The Lost Free Lunch: A Restaurant Review

Seán Wolfe Butterbaugh

Writer’s comment: I started The Lost Free Lunch for several reasons, the first to reencounter my pre-college past in San Francisco. Another motive was to do a send-up of the restaurant-review-as-genre. The voice was to be part city-hipster, part the effete reviewer—someone who would be offended at what he was to eat. It was a schizophrenic mix that did not work as well as I would have liked. Oh well, back to the rewrites...
      What came out was more my own voice—not terribly streetwise—and not terribly effete, more as someone who was touched by the experience of encountering a poverty that he himself had narrowly escaped not seven years ago. The piece has rough edges where those layers of cynic, wiseass, and snob have been ripped away. I like some of the seams: they show the change. I think when I rewrite, I will show more how the change occurs, and smooth it out a bit. I need to thank Jayne Walker for helping me through the layers it needed to progress through. Her ideas and editing helped me more than I can write about. I also need to thank Jack Hicks for being both a source of ideas and providing a much needed boot in the ass.
—Seán Wolfe Butterbaugh

Instructor’s comment: In English 103C I challenge students to choose topics and slants that will allow them to write with authority and to create personae that appeal to the audiences they are targeting.
      In "The Lost Free Lunch" Sean's evocation of his own "fringe days" makes him a trustworthy guide to San Francisco soup kitchens. Like the best of the New Journalism, his straightforward, detailed descriptions and uncondescending tone immerse the reader in his experience of revisiting this subculture of poverty.
      With this piece and two other equally strong articles he produced during the quarter, Sean is leaving UC Davis more than ready to begin forging his reputation as a professional writer.
—Jayne Walker, English Department

      “Ten cents a cigarette...
      “Three for a quarter...
      “Dollar a pack.”
      This is Linus’ cadence: Linus is making some money, hawking cigarettes up and down the line of folks waiting for a table. We are in one of the longest lines in town—two blocks long, longer than the line for sushi at the No-nayami on Church Street, longer than the kosher line for the Marrakesh on O’Farrell. St. Anthony’s doesn’t take reservations. Instead, you take a number from the man with the blond beard around the corner. He gives the little red ticket to you in silence: no questions, no words—all you do is reach out your hand.
      Then you can wait. Or walk off, if you have someplace better to spend twenty minutes or so. If you are like Linus, you can sell cigarettes, holding up your soft pack of Newports, or Dorals, or Larks. Linus says Newports move the best, Camels the slowest. “No one likes a Camel,” he says, “‘cept the old GIs.” He keeps moving. “Ten cents a cigarette...”
      On a rainy Monday, I had come to San Francisco to do a cuisine comparison, sort of a tour guide-cum-restaurant review, covering the soup kitchens that I remembered from my time in SF—my two years of living on the fringes. Those years seemed distant now—I am a university student, and I feel suddenly distant from my old days. I am hipper now, I thought. I felt the smugness of a wise-ass. I had thought before I made the trip: here’s a twist on the old restaurant review. I can talk about worn-out things: the bouquet of the food, the ambience of the place. How original. I had felt like slapping my own back.
      I returned to my old digs in The City’s Tenderloin, dressing pretty much as I used to, old jeans, three-day beard, dark overcoat. My shoes were too new to blend in completely, but I was passable. For the piece, I had not eaten for a day. For a hypoglycemic, this is not funny. I felt spaced. I drank coffee.
      Before I go on, I should explain something: I was not truly “on the fringes”—that seems too hyped to me now—I was seventeen. I had moved out and I was low income. I managed to scrape by for a few years doing odd jobs. And now I think of that as my fringe days. Back then, I occasionally could not afford food. I would go and get a free meal or two around the city. But I had never been to a real soup kitchen, not one of the big ones with the lines of people that you sometimes see. Instead I went to other, smaller places: a church on the Haight, a Krishna place in the Noe. The smaller places seemed to hurt my pride less. To say that I was truly fringe seems too self-aggrandizing: an exercise in personal myth-making. I was a lucky white male, with many friends—friends that would see me through a tight spot or cook me a hot one. There were and are thousands of cases like me: the near fringes—the cases that had seen some tough times, who were down but not out. What I learned in researching this article was that there are thousands who are not like me—who had it much, much tougher. I was changed by writing this. But I am getting ahead of myself. There is still a story to be told.
      The old line about “ain’t no free lunch” ain’t true, but only by a narrow margin. What I found was there wasn’t much food to be had in SF on a wet Monday. Once there was a Hare Krishna place on Sutter—I forget the name. But if you could sit still for a half hour of ritual and chanting you would be dished up a plate of saffron rice, real saffron, real rice. And then some steamed fresh vegetables. You would wash it all down with some hot and fragrant tea. But the big thing was dessert: once you could eat lychees and dates there. Served on a wooden tray—I remember them: they were sticky and left a sort of honey on your fingers—they were sweet and excellent.
      Not today: that place had closed down well over a year ago. It is now a passable bookstore, with a few apartments above it. The bookstore has coffee inside for a quarter. Disheartened, I broke character and went for a capuccino next door. Sipping, I looked through the yellow pages I had torn from an SF directory.
      Once upon a time, the Methodist Church on Waller off of the Haight was good for one meal a day, usually sandwiches made by volunteers, passable java, and real milk in pitchers on the tables. It had decent food, but it was basically a lunch house and is now only open from 12 to 3, Tuesday through Saturday. Not knowing this, I showed up on a Monday, met the closed doors and looked up in the windows. They were barred, but behind them, there was a box of Cheerios, which a dextrous person could climb and get for free—the window was ajar, and a fist could seize the box and escape with it. But this was a restaurant review, and while it was to center on where someone could get free food, that did not include theft, I decided. Making a fuss, that was different. I pounded on the door. A man answered the door when I knocked. In the event he would take pity on me and give me some food, I explained that I did not know that their schedule had changed. No dice. He was the custodian. I had been hoping for a clergyman. Hourly pay does something mean to the heart.
      Back on the bus, a note: the public transportation system in SF is wonderful. It is possible to case three sections of town for sixty cents. That’s six cigarettes. On a Tuesday, that might count for three meals.
      The Salvation Army was a big disappointment. I had never eaten there before, and never would, it seemed. I expected that they would have their act together on a Monday—I mean, they ought to be Army-like, eternal vigilance and all that: wrong. The Salvation Army Post on Golden Gate near Market does two meals a day, but that is only for volunteers, who work in and live at the Salvation Army Post. It was a career thing. They fed their own and that was all.
      So how do the hungry eat on a Monday for free? The answer is St. Anthony’s at 35 Jones. They dish out three hot ones a day, and if you can wait in line a half hour, you’ll pass beneath two paragraphs of Scripture, and yellowed Franciscan statuette, and be ushered by volunteers into the last free lunch in town. Of the bastions of free food, St. Anthony’s is the only one that does not stop, year round, seven days a week—hence a two-block line on this rainy Monday.
      I have never been here and have never been around as many people in need of a free meal as now. My emotions are mixed: I do not deserve to be here. I am hungry, sure. But I have just bought a cappuccino—it is in my belly now, and I am warm. These people are not. I have thirty-five dollars. They do not. I have not shaved for three days for this story. Many here are not shaven for a different reason. I no longer feel smart-ass. I no longer feel remotely honest about doing this piece. Need is sobering. It turns something mean in the heart into something softer. In the face of need, it is hard to be false.
      I want a smoke: I buy a dime cigarette from Linus and watch the parking lot across the street; the pigeons are gathering in the drizzle, huddling on top of an Isuzu Trooper, like some feathered toupeé. Two men, one in a fireman’s black and yellow raincoat, the other in a green wool turtleneck, come to the brown-slickered doorman. “What’s to eat?” they say. “Spaghetti wi’ meat,” he says. “But’choo gotta git in line.” He gestures up the hill. The line is curling around the corner. “Meat?” They say. They act surprised. I resist wondering if they are vegetarian—it is hard to stop imagination. The fireman grins at the other, revealing a line of gold-caps. “Y’wanna get some Meat?” he says. The other nods, and they go up the hill to queue up. I realize meat was not an everyday thing and feel stupid for inwardly grinning at my vegetarian joke.
      St. Anthony’s takes people twenty at a time. By the time it is my turn the rain has called for a break, and the Isuzu is covered with a dusting of guano. The yellow doors open, let loose a light basil steam, and inhale twenty more of us, sending us down a corridor. We are hemmed in tightly with hip-high rails, each of us clicking through the turnstile, steady and slow.
      To my left, as I move with the herd, I hear the sounds of the piano dishing out an ersatz ragtime. It has the character and soul of a player piano, but the pianoman is into it: he bobs and ducks to the rhythm. His cap says Skoal. Now, inside, we move past a stainless steel lineup, reminiscent of the industrial hot lunch setup back in grade school. The place is designed for efficiency. There is a technology to feeding a huge number of people, and this place has cornered the market on it.
      Let’s say you’re in line now, in my place: thud, there’s a tray, and then someone smacks a cup of coffee onto the upper corner. It does not spill. That puddle is from the cup itself, wet from the bath. A minute ago it was in the dishwasher. Five minutes ago, someone else was draining her second cup, before an attendant swept the tray away to go back through the monster dishwasher. Twenty minutes ago, that cup was in someone else’s hands. And so it goes. The cup is grainy ochre plastic. In a week it has been washed more times than you or I will wash any given coffee cup of ours in two years. There it is on your tray: a modern icon.
      The plate hits. Spaghetti, two chunks of meat are visible. It fills its section of the plate. There are potatoes, mashed. And something fragrant and rosy colored: applesauce. The plate is full, heavy and crowded. Someone lays a piece of bread on top of it, and then the throng presses, and you are standing with your spoon (Spoon, One [1]: Stainless Steel) and a wet, loaded tray looking for a seat. The clientele in here is surprisingly mixed: some in dimestore overcoats carrying plastic grocery bags that contain clothing, shoes, and the like. Others are in hightops, jeans and seventies-looking leather jackets. One carries a light-blue United carry-on. The types abound. Just looking around, you can figure who is a regular and who is not. Some are families with children. They are gathered around tables, like it was dinnertime. The children are tucking in. Only a few of the few hundred seated are speaking—these are the regulars. They meet here every day, two to three times a day.
      In comes Linus. He has stopped his patter and has a tray. He comes and sits near my table. Two of the guys at his table seem to know him. Linus is terse—he is eating.
      I sit down and begin tasting the food. My tablemates push the salt and pepper towards me in silence. The shakers are big mason jars, with nail-perfed tops to let out the salt.
      Looking around, I am reminded of The Prairie Home Companion and Keillor’s characterization of the church-basement-cafeteria. This is a kind of parody. It has a few of the necessary ingredients: industrial tables, festive-looking orange plastic chairs, bright fluorescents hang in pontoon-like fixtures—the works. But the decor seems an odd mockery: arched Gothic windows are painted at fifteen foot intervals, each featuring, in a unique touch of California sadism, a different exotic beach or seaport. Kitty-corner to the chow-line, across from one scene of a Grecian beachscape, is the dishwasher. There, a fat steam-belching box does its best, as five white-clad women feed trays, fifty at a time into its maw for a five-minute make-over. From there, hustling orderlies fetch them back, dripping, to the chowline, where they are sauced up and given to the new stream of twenty. I look at my tray: like the cup, the tray is well etched by its many trips through that box. The Krishna place had never been so clean.
      Enough reflection—the food.
      The Meat in question is just that: Meat. One-quarter to one-third cup of it: no frills—plain old ground beef. The garlic powder is not evenly ground in and in some sections is still dry and meally, though The Meat itself is fully, if not over-cooked. Overall the consistency is bland and tasteless (hence the huge spice shakers on the tables). Nonetheless, it looks like Meat and smells pretty good.
      The spaghetti in question is, in amount, about a quarter cup, buried beneath The Meat. It has a wet, burnt-orange Ragu-style sauce, which has a hint of basil, but no trace of bay, oregano, or garlic. It is very hot, and, if my tablemates are any indication, is the part of the meal to be saved until last.
      The applesauce is promisingly fragrant—almost floral. It turns out to be fairly tasteless, mostly pulp and added sugar. I plow through it. I am hungry.
      I think I recognize the bread, which, to St. Anthony’s credit, is whole grain. It resembles one of those oat-bran-mania breads that crowds the shelves at Lucky and sells for about ninety cents a loaf. Isn’t bad, without the margarine, which stuck to the roof of my mouth, intended, I suppose, to stick to my ribs.
      Just prior to attending to the white-hot spaghetti, I go after the mashed potatoes. We’re talking boxed potato powder here. It is well-mixed, not a trace of powder in it. The consistency is roughly like spackling compound, but it fills the belly. It would have been well improved without the brown gravy-soup on the crown of it. It reminded me of a packaged gravy mix—or a fast substitute, like flour and shortening.
      I should say something else: I was hungry, and the food filled the belly. It was nutritious, and, all things being equal, was tasty for what it was. The people at St. Anthony’s try hard, and what’s more, they do it every day.
      Several of my tablemates go back for seconds; I finish my coffee and truck on up the steamy staircase. I do not need to be here. I am not truly in need. To take more would be wearing on the conscience. Need sweetens the heart. Hungry people were getting fed; in this, a First World country, the system was working.
      Sure, it was crowded: it was the only gig in town. I look at the yellow Franciscan statue, gaily painted, redolent of Mexico. As I glance back, the piano player has changed his tune and is swaying his head to something like Brubeck-does-Muzak. Exiting, I see the line is still wrapped around the corner. The rain has stopped, and four more people are trudging up the hill to get in line. Linus had finished his food before me, it seems, and is swapping three cigarettes for a quarter. He starts up again:
      “Ten cents a cigarette...
      “Three for a quarter...
      “Dollar a pack.”