My Free Lunch
I’m in the city and I’m hungry and I want some internet, so I go to Pret. I always get the same thing at Pret—the cheddar and tomato—so I grab the cheddar and tomato and take it to the counter. One employee is behind the counter, one in front. The one in front is stacking little brownie bites, or maybe packages of nuts. The one behind is watching her, and talking to her. It’s not so much a conversation as it is a series of statements being made by one person in the general direction of the other person. The statements are: I don’t know who is going to do that work, but it’s not going to be me. I don’t know who is going to do that other work, but it’s not going to be me. They could have done that work, but they didn’t, and now they’re gone, and I’m not going to do it.
She sees me and stops making statements in the direction of her coworker and instead smiles and makes a statement at me: “I can take you right here.” I put my sandwich on the counter and ask for an iced coffee. “What size?” “Regular is fine.” I root around in my bag, find my debit card, and hand it to her. She swipes it, then turns around to get the coffee—grabs a large cup, fills it with ice, then coffee, puts a lid on it. She comes back, sets down the coffee, and looks at the screen.
“Can I see your card again?”
She says it very nonchalantly. There is nothing accusatory in her voice, in fact, I’ve found my card again and have handed it to her before I say—”Wait, was it denied?” But even as the words are coming out my mouth, I know they’re true. The email this morning that I couldn’t erase fast enough: “You payment has been—” Delete. “Received” was the last word of that sentence, and if I clicked through I would have seen that it meant that $100 had been taken out of my bank account that only had $69.81 in it. This is fine, I have overdraft protection, the bill was paid, I just don’t have any money in my account until I get paid again. She’s already swiped it again, when I say, “It’s not going to go through.” “No, it’s going,” she says, so chill, so relaxed. For a minute I think, okay maybe it is. Maybe I was wrong about that email and I still have $69.81 in my account, and I actually am going to buy this lunch right now. I’m hungry.
Alas. “Oh you’re right it didn’t go through,” she says as she hands me back my card with a slight shrug. Still cool, still relaxed.
And me too, mostly. This is not the first time this has happened to me. I’m not actually as mortified as I feel like I should be. But I’m worried she might be mortified on my behalf, or maybe the person in line behind me is mortified on my behalf, and really I just want to get out of this sandwich shop. “This is really embarrassing, I’m sorry!” I say with a half laugh. I am hoping to project an air of the truth, which is that I’m okay, just scatterbrained, and that I will not starve. She shakes it off. I go on, “I don’t have another card.” (I don’t have another card, anywhere.) “I don’t have cash.” (It’s in my room, so I can’t spend it on sandwiches and iced coffees.) “I can’t pay for this.” (Right now, not ever.)
She says, “Girl, don’t worry about it,” and I smile and say sorry again, and go to turn, to leave, and she says, “You can take this, go ahead.” The sandwich and the coffee are on the counter, where she put them, and she’s nodding at them with her head. “Take it.”
I wish I could remember if I paused here, if I said, “really?” If I just took it. I think I must have just taken it, because if I’d paused for a moment, I would have said, “No, you don’t have to do that, no thanks. I don’t need it, I’m fine.” But instead I grab the bag with the sandwich, I grab the coffee, I start to walk out. I say thank you, but not in a meaningful way. I don’t stop and look her in the eyes and say, “Thank you.” Maybe I should have. But there is food at my house and money and a Trader Joe’s gift card and this whole incident isn’t about me being needy but instead about me not doing math.
I walk out the door, but first, I stop to put milk in the coffee. Even as I’m doing it, I’m thinking, this is ridiculous that I’m doing this. I just accepted charity and now what am I doing, thanks for the free coffee, now let me also take your free milk, ha. Top off, whole milk, top back on, grab a straw.
I walk out, don’t look back.
A block away I stop by a ledge to put the sandwich I didn’t pay for in my bag, to put the straw in the coffee I didn’t pay for, to take a long sip. I think about the woman who gave it to me. She has been broke before, no doubt. She works a sandwich shop in New York City, how could she not. She could also be a planner, she could budget, she could do math. But I feel like she knows what it’s like to want a coffee and a sandwich and to hand over your card hoping that it would work out. And have it not work out. It wasn’t hers to give me, that’s true. The coffee maybe, she would have thrown out anyway, but the sandwich could have gone back. Unless there’s a rule that once it’s in the bag, it’s “used,” and she would have had to throw it out anyway. Maybe that was the rule. Maybe she works for a company that gives her autonomy to do what she did. I don’t know.
I stood on the corner and ate half my sandwich, my charity sandwich. I saved the rest for later.
Photo: king huang