Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Thursday, February 5, 2009

For Cafeteria Workers















According to the OED online, "cafeteria" used to, more or less, refer simply to a coffee house:

1839 J. L. STEPHENS Trav. Russian & Turkish Emp. I. 157 Every third shop, almost, being a cafteria [sic] where a parcel of huge turbanded fellows were at their daily labours of smoking pipes and drinking coffee. 1894 Lakeside Directory Chicago 2188 Cafetiria Catering Co. 45 Lake. 1895 Ibid. 2231 ‘Cafetiria’, 46 Lake, 80 Adams, 108 Quincy and 93 Vanburen. 1896 Chicago Tribune 28 June 4/1 Gerbach used to be a waiter in a West Side restaurant subsequent to his employment by the cafeteria company.

I especially like the reportage concerning one "Gerbach." I mean, the quotation sounds matter-of-fact, but there also seems to be a menacing undertone.

At any rate, "cafeteria" now seems to refer to any large semi-self-serve place to get food, often connected to institutions like hospitals or universities. Of course, the "self-serve" aspect is mostly illusory. A lot of people put in a lot of work to get that food to where you serve it to yourself, but not really; mainly you just carry that tray or fill that glass. I worked in a cafeteria once, almost entirely behind the scenes as a dish-room worker, po-washer, and grill-cleaner, but also as a "runner" tasked with filling those odd milk-dispensers and replacing silverware, etc.


For Cafeteria Workers


The task of cafeterias is to feed large
numbers of people quickly. They are
not so different, then, from farms and
ranches, except the clientele is often
less polite than cattle, horses, and pigs.
*
Back there in the kitchen, they get it
done, the workers: Soup for thousands,
noodles for hundreds, protein and starch--
all timed to be there when the herd arrives
with bad moods and lots of opinions.
*
The dishroom is a symphony of clash,
a humidity of food-smell, steam, and sweat,
a silver cacaphony. The conveyor-belt's
the boss. Each tray brings a catastrophe.
*
The automatic dishwasher--a tunnel of water
and soap--disgorges disinfected implements
eaters will soon stuff in their mouths again.
The pot-washer is a lonely figure. Once I was
he. Heaps of stainless steel arise, food welded
to metal, grease smeared on every plane. Alone,
you work your way through the mountain 'til
nothing's left but you, your soaked shirt, and
clocking-out. Out front, the servers smile.
*
They remember names and endure whiners
and would-be gourmands. Runners fill machines
that distribute fizz and syrup. Cashiers stand on
weary feet and process armies packing trays,
hunger, haste, and attitude. Bless the cafeteria
workers, who are better than we deserve.
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Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom
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