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At 4:50 p.m., Tom, 88, grabs an empty table along the left side of the Washington Hospital Center‘s cafeteria. He takes off his cap and plops it in front of his food tray. The room is nearly empty. Two men in scrubs tap away at their phones. A teenage girl struggles through math homework. A trio of middle-aged women trade hugs. There is not a lot of eating going on. The food options have dwindled down to burgers, pasta or heat-lamped pizza. But Tom does not mind.
Tom’s plate is full: pasta with clam sauce, scoops of warm string beans, peas and corn, and what he calls “special” mashed potatoes. The potatoes are special because they aren’t just plain mashed. “Anything to make it different,” Tom says.
Tom’s just not exactly sure what is in his potatoes to make them different.
“What’s the red stuff? Vegetables?” Tom asks. “I don’t know.”
Tom is a regular here. He dines out on the hospital’s chow just about every night—-no matter what it is in the potatoes. He has stayed loyal to the fish or fowl, baked or fried, for the past three years. “All hospitals have cafeterias. And they’re cheap. I don’t know how to cook,” he explains. “I hate it….. I never cooked a potato in my life and I’m not going to start now.”
Tom is thin and his hearing isn’t so good. He says he used to work for TWA in the accounting department until he retired in 1974. He has since spent much of his time collecting theater memorabilia which, he adds, will be given to his alma mater, William and Mary, upon his death. It’s in his will. His wife passed away, but he refuses to speak on the subject. “Forget that,” he snaps.
Tom stabs something pink and pale with his fork and lifts it up for a little inspection.
“There’s a clam,” he says. “Not much.”
Tom has become an expert on the hospital cafeteria. “I’ve tried them all,” he explains. He considers Sibley’s cafeteria to be the CityZen of cafeterias—smaller than most, good quality food, but expensive and a little out of the way. George Washington Medical Center’s is “fine, very good.” Georgetown gets a “fine” rating as well.
“It’s all the same—fish or fowl,” Tom explains.
“Nobody’s interested in this,” Tom adds. Just a few forkfuls of special potatoes to go. “You should have picked something else.”
Tom thinks my questions and his meal are dull. He says: “I get bored eating but what are you going to do?”