The Subtext is a Sandwich

I like to go into Subway and order a BLT.

“What would you like, sir?”

“A BLT on Italian.”

“Would you like bacon on that, sir?”

“Yes. This is a BLT.”

“What kind of cheese?”

“No cheese. Just a BLT.”

“Toasted?” (Read: “Cooked?”)

“Ah…yes, actually, that would be good.”

Wait for a minute while the BLT is “toasting” in the preternatural rapid Subway oven.

“Lettuce?”

“Yes. B-L-T.”

“Anything else on it?”

“Ah, yes. This is a BLT, so tomato would be good. BLT.”

“Anything else on it?”

“No, just mayo. That’s all.”

“Okay, anything else?”

“BLT.”

This post originally appeared on quichemorain.com or greg laden's blog and is part of a series of essays that I've rewritten or updated. These essays are posted here, usually with new titles, under the category heading "weblogue.

Before I met my wife, I’d never been to a Subway. I was always afraid of them. The whole process seemed too complicated. So the first time we went, I asked her to order for me. She asked me what kind of sandwich I wanted, and I said, “BLT,” and the conversation went pretty much like the one above but with three people instead of two people.

After that first experience it took some convincing to get me back into a Subway. For the first few times, I ordered the same exact sandwich until I got the hang of it. Eventually, I started to branch out. Now I can pretty much handle anything they can throw at me.

It is not that I’m a slow learner. Rather, I’m somewhat traumatized by subway sandwiches. This is because of Mike’s Submarine Sandwiches at the corner of Washington and Central in my home town. Mike’s was in an old, red brick building sticking out at the end of a triangular junction between these two major streets, sitting right at the border between “downtown” and “uptown.” For quite some time, I went to school and/or worked “downtown” and I lived “uptown.” I made $56 a week, and my rent was $16.50 a week. A Mike’s sub with everything on it was $1.89. That was for the Italian with Everything. It was way more than a foot long. I could buy a Mike’s sub and make it last all day and do this for a few days in a row, but that would not be enough over the long term (a week). I would always be hungry, and I was always skinny. I had no transport and the buses were irregular, so I ended up walking between five and ten miles a day. I occasionally passed out from the lack of energy. (Well, two or three times.)

I don’t know whether any of my younger, studenty-type friends are as hungry today as I was then, but this is why I am always happy to buy someone dinner. This is why, when I’m in South Africa and eat out, I’ll often buy an extra meal as take out and give it to the guy who was there when I pitched up, the guy who is always there volunteering to watch the car. “Go home and share this with your daughter,” was what I said to the last such guy, who had told me when I pulled in that his daughter was home ill and starving. Lamb and potato chips and some kind of vegetables. She would like that.

When I think of a sub sandwich, and my memory lets me taste it in my mouth, I do not think of Subway’s sandwiches, even though the last uncountable number of sub sandwiches I’ve eaten were from Subway. Rather, I think of Mike’s Italian with Everything, because that is the last subway sandwich I ate when I was truly hungry, truly starving, decades ago. I’ve been that hungry since, lots of times, in Africa living with the Lese and Efe in the Ituri Forest. I have visceral, three-dimensional, palpable memories of some food items from those times as well, none of which were sub sandwiches.

These Mike’s Italians with Everything rest in some alternative universe ready to lay themselves down on my taste buds and infiltrate my limbic system any time I think of hunger, or very long walks to Delmar to meet my girlfriend, or of counting my change five or six times to make sure that when they want to take the money from me after they make the sandwich I have enough. The lettuce was shredded a certain way, and the bread had a certain taste and texture. The stuff Mike poured out of a thin-necked bottle onto the sandwich, after the lettuce and tomato was laid down but before the meat, had a certain juiciness. Standing there, with my stomach eating itself, the change sweaty in my hands, watching the submarine sandwich getting wrapped up, knowing I’d open it right away there in the shop and eat one-fourth of it, then carefully rewrap what was left and head home. Always home. Never anywhere else. If I went anywhere else I might have to share and couldn’t do that just then. That is how you make memories stick forever. Make memories that hurt. They stick around.

Somewhere in a neighborhood near you is a Mike’s or something like a Mike’s, where the typical customer is counting her or his change to make sure there is enough when they ask for the money. Do you know someone who might need a sandwich? Your change may be something someone else can count on.

I highly recommend Mike’s Submarine Sandwiches on the triangular corner at Central and Washington. Unfortunately, the store is closed now, and probably has been for years. So don’t go there. Unless you want to rent the place.

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