“I’m so busy,” I’ll complain to friends’ deaf ears, eyeballing my BlackBerry as I feign weariness typically associated with mono sufferers and scandal-plagued politicians. “I’m completely overwhelmed.” Naturally, I’m ignored like a screeching subway preacher.
I receive zero pity because I toil until my eyes mimic an eyeliner-mad raccoon’s. My shoulder muscles become Boy Scout–knotted. And I snap at loved ones like a rabid poodle. I’m diseased by this sick, mutating notion of making it.
Five years ago, making it meant buying fluffy Charmin. Now, thanks to penny-filled coffers, I fantasize about visiting far-flung lands—Vietnam, Hong Kong—where folks with nimble fingers will sew me cheap, chic suits and serve me greasy skewered meat carved from cuddly, yet impossibly scrumptious critters.
To fund such follies I burden myself like Atlas with work, which cuts my lunch hour to 15 or 20 minutes. This allotment is scarcely long enough to wolf a sandwich while sauntering down a street. Irritating? No, I consider this time crunch a game-show challenge.
(Cue bombastic announcer): “Today on Workaholic Lunch we have Joshua M. Bernstein. Joshua, do you believe you’re too busy?”
“Yes! I’m so stressed out!” I blurt, twitchy from my daily pot of obsidian-black Gorilla Coffee (“bowel movements in 10 minutes or less, guaranteed!”).
“Are you ready for MAXIMUM INGESTION IN MINIMAL TIME?”
“Yes! I have the hunger!”
“THEN”—the audience chimes in—“LET’S…START…EATING!”
My recent trial run for Workaholic Lunch took me to the southeast corner of 46th Street and Sixth Avenue, home to Biriyani Cart. Inside, two Mutt and Jeff men—one skinny and old, the other young and plump, both sporting identical green smocks and brim-less white caps—fashion two-for-$5 kati rolls. They’re griddle-cooked chapatti flatbreads filled with veggies or flesh. Select from five, including spicy chicken buradi, lemongrass-y chennai and curried-potatoes-and-cauliflower aloo gobi.
“Hey, buddy, what can I get you?” the chubbier cook asked.
“Buradi and chennai,” I chirped happily. I’m a big fan of being called buddy, man or, be still my withered heart, hombre. Makes me feel wanted and loved, even if my only winning quality is my wallet.
“You got it, buddy” the chef said, working griddle magic. In minutes, I received rolls folded like Cuban cigars. Down tourist-choked Sixth Avenue I stumbled, chewing buttery, chewy chapatti and fowl that was fragrant, fiery and faintly gristly. I spit half-gnawed cartilage onto the sidewalk. A complaint? Heck no; it’s hard to quibble when only paying an Abe Lincoln.
The next day, my thriftiness—and need for human kindness—boomeranged me back to Biriyani Cart.
“Hey, buddy,” the cook welcomed.
“Hey, buddy,” I replied, “give me a couple aloo gobi.”
He did. I walked-ate the rolls, so relishing the zesty potatoes and cauliflower that I didn’t notice creamy red sauce leaking down my white T-shirt.
“Good lunch?” my boss asked at the office, examining my splatter stains. I looked like I’d just attended a pig slaughter.
I nodded sheepishly. How old is too old, I wondered, to wear a bib?
I aimed for cleanliness during another abbreviated lunch, sourced inside a dingy ex-newsstand (1013 Sixth Ave. betw. 37th & 38th Sts., 212-840-3767). It had transformed into an international food court including a sandwich deli, a soupy Latin-comestibles station and Khodiar Lunch Services. Its steam table specializes in northwest India’s veggie-heavy Gujarati cuisine.
“Thali?” asked the counterman. The $6.99 set meal included several mounds of veggies, soup, four roti pancakes, cardamom-flavored rice and a foil-wrapped salad of tomatoes and lettuce.
“Yup. Gimme something with heat,” I said. The counter guy ladled up several baby-food blobs, colored brown and purplish—mixed veggies and eggplant, respectively. I walked to a wobbly table, beside glum men wearing rumpled button-downs, and spooned up my mushy banquet.
One bite later, I considered kissing the cook. The veggie mash was fiercely flaming, while the okra possessed complex currents of curry. The feast was fit for two men; so obviously, I cleaned my plate in about seven minutes. I waddled officeward, feeling like a second-rate competitive eater about to, pardon the expression, lose his lunch.
But I’m a binger, not a purger, baby. I wedged myself into my desk, burping into one hand as the other massaged my belly mound, pregnant with food and the understanding that winning Workaholic Lunch would just be a tastier form of losing.