Gut Instinct: Bad Company

Gut Instinct: Bad Company Eating with me can put you off your food

Driven by08_gut-instinctwork-food.jpg dire economic straits and insanity-wreaking solitude, I occasionally don pants and an unstained shirt and join the office corps. This is frightening for co-workers, because I loathe mankind.

I don’t despise every mouth-breather. I love my girlfriend and pals, but my love—by which I mean buying cohorts’ drinks and gently mocking their shortcomings—is only possible by spending 12 hours a day sequestered in my drafty Brooklyn apartment. When 6 p.m. hits, I’m so desperate for camaraderie that I embrace compatriots with new-puppy affection.

Consequently, in seven-plus years of city dwelling, I’ve held just one full-time job. Those nine months were among my most woebegone, inebriated days. Of course, scholars may contend that my melancholia was fueled less by the daily grind than my profession: editing father-daughter smut, interviewing bimbos about double penetrations and penning pearls such as, “Shove your egg roll in my combination box, soldier.”

Ever since I quit that gig following 9/11, when I realized the bleakness of a career built on facilitating prisoners’ self-pleasure, I’ve been allergic to the 9-to-5 trudge. Still, being a freelance food-and-drink writer is decidedly non-lucrative, as compared to distributing fliers and flame-broiling Whoppers.

To make ends meet, I marshal my grammar-hound skills—a lifelong fixation since finishing third in my sixth-grade spelling bee, for misspelling bicentennial—and sell myself as a magazine copy editor. I’m an English-language janitor, tidying up errant semicolons and misplaced modifiers. It’s a thankless, tedious profession that tethers me to work until 9 p.m., 10 p.m., sometimes as late as 2 a.m. To compensate for late hours, my employers ply us with something sadder than the American dollar: catered dinners.

While morning donuts or bagels are aces (more everythings, please), work dinners are an experience no less enjoyable than coughing blood. The work day’s sole pleasure, besides stealing pens and toilet paper, is mealtime. For an hour you regain free choice: Will today be Wendy’s? By-the-pound salad bar? General Tso’s chicken? Or maybe sit in a quiet park and tabulate the years, hours and seconds until retirement?

Eventually, corporate bean counters decided to goose productivity by eliminating the need to grab grub outside. Welcome the catered meal, often presented as a “perk” you’re expected to be thankful for. Except for Google’s ludicrously high-quality Chelsea-headquarters cafeteria (offering a raw bar and ceviche station!), free dinner is typically available in two inferior forms. The first is the buffet, which gives humans a crash course in feeding like barnyard critters.

During high school I worked at Ponderosa, a Midwestern steakhouse crossbred with an all-you-can-eat buffet. My job was deep-frying the blue-ticket item, chicken wings. No sooner did I refill plastic troughs with crisp, oily wings than diners, turkey necks and bellies jiggling violently, stampeded the steam table. I was scarred by the experience. But I was not as scarred as diners would’ve been had they known I often scooped frozen, deformed wings off an unmopped floor.

At work, buffets bring employees uncomfortably close. Folks you’ve avoided all day are lined up beside you, bellies growling, bleating unwanted opinions.

“Chicken parmesan? I hate slimy chicken parmesan.”

“I can’t eat steak. I’m a vegetarian.”

“Beans give me gas in the worst possible way.”

People mutter approval. Or disapproval. It’s lowest-common-denominator conversation. No one utters what they’re really thinking: “Hurry the fuck up and scoop up some mashed potatoes so I can get a biscuit and get back to ignoring you.”

Dinner option two is ordering from a work-selected restaurant you’d never choose (say, an Americanized Mexican eatery offering fake sour cream). The food’s arrival is as dignified as sharks attacking a bloodied seal. Leaky takeout containers are acquired and then squired back to desks, whereupon folks resume work or numbly click on websites, hoping for news of another Spears pregnancy, of a blockbuster sports trade, of anything but the obvious: You’re eating together but you’re alone, surrounded by individuals as seemingly randomly selected as lottery balls.

Each week, I’m afforded maybe 15 meals to chomp through, lest I dream of becoming a little Jewish Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. Work-mandated dining robs me of one meal. That’s depriving me of another chance to uncover a rootin’-tootin’ dumpling depot or revisit my favorite hand-pulled noodle dive.

It’s with vast misery that I order a gloppy taco salad. And a Diet Coke. And a side of guacamole. And hunch over my glowing computer screen. I eat until full, eat until I’m disturbingly full, hungering to go home and regain my appetite for people and food alike.