Every Thursday, I pack up the kids and head over to a local eatery for dinner. Kids eat free with a $5 purchase, which is the only reason that we go. Only two of my kids eat free because one aged out a year ago, and we’re honest folk, but I get a pizza that feeds the three of us who are over the age of 12. Where else can I feed my family of five for $10? Okay, I can do it at home for under $4 most nights, and that’s why we don’t go out to eat. But $10 once a week is doable. And it’s organic, or at least natural, so it’s a bit better than driving through at the golden arches. But I think I’m over it.
There is a four-hour window for the free kids’ meals, and we hit it wrong every week. Each week, we plan our mission before we even get out of the van. Straight to the counter, place our orders, and then get any shopping done. The idea is to minimize the time we spend hanging around the counter and waiting. And it’s such a great idea. Too bad it rarely works.
Every week, it’s the same. We scope the parking lot and check out the other families who are unloading their brood. Even Squish is aware that they are our competition. Dodging strollers and shopping carts, we dash into the store, only to find it booby-trapped. The free samples, you see, are strategically placed by the front door. We merely step over the threshold, and we’re already behind. Like me, my kids cannot pass up the offer of free food. And all of those families that we cut off in the parking lot enter the store, find the sample holders blocked from their children’s vision by my ravenous troop, simply march on ahead of us.
Having gotten their fill of snap peas, we route away from produce, which usually sports at least three samples, and worm our way through vitamins and health aids. Even my children will bypass freebies on cod liver oil. if we can make it past the chips, we are home-free. Until we get to The Counter. And I feel my resolve weaken.
Finding a swarm of twenty-five children hovering like expectant sharks around The Counter is enough to send even a cheapskate running for the door. But we press on. The kids are expected to fill out a little menu. In crayon. Which have invariably been scattered across the store by the kids whose parents were not detained at the Fuji apple slices. I’d make a note to myself to bring a pen in future weeks. But there’s nothing to write with.
Having finally tracked down half a pink crayon and filled out the kids’ menus, it’s my job to brave the mob and push my way over to The Counter. And there I meet employee Judy. Judy’s job is to collect the kids’ menus and turn them over to the chefs in the order in which they arrive. Judy is likely a recent college graduate. She is young, she is adorable, and she is also apparently afraid of crowds. About 5 minutes after our menus have been handed to her, Judy disappears, never to be seen again. Until next week. She has left the papers on The Counter in an order which changes every week and only she understands. Bless her. Last week, our menus got lost for twenty minutes as we watched other families come and go and were finally located under the box latex gloves.
Last night may have been the final straw. I turned in our papers to Judy and placed the order for my pizza. The chef recognizes me, and he asked if I wanted my usual. I glanced at the menu and said I wanted to change it up. I wanted a pesto chicken pizza. His brow furrowed, his eyes narrowed, he gave me a sideways glance. “You sure?” he asked. And suddenly I wasn’t. Why was he looking at me like that? What does he know that I don’t? Is pesto chicken pizza total crap? It’s on the menu! Right there! Look! But I said I was sure.
And then he forgot about me. Was it because he couldn’t face the thought of preparing absolute garbage for a customer? About 10 minutes later, he looked up and saw me still standing there amidst a swirl of hungry children and their parents. I saw him walk over to the pizza counter and whisper something to the chef there. Pizza Chef looked puzzled. “Really?” I heard him say. “Pesto chicken? For who? Primary Judgmental Chef pointed at me. They both looked sad. Guys, it’s on the menu!
Pizza Chef prepared my food in silence. Guy Who Writes the Item Number on the Pizza Box did his job with a sad shake of his head. He handed me my box, and I did the walk of shame to the check out area and took my embarrassment of a pizza home. And it.was.good,
But now I no longer feel like I can return. I have already revealed myself as a person with no taste whatsoever. And they remember me. No longer am I Half-Four-Cheese-and-Half-Mediterranean girl. I am Pesto-Chicken girl. And I can’t take the shame of it.