Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Free Lunch

Once upon a time, long before I got 'all political and crazy' I wrote stories for the joy they brought me (and a few other folks who followed my blog).  I wrote the following entry three years ago as part of a series of five "Scary Stories" just prior to Halloween, 2009. 

Sometimes you need to let your skeletons out of the closet and 'let them run around a bit' before shutting them fast behind the door once more.

And sometimes, well, you might just want to change the locks on that particular closet...

Hold my hand, one's rattling through the door now. 

Don't let go.  It's going to get weird.


The summer day began as was the norm; the sun rose, a morning haze hung low above the buildings, and the sun illuminated every inch of the city street in front of the Comfort Inn. Stu saw a line of people moving slowly past the entrance of his hotel as he made his way from the lobby and out into the brilliance of the morning cityscape.

He had arrived late yesterday evening for this morning's job interview. Since it was scheduled for 9:30 he was running ahead of schedule. As an added bonus -- he was happy to see that downtown traffic looked pretty light. With fewer than three blocks to travel to the appointment, he'd be there in plenty of time to make the meeting, and, he hoped, to make a good first impression.

Stu paused as he stepped out onto the sidewalk and looked from his left to his right. The line of people continued to make their way down the block where they rounded the corner at the end of the building. The people walking slowly past him ranged from the decently-dressed, to people dressed rather shabbily and who were most likely homeless.

He had first seen them when the wake-up call stirred him from sleep at 7:00am this morning. No one had been outside the building when he arrived last night. Not wanting to be late for his interview he cut his way through the line, asking to be excused several times as he made his way out towards the street through the throng of people. No time to wonder about this now, he had an appointment to keep and he didn't want to miss it.

Two hours later Stu returned to the hotel. The morning's interview had gone very well. So well, in fact, that they requested that he come back at 3:00pm for a second interview. He had just enough time to grab a bite to eat for lunch, call his parents to tell them the good news, and review the materials that his prospective employers gave him this morning in preparation for the afternoon's follow-up appointment.

He called his folks, began to scan the documents he was given to review at the meeting, and realized that he was starving. But what, and where, to eat?

Stu made his way back to the lobby of the hotel and asked the guy behind the counter if there was an inexpensive restaurant or diner which he could recommend. In response the desk clerk told him "Well, in this part of town there isn't much in the way of 'inexpensive' restaurants. Here you have three options: First, you have really expensive, second, you have sort of expensive, and the third and final option, you have free."

Stu looked back at the guy wondering if had heard this last part correctly. "Did you say that there is free food available downtown? Seriously?"

The desk clerk gave him a half-hearted smile and said "Yeah, that's what I hear. A group moved into an old factory down the block and started giving food away almost two weeks ago. I don't know if it's any good or not, but as you can see, people are lining up for it on a daily basis." He then gestured to the line still visible through the glass revolving door of the front entrance. "That's where you line up."

"Is the food any GOOD" Stu asked. "You know, being FREE and all?"

"I don't know, but that line's been out there every day and it never seems to get any smaller" the desk clerk answered.

"It must be the economy" Stu told the guy.

"Yeah, it must be. Like I said, I don't know if the food is any good, but I know that the price is right" said the clerk.

Stu looked at his watch and then at the line. "Do you think I could get in and out of there in the next ninety minutes? I've got a job interview in a couple of hours and I don't want to be late."

"Hmm, I guess. The line moves pretty regularly and the factory isn't too far down around the corner, I'm guessing that you'd be okay. If not, you could always bail on the line and hit one of the trendier walk-ups out there off Main Street. You should be fine" said the clerk.

"Great, thanks for the heads-up, I'll go check it out. Hey, would you like me to bring your something back" Stu asked.

"No thanks. I've had a couple of folks check-out of the hotel and offer to bring food back to me, but they never did. I think that maybe you have to physically go there to get the food. You know, they probably won't let you take it out. Don't worry about me, I've got a bag lunch that I'll bust open around two o'clock" the clerk said.

"Okay, thanks for the tip" Stu said as he turned to leave.

"No sweat. Hey, and good luck with that interview later today!" the clerk called after him.

Stu waved back at the guy as he made his way through revolving glass doors in the front of the building as he re-entered the sunny street. Without a second thought he joined the line which was visibly shorter than it had been earlier in the day. He stood, he walked, he waited, and then he walked again. This pattern continued for about forty minutes.

Five minutes later Stu stood in front of the restaurant. It wasn't much to look at but heck, the price was right. The single door at the front of the building was marked ENTRANCE. Above it was a large multi-colored sign. 

It reads:
blog post photo

Below this sign was a smaller one in plain block lettering: 

"Please organize into groups of 10 or less. Dining compartments have a maximum capacity of 10 persons. Groups larger than this cannot be processed."

Stu and eight others standing by arrived at the door ninety minutes before Stu needed to be at his second interview. His group consisted of a woman and her three kids, two young girls (high school age) who didn't appear to know each other, and two guys who looked like they were hiking across country. 

This latter impression was cemented in Stu's mind as they were both carrying backpacks and had well-worn hiking boots which sported unusually fluorescent yellow leather laces. They stood huddled together anxiously awaiting their Free Lunch.

Everything was going to be okay. He'd be able to eat a meal, have time to re-review the information he received this morning, and he'll be able to get back to the appointment on time, maybe even a few minutes early! The day was shifting from a just 'Good One' into an 'Excellent One'. He'd get the job, he knew it! It was all coming together for him now.

Stu felt relieved when the door opened in front of him and a well-dressed woman wearing a PETA pin stepped into the sunshine and allowed the nine of them to enter into the darker-than-expected entrance area.

"Hello, and welcome! If you've never been here before, I just want to let you know that, we have three primary dining areas here in the building. The first is our Vegetarian Room. We have a menu of Vegan delights hand-crafted by chefs from around the world. This is my FAVORITE dining hall. It's just here behind this door" the woman then pushed open the door marked VEGAN and it swung into a bright room revealing with many diners crunching produce, LOTS of produce. The room was clean and surprisingly airy given the initial impression from the reception area which they were currently standing in.

"The other two dining halls in the building are for you meat-lovers. That elevator over there will take you down a floor where high-fat, cholesterol-busting meals can be found. You can experience the wonder of 'meat', first hand. There are two halls for you to choose from there, one for 'Chicken', and the other one, 'Beef'. You'll get to both halls via the same elevator. Would anyone like to visit the Vegan room? If so, you'll need to enter through here" the thin woman said.

"I'd like to have a Vegan meal!" said one of the young girls from the rear of the group.

"Me too" said Stu. He wasn't a huge fan of 'veggies' but thought that the Vegan meal service would be faster than waiting for a beef or chicken meal from the other dining areas.

"Any one else?" the woman asked. "This is your last chance..."

"Very well then, you two come with me, you, let's see, there are one, two, three, four, five, six, ah, seven of you. You people stand over there and wait for the elevator door to open. When it does, please step in briskly as we have many more to serve today." the woman pointed over to the elevator with an unusually bony finger. "Remember, when the doors open, step in briskly!"

The woman put her thin arms around Stu and the girl and led them into the Vegan dining hall. The door behind them swung shut silently as a sound of a distant 'ding' was heard, presumably from the arriving elevator. Seconds later, Stu heard another sound. It sounded like a scream cut off mid-shriek. How could that be? Most likely it was just a wheel on a food cart squeaking as the waiters bussed fresh produce from table to table. Who'd be screaming in a nice place like this?

Stu was right, the day was an 'Excellent Day'. He returned to the job interview (early), got the job AND received a sizable pay raise over his salary. It was in fact, Stu's best-day-ever! It was also Stu's best-decision-ever to go for the Vegan Hall that day...

On the opposite side of the old factory there is a line of people waiting with dogs (lots of dogs). On the other side of the factory there is a sign which sports a single added word. It hangs over the main entrance to the building. It reads "Free Food". The word added to the sign was 'Dog'. It read, in its entirety, "Free Dog Food" (the fries on this sign are replaced by a dog bowl full of what looks like beef stew)

Pet owners from all over the area showed up daily to get a unique dog food product which everyone assumes is made on premise. It is a 'Dog Stew' with lots of meat and an abundance of fresh veggies. It smells pretty good too.

[Later that day]

Marcie grabs her gallon container of 'Dog Stew' and ladles out an equal helping between her two Cocker Spaniels' bowls. She ladles out a bit more to even out the distribution when she sees something that looks like spaghetti in the container. She lifts it out with a fork and realizes that it is too thick to be spaghetti.

She takes it to the sink, rinses it off and realizes that it is a thin strip of yellow leather approximately the diameter of a boot lace. It appears that the end of the six inch segment is shredded as if it has been ripped apart savagely. "Huh, that's odd" she thinks as she grabs a scissor and cuts the lace in two. She tosses one half into Beauty's bowl and the other into Beast's.

"Well" she says out loud to her pets, "you guys eat rawhide all the time, so why shouldn't you both share in this nice chew bit of leather 'jerky' with your meal tonight? And who says there's no such thing as a free lunch!?! Dig in kids!"

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