In 1931 the American humor magazine Life (not to be confused with the later photojournalism magazine of the same name) published “The Cafeteria,” an essay that described an inexperienced patron’s befuddlement in composing a meal item by item while being propelled forward by an ever-moving line. (The illustration by W. E. Hill is also from 1931.)
The essay, from which I have selected sentences to shape into a “poem” similar to Charles Green Shaw’s The Bohemian Dinner, was written by John C. Emery. It’s likely that at the time he wrote about his cafeteria experience he was a 27-year old editor with Railway Age, a trade journal located in Chicago. Chicago, it happens, was a city with plenty of cafeterias. In its early stages cafeterias were identified with women while men were notoriously resistant to them.
Turns out Mr. Emery had an interesting biography. As a naval commander during World War II, he was in charge of expediting air cargo. Following the war he founded Emery Air Freight, which began as a freight forwarder that leased space on existing airlines and grew into a major corporation. Alas, I know nothing about his further adventures in eating out, but I doubt he continued to go to cafeterias.
The selection of a knife, a fork and two spoons.
The selection of two pieces of bread and a roll.
The after-thought selection of another roll.
The sudden realization that you have a lot of bread.
The hesitancy to put any of it back, under the eagle eye of a waitress.
The great variety of salads.
The quick selection of one kind.
The immediate regret that you did not take another kind instead.
The inclination to make a change.
The nudge of a tray in the hands of a woman in line behind you.
The decision to move along.
The bowl of soup.
The meat order.
The string beans.
The realization that your tray is getting pretty full …
The decision to forego dessert.
The tempting pies.
The urgent desire for a piece of pie.
The selection of a piece of pie.
The difficulty of finding space for it on your tray.
The check, amounting to $1.32.*
The vast surprise.
The realization for the first time that you have enough food for about three hungry men.
The search for a table.
The unloading of your tray.
The vast array of dishes.
The growing conviction that other patrons are laughing at you.
The discovery that you forgot to take a napkin.
The consumption of every bit of food before you.
The gorged feeling.
The sluggish return to the office.
The surreptitious nap.
© Jan Whitaker, 2012
* Equal to about $18.90 in 2010 dollars, probably about double what he usually paid for lunch.