“Is he your son?”
The elderly man asked the woman standing next to me in the lunch line.
The woman, to be clear, is probably old enough to be my mom. But I am 25, so that only means she is at least 40 or so.
She, standing next to me, a source for a future story, didn’t hear him through the setting of trays and the pinging of silverware.
“No,” I responded, turning to my left where he stood behind me in line. “No, I’m a reporter at the World-Herald.” (Apparently that means I don’t have a mother as well.)
I extended my hand to his, and we shook hands but didn’t exchange names.
It was just after noon on Monday, and the Omaha Public Schools cafeteria at the district’s administration building had few empty tables. Some 400 people work at the district’s Teacher and Administrative Center. About 100 of them must have choosing to eat on the cheap this day.
I turned to the appetizing lasagna teasing in front of me. What will you be having? the lunch lady asked.
“I’ll take the meat lasagna, please.”
It had been so long since I savored a fat piece of meat, cheese and cottage cheese all warmed together to form the gorgeous selection of food known as lasagna. We have our Italian brothers and sisters to thank for lasagna, which even makes for a beautiful word, too: lasagna. It moves up and down, taking we wannabe linguists on a trip just like the dish does to our taste buds.
Staring at my soon-to-be lunch reminded me of my mother’s lasagna, which was, of course, much better looking.
“I didn’t like you from behind,” the old man said to me, making some gesture to his bald head.
I turned around again and laughed. I have a white-man’s afro, a head full of curly brown hair that, at the moment, I have let stretch to nearly past my ears, almost hiding on my baby-faced chubby cheeks.
“I get that a lot,” I replied.
Bald men have said something resembling that to me the past two weeks. Just the other day at work, a bald co-worker said he had a photo of himself that looked just like me at his desk. He was serious, he told me when I innocently laughed.
Sliding my tray down the metal spokes, my eyes darted to what was next on this nostalgic return trip to a school cafeteria. My predecessor had spoken highly of this particular cafeteria, namely for its cheap prices, not delicious foods. But, when my source suggested we meet for lunch after the 11 a.m. meeting, I was eager to dine just like I had a teenager.
As in high school, I watched what the person in front of me did: she grabbed a bowl of fruit. I chose the orange cantaloupe, another reminder of an earlier stage of my life.
The old man slunk behind, nudging his tray along.
A few steps farther along, and I plucked a mug for coffee, slid my tray down the homestretch, turned the corner and placed my lasagna, fruit and coffee in front of the female cash register.
It was fairly quick process, although it all seemed so new that it feels like it too much longer. It was like experiencing school lunch once more.
“$3.35,” the woman at the register said.
I happily dug for my wallet and slid out my debit card.
“Oooohhh,” she said, spotting my plastic and not paper. “Only cash.”
Luckily, I had a couple $5 bills snuggling behind some $1 bills.
Paid with a $5 and got change for lunch, but a quarter slid through my fingers.
My source had already paid and walked back to our table near the back of the cafeteria.
“Where’d you get your Italian nose,” the elderly man, who might or might not have had an Italian nose, said.
I have an Italian nose?
“I don’t know,” I said, very perplexed. “I’m, my mom is 100 percent German so I’m 50 percent.”
I squatted to grab the quarter.
“It has the curves and everything,” he said, staring at my nostrils.
The woman working the register saw us talking and posed a question our way: “Is he your grandson?”