed on them in black marker. It couldn’t get much more humiliating than that. Well, until you had to open the bag and take out the contents in front of the other kids at lunch time. Every one of my lunches up to that point was a variation on the same sad theme: A sandwich, a fruit, and some cookies. The staples were bologna sandwiches, bananas, and windmill cookies.
I could live with cheap bologna sandwiches instead of ham or even pickle loaf that the other kids brought, but those windmill cookies with slivered almonds pressed into them were the powdered welfare eggs of cookies that no kid would ever choose on their own. There was a segment every week on the Bozo the Clown show called Bozo’s Bucket Bonanza, where kids would stand in front of a row of six buckets and drop ping pong balls into them one at a time. Every time you got the ball in the bucket you won a prize. Believe it or not some kids were so uncoordinated they couldn’t even get a ball in the first bucket. And then Bozo, trying to make them feel less stupid than they probably were, would say, “Hey, you’re an almost winner, and for that, you get this free package of Archway Windmill Cookies!”
So working in the cafeteria got me free access to all the food I could eat. It also put me face to face with a woman that I would come to love as much as my own grandmother. Mrs. Rice, the head of the kitchen, ran a tight ship. She was the Maitre d' of the school cafeteria. Stay out of her way and do the things she asked, and all was peaceful. But screw up even once and you could find yourself back in the lunch line, or worse, lugging your own brown paper sack of crappy food to school.
I got on her good side as soon as I could. I sprayed every crumb off the trays, I sorted the silverware with precision accuracy, and I always put things back in the their place. The only time she came unglued at me and went off like a crazy lady was when I rinsed the pots and pans in cold water. Apparently that leaves spots on the pots, and Mr. Rice did not like spots on her pots. The way she hollered and jabbed her finger at me made me want to turn on my heels and flee. Instead, I went to my happy place and thought about hamburger gravy over mashed potatoes until the fury had passed. A few minutes after I corrected my mistake, she was right there to hug me and tell me what a good boy I was. Looking back, I was probably in my first abusive relationship, but I didn’t care. I loved her.
Eventually I worked up to assistant server, which was the crème de la crème of the school cafeteria. You got to see every kid coming through the lunch line, and if someone had done you wrong that day, you could short change them on their fruit cocktail. It was a form of power that garnered a certain respect from the other kids. One of the kids who came through the lunch line every day was a girl named Debbie. I looked forward to seeing her every day because she always had a smile and always seemed to be quietly happy. And because she always had snacks.
Snacks, like lunch boxes and hot lunch tickets, represented another sort of status symbol. Kids were allowed to bring a snack to school and eat it during afternoon recess. Something to hold us over till school was out for the day. I rarely brought snack because, beg as I did, my mom couldn’t afford the mini variety pack of potato chips or candy bars or Crunch N Munch. By afternoon recess, I was starving. But Debbie brought snack every day. So I made my move.
I sucked up to her and showed a great deal of personal interest in her so she would share her snack with me. She thought I was funny and loved when I paid attention to her. With little effort, I was able to get a portion of her snack almost every day.
The routine became predictable. I’d see her by the coat rack in the hall right after the recess bell rang, fishing around in her bag for her Fiddle Faddle, and then I’d move in. My powers of persuasion and her inability to say “No” were a perfect combination. After awhile, I got more bold, and I’d weasel more and more of the snack from her, until eventually I made an all out push to commandeer all of the snack for myself.
My mom worked in a World War II era garment factory and made all my clothes with scraps of material she brought home at the end of the day. The shirts she made me were outrageous even for the fashion crazy 70s. So as I was beating down this poor helpless girl, I must have looked like a flamboyant snack pimp, a ten year old boy wearing a horizontal striped, six colored turtle neck (which made me look thin, by the way) and taking the goods away from his baby.
I worked in the cafeteria for the rest of my time at Madison Elementary. And when I wasn’t busy pilfering Debbie’s afternoon sustenance, short changing my enemies of their lunch food, or wiping the spots off the pots and pans, I was learning how to be a good cook from my beloved Mrs. Rice. After I finished my B.A. at Alma College in the mid 80s, I moved back to my home town, got a job at the salt factory, and rented my first apartment. It was one of six apartments in the building, a downstairs unit, with an upstairs apartment right above me. On the day I moved in, I noticed an old lady sitting on her upstairs porch drinking a cup of coffee. As I got close enough to say hello, I realized it was Mrs. Rice.
She had lived in the apartment ever since her husband died, and at 77 years old, she was long retired and enjoying the slow pace of life that seemed pleasing to her. We often sat together drinking coffee and reminiscing about our time at Madison Elementary. She taught me a great deal about how to get around in a kitchen, but she also instilled a set of values in me that I have embraced my whole life. She passed away several years ago, but every time I go back home, I make it a point to drive by my old elementary school and share a story or two with whoever’s with me about the woman who helped shape my culinary life.