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05 July 2007

Bust your toast rules

“Any fool can make a rule and any fool will mind it.” – Henry David Thoreau

Toast_2As my plane touched down in Washington, D.C., on June 25th, I could see the heat waving to me from the tarmac, a siren song of sweat and grumpiness. The jet way to the terminal at National Airport offered complimentary sauna services with humidity of 212%, or so it seemed.

It made for a day in which even your sweat hurts, stings, burns, and in which people just plain bother you.

“Let’s grab a cup of tea and do some planning before dinner,” I said to David when we met up at the bed and breakfast that would be our home that week as we worked with a client. We were near Dupont Circle but the Firehook Bakery had no tables that could accommodate tea and notebooks.

So we sweated our way to another café near there that I used to eat at when I lived in D.C., a place that shall remain nameless unless you happen to know of a place near Dupont Circle with a bookstore in Img_6862the front and café in the back or unless you look at the photograph of a menu accompanying this essay. I’m just saying.

“Blessed air conditioning,” I said as we stepped in, regaling David with the story of a fancy jewelry store in Colombo, Sri Lanka, that I used to frequent after school at Museus Buddhist Girls' College as a 16-year-old, ostensibly to shop but—in reality—to enjoy a few moments of air conditioning each afternoon. After a while, I stopped pretending to shop, and the shopkeeper stopped pretending not to notice I was pretending. Ours was a happy, wordless, cross-cultural understanding.

We sat in the nearly empty café; only four tables were occupied in the whole place. It was a little after 3pm, so the lunch crowd was back answering important phone calls at work and the dinner Hot_teacrowd was dreaming of 5pm. “Could I get you something to drink?” the waiter asked. “Do you have Earl Grey tea?” I asked. He nodded yes. “Then I’ll have that.” “A cup of coffee, black,” David added. We talked as he left: “I’m a little hungry—didn’t get anything before my flight—but I don’t want to eat a meal because we’re meeting Julie for dinner. I just need a little something to tide me over,” I said. “I just ate,” David said. “I was so hungry I was shaky when I got off the train and needed to get something fast.”

“What can I get you?” the waiter asked when he came back with our drinks, smiling pleasantly. “Nothing for me,” David said. “What I’d really love,” I answered, “is a piece of toast and this side of avocado slices,” pointing to the menu. I knew from eating there before that they make their toast from fabulous, thick, real bread.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” the waiter said, beginning a statement that would mark The End of Modern Civilization As We Know It. “I’m sorry, but it’s past toast time.”

Blink.

Blink. Blink.

Blink. Blink. Blink.

I looked at him, blinking slowly.

“Past toast time?”

“Yes, m’am, it’s past toast time.”

I slowly turned to look over at David who was smiling the smile of a man who is unsure what will happen next.

“Wow. And here I never actually knew that there was an official toast time.” I wonder if it is the same time across all time zones, I pondered silently.

The waiter nodded, now impatient, what with all my incredulous blinking cutting into his cigarette smoking break time. Evidently it’s always cigarette time.

Toaster[An aside, like those wacky choruses do in Greek tragedies: An advertisement for this eating establishment reads: “It’s our pleasure to serve you whatever your pleasure.” Evidently this conveniently excludes toast.]

“Well,” I said sweetly, “I just never knew you could actually go past toast time. Call me crazy, but it seems to me that if you have bread and a toaster, it’s pretty much always toast time.”

Blink.

“Well, then,” I responded, wondering how this would play out if I let it run its course, thinking in a yelly voice inside my head “THERE’S NO ONE HERE! IT’S NOT LIKE RUNNING THE TOASTER WILL SET YOU BACK. I’M NOT ASKING FOR RISOTTO WITH FRESHLY SHELLED SPRING PEAS STIRRED FOR A BLOODY HOUR AND LOVINGLY TOPPED WITH A RARE YET PUNGENT PARMESAN FROM A REMOTE PROVINCE OF SOUTHERN ITALY WHERE MEN WEAR BERETS! YOU HAVE THE MEANS! YOU HAVE BREAD! YOU HAVE A TOASTER! YOU HAVE ELECTRICITY! YOU HAVE ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD BECAUSE YOU HAVE NO CUSTOMERS!"

“That’s some toast rule,” I thought to myself in awe (and not that happy kind of awe). “I’ll just have the side of avocado slices then.” He blinked. “Well,” he said slowly, “I’ll ask. I don’t believe that’s possible.” He left.

“What’s to ask?” I asked David. “What’s to believe? This isn’t a religion we’re talking about—it’s avocado slices. They are on the menu,” I said plaintively.

Five_easy_piecesSuddenly, on that hot humid Washington day, I had been transported to a Denny’s in Eugene, Oregon, my name was Bobby Dupea, I was a piano prodigy, and I was starring in a movie called "Five Easy Pieces":

Bobby: I'd like a plain omelet. No potatoes, tomatoes instead. A cup of coffee and wheat toast.
Waitress: No substitutions.
Bobby: What do you mean? You don't have any tomatoes?
Waitress: Only what's on the menu. You can have a number two — a plain omelet. It comes with cottage fries, and rolls.
Bobby: Yea, I know what it comes with, but it's not what I want.
Waitress: Well I'll come back when you make up your mind.
Bobby: Wait a minute, I have made up my mind. I'd like a plain omelet, no potatoes on the plate. A cup of coffee and a side order of wheat toast.
Waitress: I'm sorry, we don't have any side orders of toast. I'll give you a English muffin or a coffee roll.
Bobby: What do you mean "you don't make side orders of toast"? You make sandwiches, don't you?
Waitress: Would you like to talk to the manager?
Bobby: You've got bread. And a toaster of some kind?
Waitress: I don't make the rules.
Bobby: OK, I'll make it as easy for you as I can. I'd like an omelet, plain, and a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast, no mayonnaise, no butter, no lettuce. And a cup of coffee.
Waitress: A number two, chicken sal san. Hold the butter, the lettuce, the mayonnaise, and a cup of coffee. Anything else?
Bobby: Yeah, now all you have to do is hold the chicken, bring me the toast, give me a check for the chicken salad sandwich, and you haven't broken any rules.
Waitress: You want me to hold the chicken, huh?
Bobby: I want you to hold it between your knees.

Of course, in that version of the toast story, the waitress indignantly orders them to leave, to which I (played by Jack Nicholson) knock the drinks off the table with a sweep of my arm. When Bobby gets back in the car:

Hitchhiker in the back seat: Fantastic that you could figure that all out and lie that down on her so you could come up with a way to get your toast. Fantastic.
Bobby: Yea, well I didn't get it, did I?
Hitchhiker in the back seat: No, but it was very clever. I would've just punched her out.

The waiter arrived back at our table, David having witnessed and reported on the eye-rolling discussion near the kitchen. “I’m sorry,” he said with a smile, “but They told me that giving you avocado would break every rule known to man.”

Every.Rule.Known.To.Man. I couldn’t make this up. David is my witness. Forget my irritation at the invocation of “They.” Every rule? Every Single Rule? That’s some exciting avocado! I want me some of that avocado!

YossarianI was Yossarian trying to save a bombadier: “There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he would have to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle. ‘That’s some catch, that Catch-22,’ he observed. ‘It’s the best there is,’ Doc Daneeka agreed."

“But it’s on the menu,” I said quietly, returning in an instant to Dupont Circle from my station as a B-25 bombadier on the island of Pianosa. I pointed to the menu. "Right here, see?" "Yes," he answered," but sides only come with entrees. We can't serve sides without entrees."

My lord, there is just so much I don’t know. I am sometimes just plain overwhelmed by the fact that not only can I not remember more than 3 places of pi, don’t really know how to change a tire or speak Urdu, and keep losing my calendar, but somehow—how, oh how is this possible?—I have gotten to this advanced age without ever knowing that sides depend on entrees.

The waiter and I looked at each other, silently. David looked down at his menu.

Avocado“Well, then,” I said simply. “We wouldn’t want to break every rule known to man.” He left for his Cigarette Time which evidently extends far past Toast Time and isn’t subject to the vast vagaries of, oh, say, Customer Time. I quietly reached into my bag, pulled out The Camera, and started making photographs of the menu, knowing that the Toast Rule and Side Rule would be a source of great inspiration to me much later in life, like now.

Years ago – perhaps 10 years ago? – I was in San Francisco with my friend Rosemary to speak at a conference. She recalled recently a breakfast we had there, a meal also involving toast and avocado:

"I was just in SF and thought of that fabulous breakfast. We took dozens of cabs but I believe we walked that day to a place you must have seen or visited earlier—it just felt so perfect. It was a jazzy little, unassuming bistro kind of a place. French. Jazz in the evenings. Artsy. I went back once years later with a dear friend. When the waiter came, you smiled and kind of went into a zone. I just remember your hands. Calmly explaining that you wanted a sliced avocado and white toast. I loved the fact that avocado was not on the breakfast menu and that we were not in white bread country. But what's a menu anyway?  Just suggestions for a woman like you. To the waiter's credit, he didn't blink and it immediately became one of my favorite breakfast memories. I must tell you that your imagining what you wanted, rather than what was offered, transformed my pattern of eating out. What is it in our culture that encourages us to settle for that which others think is suitable—on a menu or in anything else? Are there so many of us in a hurry that conformity keeps the order?”

And that, my dear friends at the café in the back of a bookstore at Dupont Circle, is how every time is toast time.

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

Avocado_fullThat’s some rule, that toast rule. It’s the best there is.

It’s one thing to acknowledge the absurdity of other people’s rules; it’s another thing altogether to recognize and own the absurdity of the rules that we’ve made up (helpful hint: they’re all made up, some so ingrained that we can no longer see they are Toast Rules).

So when a rule pops to the surface, see it for the Toast Rule it is, made up to serve some social norm that is itself made up – or to serve the convenience of a waiter, where “waiter” stands for “person” or "group"—Toast Rules like girls don’t become backhoe operators, you can’t eat dessert before dinner, never wear white shoes after Labor Day, boys don’t cry, girls don’t play tuba, never whistle in the dark, don’t walk backwards in the sand, don’t take any wooden nickels, or marriage is the sole right of heterosexual couples. Made up, made up, made up.

[If you live in D.C. and happen by Dupont Circle, why not stop in this unnamed well-known café and see if you can get toast with avocado slices. A free copy of 37days the book when it comes out next Spring to the first reader who sends a photo of their victory meal. Just because we can.]

Bust your toast rules. Because in my little universe, it’s always toast time.

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This makes me think about my own Toast Rules - those rules I carry in my head because "it's just the way we do things here". I feel a rule-breaking coming on.

Before I had even gotten to your challenge, I knew that this afternoon, I AM HAVING A SNACK OF AVOCADO AND TOAST at said cafe. I'll let you know if I get thrown out....

I'm imagining (with great glee, I might add) a mad rush on that un-named cafe, everyone ordering toast and avocado slices at all hours of the day! A veritable melee will ensue.

Seriously, this was a great post to encourage us all to reconize and break away from absurd rules, large and miniscule. I'm starting my day on a hunt for rules to break - or at least bend ;)

The greatness of toast is its appropriateness for all three meals and snacks and tea...

Paging Dr. Digh....Paging Dr. Digh. It is time. It is time for Lao Tzu.

deirdre - yes, we all have them - they are also well hidden...!

the purloined letter - i can't wait to hear!

becca - i, too, am imagining a toast and avocado run...

joy - indeed, toast rules!

jim - um...huh?! ;-) 'splain...

I've been reading for posts for awhile and, I confess, anonymously. But my love for this particular post overwhelms the shyness, and I must step up to say thank you. It almost makes me wish I still lived in D.C. so that I too could have a lovely mid-day afternoon of book browsing and toast requesting. But I'm pretty happy in my little perch, and not of urban mind these days. Instead, I shall find much merriment in a rural rendition of sorts - sleuthing down avocados, baking bread and seeking huckleberries. Thanks again for a lovely post!

Man follows Earth.
Earth follows heaven.
Heaven follows the Tao.
Tao follows what is natural.

If I have even just a little sense,
I will walk on the main road and my only fear
will be of straying from it.
Keeping to the main road is easy,
But people love to be sidetracked.

What is firmly established cannot be uprooted.
What is firmly grasped cannot slip away.
It will be honored from generation to generation.

Whatever is contrary to Tao will not last long.

Some things are not favored by heaven. Who knows why?
Even the sage is unsure of this.

I think a piece of toast might crunch real tasty now.

I once asked a waitress for a slice of lemon for my iced tea...she responded :"I'm Sorry But We Don't Have Any Cut up."
(I was the Only customer in the diner...i
Blink,Blink. Chortle. Snort. Guffaw. Repeat.
I got laughing so hard they asked me to leave.
Years later..
I can't drive by the diner without busting into belly laughs.

Patti,
As a general rule, parmesan comes from comes from Northern Italy . . .
ah'm jes' sayin'
h

heh. in some ways, i feel pity for the waiter, who gains control in life by being the head poobah and enforcer of rules at a cafe.

but thank you, most of all, for the reminder to break our own toast rules.

I marvel at how you took an annoying experience with a rude waiter and turned it into a metaphor for life ... down with Toast Rules!! Bravo, JP

yes ... last night I bought meranges, strawberries and creme frache and steak and when I got home I realised that I really wanted was pudding first so I did!

Other strange rules.. it was only when my brother said he was thinking about moving to my home city I thought 'Yippie now I can move away because he can look after my parents' who are in perfect health by the way. So somewhere I'd made up a rule that I should be here waiting to look after them....

Wow. I went to their website and clicked on Cafe Menu, and I just love how it says, "It's our pleasure to serve you whatever you pleasure." They should follow their motto.

Thanks for making me think about my own Toast Rules.

Well, I live in the DC area and I've never heard of such a thing. I sure wish I'd have known you'd be in town, I would have made that toast and those avocado slices for you myself. How's that for hospitality? :)

That is just too rich.

...and way full of life: thank you for your presentation!

Oh, your toast post is too good. I hope many others ask for the toast and avocado at said cafe on Dupont Circle. Thank you for the metaphor and the laugh-out-loud, completely spot-on writing.

Hilarious! Totally hilarious. I wish I was in America and not Aussie land and I could go there. Too funny.

Once, I was buying something at Radio Shack, and the young man behind the counter asked me for my address. I told him I just wanted to pay for the item (which is what I always say). He said he couldn't sell it to me unless I gave him my address. Then, like Obi-Wan Kenobi, I said "Yes you can." Then, he rang up my purchase.

i loved the post, the whole hilarious story and the asides! i laughed out loud several times and i found the comments were just as interesting as your tale. tho i too was confused by jim L's obscure
comment-- did you ever find out what that is in reference to? also, you have given me a great snack idea for the future.

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