We were looking for lunch in downtown Montgomery — a dangerous enterprise soaked in optimism while perilously close to the match of compunction, as when we have eaten (and regretted for a long time afterward) a mix of the Flames grill cheese fries and “Cajun” fries (Cajun, evidently meaning dusted with brownish powder far inferior to its crack-infused powdered cousin used by a different corporation to render the Sonic tater tots impossible to put down). We were too lazy to bring lunch to work, even knowing perfectly well that we could not afford to eat out. Perhaps a desultory glance through the refrigerator had convinced us that even lunch was too much of a future for our various poorly-identified containers of leftover vegetable medley, of garlicky meat substitute, of hummus. Hummus is not really much of a meal in itself, we’d say to ourselves by way of rationalizing the inevitable.
By rationalizing, we’d slipped already into the specific milieu of the downtown Subway (22 Dexter Avenue) nearest our offices, itself a flourescent-lit temple to the Cartesian lunch, a place where the promise of banana peppers’ vinegary snap and an array of mayonnaises can make us both fully empowered and strangely desubjectivized, each of us Hercules liberated of his labors and set free to roam the salad bar.
Some of us did not want cheese. Those Internet literati had already visited Subway’s website and discovered that their “Six under Six” did not include cheese. Which omission struck some of us as a grim testament to the doomed struggle against obesity and another reason to pillory (if not stone) that annoying pitchman Jared if he ever so much waved a flavorless green bell pepper slice in our general direction. Others of us were inspired by the man in line just ahead of us whose sandwich consisted of four pallid, steaming “grilled” chicken parts straight from the microwave, stacked two at a time like props from a zombie version of Animal Farm, on wheat, with a generous John Hancock splortch of some kind of white sauce. That man stood before a woman truly befuddled by the idea that flatbreads are not, in fact, sold in foot-long lengths.
Those of us who wanted cheese had several options — all in thin, neat triangles lying peacefully in interchangeable plastic bins — the cheddar, the pepperjack, the white American. Which latter choice meant we had to look the African American Sandwich Artist® behind the counter in the eye and orally evince our preference for White American. This, next to the building where the first shots of the Civil War were ordered and just down the street from Doctor King’s church.
Often, when in Subway, we were secretly thankful that we do not live in one of those nanny states where caloric information must be published – otherwise we might never order the tuna sandwich, which is surprisingly delicious for a menu item in its price range and is therefore one of the only tasty non-ice cream items we have ever been served with an ice cream scoop. Other times, we are not feeling too much like contributing to the rapidly approaching extinction of tuna by ordering it as a flavorless mush on breads of dubious nutritional value. In which case we will order the Veggie Delite® and begin to run the gauntlet of justly disaffected Sandwich Artists® reaching their plastic-begloved hands into a variety of black tubs of toppings.
We are dazzled by our own autonomy, the captains of our own destiny, set free from employment’s subjugation into a world of design that will capture the Sandwich of Our Imagination. Or else we are slouching through the line with the rest of our kind, feigning animated half-conversations about Jeff In Accounting or Melinda In The Front Office or This Client I Had The Other Day — secretly eyeing the wicker baskets of chips to see if the Parmesan kind can be had, or if once again we’ll settle for the indignity of the barbecue. Some of us have mastered the process and know the cues and secret verb combos to maximize the place’s Cultural Studies 101 Fordism, the accumulated efficiencies of such an obvious kind that their mere mention is enough to incur at least a little back-channel ridicule among those of us who are plainly Too Smart For This Job.
Some of us are awkward, indecisive, anxious, displaying intercultural incompetence like a poignantly visible case of the hives. We hem. We haw. Unsure of what it means to haw, we hem some more. We commit to the Monterrey Cheddar. No, no, the Italian Herb and Cheese. We forget to say our sandwich type. We choose a cheese and are passed along, exasperated, to the Sandwich Artist® tasked with the distribution of shredded iceberg lettuce, paper-thin slices that are more reminders of tomatoes than the fruit themselves, onion and bell pepper bits, never enough black olives, amnesiac transparent cucumbers, low culture pickles and banana peppers put there only to remind us that we have tastebuds (if, at this point, we wish to remember). If we wish to forget we might order jalapenos. Because we are already in the process of forgetting, we will not remember that the Sandwich Artist® is incapable of providing a smattering of jalapenos, but must out of some post-industrial necessity lavish the peppers in a final gesture of extravagance. We are tempted to read it as making up for stinginess on the black olive front, but deep down we know that it is mere revenge for our hesitance, nothing more than a petty penance for our overwhelmed everyday indecisive mortality.
There is no unsweet tea. This is Dexter Avenue. There is only sweet tea and a variety of Coke products and water of questionable origin. There is also a cooler of bottled drinks that is likely only for decorative purposes. We have combos, or else we soldier on with only chips or drink, or neither, leaving with our wrists through the carrying holes of a sad and sagging plastic bag of ennui, of regret, of compromise and simulacrum. Also it includes napkins.