Scavenging ~ essay by Jim Ross

Melanie and I took the bus from Chicago to Milwaukee on a Friday. We had just started dating and I was in love. Our hosts for the weekend would be Melanie’s Aunt Mary Anna and Uncle Joe — my first shot at meeting her extended family. We were college students, so of course we were too disorganized to eat lunch that day. We were college students, so of course we headed straight for a tour of the Miller Brewery once we hit town.

The brewery sits in a seamy valley beside Interstate 94, west of downtown. I thought of The Great Gatsby and the “valley of ashes.” This was more like the valley of hops, and the only thing “growing” in the grotesque gardens was Genuine Draft. The brewery campus includes several buildings, most notably an imposing, brown-brick edifice with a red-and-white “Miller” sign that is visible for miles. The smell of brewing beer filled the place, and the bottle line rattled along. At tour’s end, we filled our empty bellies with copious product samples (free!) in the Miller beer garden. Buzzed, I danced a polka with an older woman in our tour group. I knew neither the woman nor the polka. I just winged it.

Later that evening, Uncle Joe and Aunt Mary Anna took us to the Golden Mast restaurant for Friday night fish fry, which is a Milwaukee tradition. Unfortunately, the entire city decided to honor that tradition at the same place that night, and the wait for a table was endless. By twilight, the day’s beer-only diet had rendered me near catatonic. I dribbled conversation, like a toy robot whose batteries were almost dead.

I desperately wanted to make a good impression. But if I didn’t eat something soon I risked passing out. Melanie, Uncle Joe and Aunt Mary Anna were fading fast, as well. My chances of establishing myself as a suitable suitor were dwindling.

A noble young man would have been strong, stoic, and impervious to inconsequential matters like hunger when bigger things, like love and first impressions, were at stake. But nobility wasn’t registering. I excused myself, staggered through the outdoor waiting area where we were sitting, and found my way into the restaurant, which was packed with patrons tucking into fried fish and coleslaw.

Then salvation came into view, like a river at the edge of a desert. It was a basket of rye bread sitting unattended on a busboy’s tray. My weak body perked. This must have been what Eve felt like when she saw the apple. I wasn’t a rule breaker, let alone a thief. But I had to have that bread.

My mind raced through the obstacles:

+ Embarrassment: The busboy might catch me, and “the Miller made me do it” wouldn’t be an effective defense, even in Brewers territory.

+ My soul: I’m Catholic, and thus have a finely tuned sense of guilt. I feel guilty just thinking about doing something wrong. Could I justify pilfering? Melanie’s family is Catholic, too. Now that I think back about it, tempting them with ill-gotten goods could have constituted suborning sin. Double damnation!

This examination of conscience didn’t last long. By then, remaining conscious was the only consideration that mattered. I snagged some slices, grabbed a handful of goldfish crackers from the bar for good measure, and slinked back to the waiting area like a stealth hunter-gatherer. What would her aunt and uncle think?

They admired my effort, modest as it was. What a relief. We gobbled the stolen goods and, eventually, were called to dinner.

Time and food cleared my mind. Wooziness subsided and I gained my second wind. Fish fry had the opposite effect on Uncle Joe, who fell sound asleep at the table, chin on chest. Aunt Mary Anna gently nudged him awake for the ride home.

All these years later I try to understand what I was doing that night. Why didn’t I just buy a drink at the bar and take a basket of goldfish crackers, as would have been my right? Better still, why didn’t I catch a waitress’s attention and order an appetizer for the table? I could have been Diamond Jim, the Big Spender and Savior, instead of Jim, the Shady Redistributor of Wealth (as represented by rye bread.) I suppose my hops-fogged mind wasn’t clear that evening. I likely didn’t have any money to buy drinks or appetizers. I never had much money back in those days. And I probably wanted to show off a bit, insufficiently mindful of how close the line between gallant and goofy can be.

Melanie and I got married four years later. Among the guests were Uncle Joe and Aunt Mary Anna. At the country club reception, the photographer kept the wedding party out on the golf course too long, posing us under trees. Meanwhile, inside, guests ate and drank. We were hungry by the time we joined them, but most of the appetizers were gone. Thankfully, my stealth services were not required that night. Dinner (Cornish hen, not fried fish) was served right on time. Melanie and I started our lives together with full bellies and a commitment to living “The Golden (Mast) Rule”: Always eat a little when you get the chance, even if you have dinner plans later.  You never know what might happen.

Jim Ross is managing editor and columnist at the Ocala (Fla.) Star-Banner and an adjunct journalism instructor at the University of Florida. In March 2018, the University Press of Florida published In Season, a Florida-themed essay anthology that he edited and contributed to. His journalism and essays have been published in The Wall Street Journal,the Star-Banner, the St. Petersburg Times, the Gainesville Sun, Clockhouse Review, the Little Patuxent Review blog, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Paper Tape, The Morning News, Ray’s Road Review, the Eastern Iowa Review andEssaying Daily. His essays have twice (2015 and 2016) been listed as Notable Essays in The Best American Essays. The author thanks Marinda J. Valenti for valuable editing assistance on “Scavenging.”