why january sucks: a true story

Yesterday I took my recovering body out for a walk.

Walks, when you're rebuilding muscle and nerve, cannot be aimless. You need a specific goal. Otherwise, you'll find your body perilously close to giving out on you in the middle of a block, with nowhere nearby to rest. In my case, it's my left leg that I can't rely on; because the nerves are damaged, it's hard to gauge how much strength and endurance I've got.

Instead of measuring by distance, I measure (out my life) in coffee shops. Abstractions Café, where the coffee is hot and the zataar comes in sandwich format, is far and away the best. Second best is the atrociously misnamed Exotic Coffee World. Even though the place is festooned with signs about not allowing 'table games' and reminders about management's right to refuse service, it will do. The sandwiches are disappointing but edible, with half a loaf of rye protecting a few embattled slices of swiss cheese and luncheon meat. Beyond Exotic Coffee World, the options dip dramatically in quality, featuring places that serve coffee weak and tasteless as hot water, and food that should not be spoken of. And then there's the hospital cafeteria, which has good Chinese food on Wednesdays. Stupid semi-gentrified inner city. When will the yuppies come?

I walked the five blocks to Abstractions, but I hadn't bargained on January, that godforsaken month when cafe owners close their doors and jet off to their luxury island retreats. A polite sign on the door told me that Abstractions was closed until the sixteenth. Exotic Coffee World, when I reached it, was also closed for the holidays.

I had gambled and lost, lost horribly. The only two places left in walking range were Just Bean Brewed, a 24 hour coffee place catering to the schizophrenic runoff from the mental ward at the nearby hospital, or Value Pizza, a little spot next to a closed-up laundromat. I hadn't walked into Value Pizza since New Year's Eve 1998, where my girlfriend at the time had taken me for the purposes of ending our relationship. I thanked her for her time, left and promptly took a lot of drugs with another girl. I remember showing up at someone's house and playing Trivial Pursuit with a troupe of Christian camp kids as the chemicals took hold of my brain and recast my situation (dumped, gaming with Christian pre-teens) as appropriately absurd and itchingly, screamingly funny. Anyway, Value Pizza was all full of memories.

If ten years had elapsed outside, the interior of Value Pizza had ignored the passage of time completely. Same blue fabric in the booths that made it look like you were eating in a Greyhound bus, same hotel art prints on the walls. Same signboard with the Sprite advertisement above the cash register. And the same atmosphere, a kind of first-glance tidiness that starts to unravel by the time you've already ordered your food: stains on the walls, peeling trim, the woman in the corner booth who may be thinking or just sleeping. Or dead.

The woman behind the till seated me in a booth and brought me a cup of coffee and a menu. It is axiomatic that there are no good choices in a place like this; the best I could hope for was something so deep-fried that any harmful bacteria or radioactive isotopes would be long destroyed. On that basis I chose the pork cutlet sandwich and hoped for the best. As for the coffee, it tasted chiefly of soap, but behind the emulsion of cream and detergent you could make out the distinct flavour of something or other. Another sip and the coffee gave up its secret: instant.

I could hardly wait for the pork cutlet sandwich.

What arrived at my table in a few quick minutes was not really food. It was the token of an agreement between myself and the restaurant, a compact involving money and mastication. Pale regular fries that went straight from extruder to freezer to frier to mouth. Instant gravy the colour of milk chocolate, from a freeze-dried and hermetically packaged powder that could have travelled safely into space. Was this an agreement or a put-on?

And then there was the open faced cutlet sandwich: a slice of lightly toasted white bread - itself another con at food - and a corpse-grey patty of reconstituted pig bits, an assembly of slaughterhouse scrapings that a just society would have blasted into orbit. Luckily for me, the manufacturer had blasted it with enough heat to kill any bacteria, as well as any resemblance it may have once had to animal flesh. I wondered if it wasn't a put-on so much as a compromise: I couldn't be sure that my cutlet would nourish me in any way, but I could be pretty certain that it wouldn't kill me.

Wallace Stevens said that a poem should almost successfully resist the intelligence. There turned out to be a similar principle at work between my food and my knife. The toast came in handy for this, providing a spongy non-slip backing for the penetration of my pig bits.

[Here I've reached a bit of a crisis. As you can expect, the cutlet sandwich didn't taste very good, but it was kind of crunchy and kind of salty, and you're probably wondering why I didn't send it back or maybe order something less disgusting in the first place. In the immortal words of Jesus: 'I have no adequate response to that.' But that's not the crisis. Like a child genius who comes up with a revolutionary case for quantum-classical parity, I have witnessed the moment of my peak. I will never again uncover a sentence with the phrase 'spongy non-slip backing for the penetration of my pig bits'. Now I'm trudging down from the peak, and already the clouds are moving in to obscure the flag I planted there.]

Later that evening I told Schmutzie about my encounter with the cutlet sandwich. I told her about the distance to various coffee shops, how they were all closed, and how it was that I chewed my way through a frightening fake of a meal.

That's really, it's just, that's so gross, she said. Why do you always choose the grossest thing on the menu? I mean, I eat some gross foods, but you always go a step further.

Yes, I said. I will always be one cutlet sandwich ahead of you. And I felt my stomach start to twist, as if a ball of metal foil had begun to unfold there, into some unfathomable shape.

There's a moral in there somewhere. Something about proper diet, industrial food production and the wisdom of ordering things called 'cutlet sandwiches'. But I forget what it is.

Oh right: I hate January.