Journal entry: April 20, 1989 (age 19) – Dining Hall Slop Room
Earlier tonight, I stood in an empty, dreary room waiting for the grinding of soulless machinery to begin. My eyes were on the conveyor belt emerging from a small opening in the wall. Soon, they would come. They would come with their half-eaten Monte Cristos, their lasagna residue, and their congo bar leavings. On the other side of the wall, I could hear them laugh like tyrannical cafeteria despots as they slammed down their hideously splattered trays. I stood helpless before the onslaught, just as my redheaded forebear, Lucille Ball, had done in a candy factory. Of the many jobs on a college campus, none is worse than working in the dining hall “slop room.”
It’s my sophomore year at SUNY Oswego, and I live in Scales Hall, just steps from Lake Ontario. Last year at this time, I was probably sitting behind my dorm, watching a spectacular sunset. But tonight, I walked straight from my afternoon job at Penfield Library to this windowless cave of gustatory horrors. I can’t put into words how much nicer it is to hand a college student a copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass than it is to have that same student hand you what looks like a Whitman’s sampler of partially-eaten, breaded giblets with extra tartar sauce.
My overlords are not entirely unkind. They provide me with rubber gloves and a long, plastic coat. (No matter how many Oscars Silkwood won, this is not a trendy look.) They also require me to wear a paper hat. It’s pointless, but less humiliating than the hair nets worn by the workers who get to handle the food before it’s pillaged. These meager defenses are all that stands between me and the slop. I also find some comfort in hearing the Syracuse radio station, 93-Q, play “Rock Steady” by the Whispers, or “Push It” by Salt-N-Pepa.
It’s called the slop room because my only job is to grab plates off of trays, and slam both against the inside of a huge garbage can. Then I return the plates to the tray and send them down the line to the dishwashers. This sounded pretty easy on my first day. That was before I realized that many students travel to meals like wolf packs. Some packs fill the entire length of a cafeteria table, tearing through their “kill” while discussing the guys’ latest hookups, or the girls’ latest scopes. Then the furry collective rises, as one, to dispose of their carrion. When I emerge from the pit four hours later, I am saddled with raw hands, an aching back, and a shirt-and-jeans combo that The Gap might have commissioned Jackson Pollack to paint with baby food.
Occasionally, I hear a disembodied diner on the other side of the wall drop his tray on the floor. This is inevitably followed by mock applause and the jeers of his peers. On “the outside,” I always found this reaction to be immature and mean. But that was before I had to deal with trays filled with broken glass and gravy, adding the possible injury of innocents to the fallen food-waster’s litany of gluttonous sins. Now, I join the unruly mob in mocking the hateful klutz. The tiled walls of my dismal redoubt reverberate with my laughing, clapping, and yelling of woo-hoos.