Every Thursday, I like to buy myself lunch.
Yes, I know most people do this everyday, and yes, I am jealous of those people, but when you're living off of government cheese, you've got to be practical.
Let me quickly explain. I recently took advantage of an amazing opportunity -- an internship at The Chicago Tribune.
It's great, except for the fact that I'm working for free, and that it leaves no time for me to get an actual job. Thus, because the world is such a fair place, I work harder than anyone I know and make precisely squat.
I'm now living off a combination of the fading remnants of my income tax return check and whatever my mom can spare on pay day.
This means I have to get creative with my meals. Most days I just carry around a Cup o' Noodles or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Some days I try to rob the vending machines at school, pick an item off of McDonald's always healthy Dollar Menu, or wander the halls of the Tribune Tower until I find someone celebrating a birthday and steal a slice of cake.
But on Thursdays, I allow myself to splurge. Will it be the always delectable Potbelly's Sandwich Works? The spicy (if pricy) Chipotle Mexican Grill? How about a juicy gyro from the fail-safe Mr. Greek?
This past Thursday, I decided on Panera, the closest and tastiest option of the lot. Popular for its gourmet bread, sandwiches, soups and salads, Panera is always a good choice.
My heartbeat quickened excitedly as I approached the clerk, I pondered the menu and chose my favorite sandwich.
"That will be $9.50," said the man behind the counter after I ordered the chicken chipotle special.
"I'm sorry, what will?"
"Your order," the man repeated. According to his nametag, his name was Stuart. "It comes to $9.50. Will that be cash or credit?"
I stared at Stuart in silence for several uncomfortable seconds. He blinked back.
"Since when do I have to pay almost $10 for a sandwich?" I asked him, a bit confrontationally.
"Well, you didn't just order a sandwich," he answered, clearly having prepared for just such an uncomfortable encounter. "Plus, it's a really, really good sandwich."
He was right. I had also ordered a small drink. And not only is the mesquite-smoked chicken Panera uses in their sandwiches crazy delicious, the meal also comes with a pickle spear. But still.
"But still," I retorted, too far into my accusation to turn back now. "What am I, made of money? Some of us are living off government cheese!"
I had heard this expression recently on one of the cable news channels. One of the old silver-haired pundits had used it as part of some thinly-veiled racist remark against Mexican-Americans and welfare benefits. Still, it has an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy quality I found appealing, and it sounded a lot like something a Chicagoan should say, so I was test-driving it in everyday conversation and trying to gauge the response.
Stuart didn't seem to like it.
"Cash or credit?"
"Credit," I said, "But this had better be good."
As I sat eating my ludicrously expensive sandwich (which, by the way, was indeed fantastic), I remembered Will Smith in that movie, "The Pursuit of Happyness." In it, Smith played a father whose wife had abandoned him and his son, and who was now homeless after a series of risky business ventures went awry. But he was in the middle of an unpaid internship that, if successful, would finally give him the break he needed. So, by day he worked in the financial district as a budding businessman, and by night he stood in line at a local shelter with his son, hoping to score a cot to sleep on.
I couldn't help feeling like Will Smith as I slowly chewed my sandwich, wallowing in buyer's remorse.
I might have just maxed out a credit card, took out a loan or bought a Corvette for as shameful as I felt. "Will Smith wouldn't have paid $9.50 for a sandwich," I thought. "How dare I?"
As I write this, Thursday (which also happens to be my last day of finals, and the official halfway point of my college career) is still a few days away, and I'm now having to dig in the far recesses of my cupboard for lunch inspiration.
I feel like McGyver sometimes, searching for fast and resourceful ways to diffuse my hunger.
For example, I've just discovered that if you run out of jam, you can just squeeze some chocolate syrup on your peanut butter sandwich. and you'll have a semi-decent substitute.
They tell me this will all be worth it, that this internship will open up doors for me in the future. OK. Even as I count my pennies (and I literally mean pennies) to come up with train fare, wash and dry all of my clothes in my bathtub to save on sky-high laundry costs, and steal rolls of toilet paper from anywhere it's not bolted down, I'll do it with a smile on my face and a growl in my tummy, hoping "they" were telling the truth.
A fresh slice of government cheese would taste really good right about now.
Davis High School graduate Thomas Pardee, a member of the Teens in the Newsroom journalism program, is a sophomore at Columbia College in Chicago.