Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Fifth Grade Taco Incident, and How I'm Not Still Bitter About It After All These Years

I was pondering what to write for my weekly update, since I sort of waffled last week and I was working on my new novel this week and didn’t take time to prepare for my Thursday promised blog update. I couldn’t settle on where to go with it, so I did what anyone would do: I went and made some tacos. They were delicious. When I was unpacking the taco “kit” however, I paused for a moment to consider the little cardboard roll in the middle of the first shell. They put this there to keep the inside of the plastic shrink-wrap dry and to keep the first taco shell from collapsing, causing an unstoppable calamitous cascade of broken-shell tragedy.

When I was in middle school (I’m thinking around fifth grade so that would put my age at what, ten? Eleven?), I went to the cafeteria for lunch. To my delight it was taco day. This was cause for no small amount of joy, since taco day came between sometimes weeks and weeks of crap lunches. You know what I’m talking about: the awful pizza with a flotilla of cheese globs adrift on a too-thick piece of soggy bread covered in half-molten canned tomato paste. The sloppy Joes made of meat that smelled ok but had an inordinate amount of gristle or the occasional tooth-grating bone fragment in it. The fish-patties that had a disturbing gelatinous center which was either a product of the fact that they weren’t cooked correctly or they were so poorly produced that once they were breaded the quality control workers washed their hands of them. But taco day was glorious. There was only one way to make tacos, and they were nearly impossible to fuck up. Not impossible. Just nearly impossible. There were a few times that the meat from the stomach-turning “steakums” (a perversion of a Philly cheese steak sandwich) or “ribwiches” (shudder, I won’t go into it, but think mechanically-separated pork) was recycled and stuffed into taco shells, but we won’t talk about that because the memory is too painful.

Well on this particular day I had stood in the painfully long and slow line along with the rest of my class and finally received my taco. You’d only get one, but they were glorious. There was cheese on them (the same bulk shredded mix of cheddar and mozzarella that was used to make the pizzas on pizza day, which was twice a week because they were dirt cheap to make), and they even had little packets of some form of generic taco sauce. It wasn’t luxurious, there were no tomatoes or salsa or sour cream or lettuce, but it beat the living hell out of virtually any other lunch served there. Like I said, it’s nearly impossible to fuck up tacos.

So I sat down and went about the business of putting the sauce on my taco. The smell of over-cooked ground beef wafted to my nostrils and I was transported to a land of drooling lust for the lunch I was about to devour. Again, I had waited for quite a long time if you counted the fact that I left home at 7AM each morning and then was forced to sit through not only five hours of classes with no food or snacks but also a maddening fifteen minute lunch-line wherein I could watch and smell the other students whose lunchtimes were slightly earlier already seated around me eating their lunches.

So I took a bite of this long-waited-for taco and I immediately could tell something wasn’t right. I reluctantly unhinged my jaw from the half-bitten thing and pulled out something from within the meat in the barrel of the taco shell. You guessed it. It was the fucking cardboard roll for the first shell. Not just ignored and accidentally left in the shell, but cooked into the meat, garnished with cheese, and served to me. It sort of disintegrated in my mouth in a way I would revisit a decade or so later the first time I ever tried to smoke a too-old cigar that hadn’t been properly humidified. I pulled it out and raised my hand. A teacher came over and asked me what I needed. I showed them the cardboard roll and asked them what this meant. At the time I had no idea what this cardboard thingie in my food could possibly be. A prize of some sort? A practical joke? The teacher frowned and told me I should take it up to the lunch lady and ask her. Not the cashier, but the lady actually serving the food.

So I did, of course. I wanted to know how and why my particular taco had been snatched from my jaws by this weird intrusive doohickey that was most certainly NOT a taco ingredient. So I took my grumbling belly and the half-chewed cardboard roll up to the lunch counter and waited patiently for several dozen students from the class that was in line to get through the cashier and out so I could get close enough to ask. She looked at me, and I can remember what she looked like but not her expression, and asked what I wanted. I showed her the roll and explained that I had found it in my taco and I was wondering what it was. She took it from me as if I had handed her a turd and scowled at it. After an instant she shrugged and tossed it into the trashcan.

“I don’t know.” She said.

“Can I have another one?” I asked.

She pointed to the empty steel tray under the baking brightness of the warming lamp. It was empty but for a few dry, crispy fragments of taco shell.

“They’re all gone,” she said, matter of factly, yelling a little bit over the sound of scouring sprayers in the back of the kitchen washing dishes. She turned and left me standing there speechless.

She was not sorry.

It was not something I was cognizant of at the time, but I remember this now as one of the first times I realized that the people who were left in charge of us (meaning adolescents in general, when I was one) could really sometimes not give Shit One about us. How could such a heartless creature turn me away on taco day? This wasn’t just some other run-of-the-mill calendar day, this was the day that I suffered through steakums, budget pizza, and grade D-but-edible hamburger in order to finally enjoy. I had earned this goddamned taco and it was an affront to the core of my being to screw me out of it the way they had.

I turned around, dejectedly, and slumped back to my seat, eating whatever canned fruit had come in the little waxed-paper cups and drinking my disappointing half-carton of skim milk (if you had a later lunch period, which it seemed like I always did, all the chocolate and whole milk would be gone). The meat was full of fibers of cooked flimsy cardboard, but I think I might have tried to eat the remaining now-cold shell of the taco before the lunch period was over and we had to move along to whatever was next.

So the whole point of this (there was a point, wasn’t there?) is that I was getting ready to make tacos tonight for my family and I opened the taco kit box and saw the shells with the cardboard roll and like a slap in the face suddenly I was in fifth grade again and sitting dejectedly over my ruined taco. Could there be such a thing as taco remorse? Unresolved taco angst? Because I definitely still felt something there, in the pit of my stomach. Maybe some small part of me pines for the taco that wasn’t to be. But it wasn’t the fact that some careless cafeteria worker had BAKED A CARDBOARD PIECE OF PACKAGING MATERIAL into a child’s food that bothered me. Oh no, I was thinking something else:

That lying bitch, I thought to myself. She had more tacos in there somewhere.

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