Break time at the oil refinery more often than not, involves a walk across the parking lot, to the edge of the barbed wire fence, to get in the line with everybody else to buy a crappy sandwich, slice of pizza, or other assorted mystery stew from the back of the steaming, gleaming—shining in the sun even if there is no sun to be seen—silver lunch truck.
Carlos runs the lunch truck. He’s the only one in street clothes. Always in sweaters or button up shirts. Dress pants. Shiny shoes. Everyone else is lined up in fuel soaked work boots, white hard hats covered in thick grime, we’re all wearing orange or navy blue fire retardant coveralls over blue jeans and t-shirts we should have thrown out five years ago.
In the morning Carlos picks up the food from a catering service in the Ironbound, Newark, NJ. He serves the food to order, assembling breakfast sandwiches from piles of precooked bacon and eggs (fried or scrambled) potatoes, pork roll, sometimes fried chicken, always two kinds of cheese and he’ll ask you every time, “Yellow or white”. I usually say, “Hey man, they’re the same kind of cheese, one just has yellow dye and the other is bleached.”
“No they’re not,” he says.
“Just give me whatever cheese you have more of, then. I’ll help you out with inventory.”
The line at breakfast time stretches way far back. Even if someone is just trying to buy a chocolate milk or a muffin or something, they have to stand in the entire line and wait. I mean, they can try to cut, to go around the other side of the truck and sneak attack Carlos the two bucks for the blueberry muffin and the coffee, but the rest of the people in line will scream at him or her about it. For some people, the only joy they have is screaming at cutters in the lunch truck line at the oil refinery on a rainy day. I imagine them at home too, hollering at their children, hollering at the dog, hollering at whoever has the misfortune of calling their cellphone. I don’t care. I really don’t. Feel free, cut the line, pay for your blueberry muffin and keep on rolling along.
Here’s what I usually order:
For breakfast, a styrofoam clamshell platter filled with scrambled eggs and either pork roll or bacon. For some reason Carlos gives you almost half a pound of bacon with your eggs. I don’t know why. I say, “Carlos, the street value on bacon is through the roof, why are you throwing it at us like it’s free?”
My conclusion is that Carlos either steals this bacon or it’s not really bacon. It’s some kind of chemical engineered marvel. Some synthetic hybrid pulp with bacon flavoring.
For lunch I usually buy a turkey and cheese sandwich. But for a while I was buying a salad off the lunch truck, until I realized how sad that it was to be buying a salad off a lunch truck in an industrial wasteland.
Hard-boiled eggs are one of the safest bets you can eat for lunch off the lunch truck. How can you fuck up a hard boiled egg? I guess you could totally forget to boil the egg. Which has happened. Go to crack it and get egg yolk all over your knee. And sometimes I buy peanuts. Just a sack of peanuts, still in their shell and then I can joke around with someone and say, “Oh look at this bullshit. They literally pay me in peanuts around here.”
I worked with a guy last year who’d traveled to New Jersey from out by Pittsburgh to work some overtime at this plant. We were doing a big demo job, cranes and torches and watch where you stand because you might get crushed. Pittsburg wasn’t much help, was just drunk all the time, living in the run down motel across the highway for a few weeks. Most of the time we kept him on the ground as the fire watch. Wear a bright reflective vest and stand there with a charged fire hose in case we catch on fire. One day, driving back to the trailer for break, he said to me, “Carlos has a pretty good gig here with that truck. He’s pulling in big loot.”
“Oh, yeah, you think?”
“$750,000 a year easy. Profit.”
I looked at Pittsburgh, all crosseyed and coughing, and thought about life. Thought about how delusional some people can be. If you could make $750,000 a year selling egg sandwiches and hot dogs and Coca-Colas, why weren’t we all doing it? I said, “If he was making that kind of money, his truck wouldn’t be rotted out and falling apart. It’d be gold plated.
“Maybe,” Pittsburgh said. “Maybe.”
But there is a guy, Ronnie, who I worked with years ago who has opened up a hot dog cart on the side of the road as something to do with his retirement. You can see him leaning out the window, facing out at the town, happy as a clam. Maybe this world is unlimited and you never know when you’re going to wake up retired and suddenly running a hot dog cart of your own.
And because depending on the lunch truck is soul crushing and overall a shitty experience, here at the refinery, we worker punks briefly had a crockpot and cooked hot dogs in it, but it became such a production. Someone had to get the buns. Someone else had to get the sauerkraut. Someone else had to bring in the mustard and the ketchup. Never mind the onions. See, that’s the thing, if you try and get the good food cooking in the trailer, everyone has to pitch in and bring ingredients but someone always forgets. Someone always ruins the crock pot party. It doesn’t matter if it’s chili or beef stew or chicken soup. Ruined by the crowd. So, back to the lunch truck you go, reluctantly. Appreciating Carlos even more.
On Friday, people sometimes get the fish sandwich. They’re either repentant Catholics or they are just excited for any kind of variety, any kind of variation. Sometimes this place feels like prison. You can’t leave the gates and go anywhere to get a good lunch. There’s nothing around the oil refinery worth rushing out for, and damn, bringing your own food everyday sounds like a beautiful way to live your life, but it’s the last thing on my mind every night when I finally collapse into bed.
I’m trying to avoid the work rut and the best way I’ve found to do that is to distract myself with writing projects. For a variation, I’ve been walking over to the shop, and sitting in a back corner by the saws, the place good-stinking like saw dust and new wood. Lumber. The carpenters here build us scaffolds so we can get off the ground to cut things apart, to grind, to weld, to arc gouge.
I like eating my lunch in the wood shop because it’s quiet and I can eat and write. There’s less distraction. There’s less yelling and joking. I’m able to squeeze in a half hour of typing with my thumbs on my iPhone, eating a lousy fish sandwich with tarter sauce and one of two kinds of cheese, yellow or white but they’re the same cheese, one has yellow dye, the other is just bleached.
I’m working on a new novel, so I’ve been bringing a bullet pointed index card with me with slightly outlining what I’m going to write on my lunch break. It keeps me on task. Today, the index card says:
- Tunnels beneath lake
- Escape into hometown
- Leave the ward
- Look for pies cooling on windows or clothes hanging on a clothesline.
Looks how silly those bullet points look. Good. I’m glad. Writing isn’t a precious thing and I’m not in eternal search of keeping what I do holy or built up out of shimmering gems. I don’t eat my lunch off a gold plated lunch truck. The great American novel doesn’t know it’s the great American novel until it’s been out almost a hundred years and the woman or man who wrote it is dead. Who cares about the great American novel while we’re in the golden age of TV?
Art isn’t something you should protect from yourself. Just run towards it full sprint and embrace how ridiculous your ideas are, how unguarded, how close to something a child might think up, lying on their back in a field overgrown with weeds. The sights and sounds of the rotating world revealing itself to you, or not.
Take a sip of black gas station quality coffee, take a bite of fish sandwich, write down the adventures of the day. Every day adds up. Every lunch break is something more than a lunch break.
We should bring our own food from home. It’d taste better than the lunch truck. My friend who did four years in a prison in New Mexico says the prison food was a little better than this and it was free.
But at least Carlos has desert. I’m told, in prison you only get desert if you don’t ensue a riot. Carlos has cookies and donuts and tubs of weird jello, cups of flan, packages of Little Debbie and Hostess, Snickers bars and chocolate wafers. Sugar to placeate the big stupid kids I work with here behind the barbed wire. You can get cigarettes too from Carlos, of course. But I don’t smoke, never have. One of the only things I have going for me.
I’ve got nostalgic lunch truck memories. When I was a kid, my dad had a friend named George, and George was married to a woman named Cricket. They came by this house we lived in, that had a huge open lot behind the property where our two dogs ran through the weeds and my brother and I chased them, yelling in the summer sun.
George drove a lunch truck and George was broke. His hair was a mess and he didn’t make 3/4 of a million dollars a year. But when he came by the house to hang out with my father, and my brother and I saw the silver lunch truck pull into the dirt road drive way, we cheered and ran towards it.
We were always allowed to pick one thing off the silver truck, the side opening up like the doors of the time machine from Back to the Future.
Most of the time we got a frozen Snickers Bar each, because it took longer to eat it and we’d enjoy it longer, sitting under the shade of a twisted tree, where one day I remember looking up into the branches and seeing one of my Ninja Turtle action figures that I’d lost for over a year, and seeing it there, I laughed. “How the heck did that get up there.”
My brother ducked his head and smirked.
Inside the house, I heard Cricket and my mother laughing at the kitchen table, the din of coffee spoons, the radio being tuned.
*all drawings by Martha Grover. Martha is one of my favorite writers on Earth. She wrote a book called One More For The People which you should seek it, it’s beautiful. She also makes the Somnambulist Zine which you can check out here