At twelve o’clock the bell rings and we all pour out of our classrooms and arrange ourselves, like corn still on the ear, at long wood tables in the small lunch yard to eat. As usual, I try to sit at a table as far away from my classmates as I can get, on a bench next to someone I don’t know, someone in one of the upper grades, a sixth grader, if possible. Then I open my brown paper bag and look inside at what Mama has made me for lunch: today it’s a margarine sandwich, with a little bit of sugar sprinkled on it, wrapped in waxed paper. I take it out, and then shake the bag to make sure there isn’t something I’ve missed. There isn’t. There never is, and I wonder, again, why I continue to think there might be.
I look around and take note of what most of the other kids around me are eating: bologna and cheese sandwiches, or tuna, or salami, generally with a little bag of potato or corn chips. I even see one kid a couple of tables over eating cold spaghetti with meat sauce from a plastic bowl. God, I think, will you look at that? The bright smells of fresh apples and bananas, oranges, grapes, peaches and raisins, hang in the air. In a few minutes, other delicious smells will be added: Hostess Twinkies and fruit pies, Planters peanuts, homemade cakes and cookies, slices of apple or berry pie. I watch and smell. Something tightens in my stomach, but it’s not just from being hungry.
More than half of everything I see goes into the trash cans spaced every few feet along the lunch yard perimeter fence. A lot of these kids don’t want to eat. They can’t wait to run over to the playground to start their games of four-square or hopscotch, or to the dirt field to play team ball or sock ball or grab-ass. I watch plump bologna sandwiches—with hardly a bite taken from them—chucked into the cans. Half-peeled oranges and bananas, as if the effort to finish peeling them was just too much to deal with. Some kids just get up and walk away, leaving their lunches barely touched on the wooden tables, and the lunch monitor has to come around and gather it all up and toss it into the garbage.
Most of the time I have to wait until the fenced lunch yard is close to empty, late in the lunch hour, before I can finally get up the nerve to reach into the cans. Until then, I snake my way to a far corner of the yard and sit next to a can, pretending to be absorbed with my own lunch or a book I’ve brought with me. But I’m always watching for my opportunity. When I think it’s safe, I’ll reach in and take out a sandwich that looks particularly good, not too dirty or slobbered on. Look, look around; check to see if anyone is watching me. If I think I’ve been spotted, I’ll regard the sandwich as if there’s something very interesting or curious about it, and then drop it back into the can with a great, disgusted flourish. Most of the time, though, no one notices—or if they do, they don’t care enough to tell anyone—and I can keep what I find. From that same can I can usually get just about anything else I want, too: chips, cookies or cake, maybe even a carton of milk still half full. Then I can move to one of the tables and eat like everyone else.
Today, I don’t have to wait long at all: there is a commotion on the distant playground; someone begins yelling “Fight! Fight!” and before I know it, the lunch yard has begun emptying as if someone has pulled a giant plug and everyone’s being sucked out through some sort of drain. I stand on the bench so I can get a good look at what’s going on. Two boys big enough to be sixth graders are over on the dirt field, pounding each other with fists, pulling hair, ripping clothes. Like flies drawn to a fresh pile of dog-shit, the other kids rush to form a circle around them, and it’s all the yard monitors can do to wade their way through the seething sea of kids to where the bloodletting is going on and put a stop to it.
I am virtually alone in the lunch yard. All around me are just-opened sandwiches and chips, fruit, more desserts than I can count. It would be easy to grab something close by and hustle it to the other side of the yard, but I’m not that brave: someone, somewhere, will see me, I know, and pretty soon a big sixth-grader is going to be gouging me in the eyes. No, much safer is the tuna sandwich and Fritos I watched being tossed five minutes before the excitement on the playground began. I see it there at the bottom of the can, but it’s early enough in the lunch hour that the can is still fairly empty, and I have to almost climb inside to retrieve it. But by the time the kids start straggling back into the lunch yard to finish their own lunches, I’ve got the sandwich and the unopened bag of Fritos and a big fat orange set before me on the table, and already I’m feeling good.
When I’m done I take the margarine and sugar sandwich Mama made me and dump it into the can. Then I skip off to the playground, looking for a game of team ball.