Take gum-speckled subway stairs two at a time and bleep through a bank of spotless security turnstiles. Ride the lobby escalator past a feature wall of recycled rainwater, and there it is on the mezzanine, gleaming in polar light like the Fortress of Solitude: the cafeteria. It’s time for corporate breakfast.
Eating in became fashionable for some New York City-based company men and women in 2000, when Frank Gehry completed Condé Nast’s undulating power-lunch space in Times Square. I warmed to desk meals and fell hard for breakfast after I became a magazine editor and moved into Hearst Tower, a building that first looked to me like a crinkle-cut French fry erupting from Ayn Rand cover art. (Still, it was better than my first midtown office, which appeared in The Shaft, a 2001 horror movie about murderous elevators.)) Once it revealed its culinary charms, mind, it was beautiful.
Why desk breakfast? Why cafeteria desk breakfast? Well, the early-morning people-watching in publishing is spectacular; one performs for colleagues at lunch. Cafeteria breakfasts precede the work day; we are yet our private selves. (As The Breakfast Bible’s Seb Emina writes of the morning meal in literature, “it lurks there in the background, a daily heartbeat, telling us what that character does when they are not experiencing the disruptions that drive great stories.”) At one end of what would become the salad bar in a few hours, corporate counsel and suited management types queued to feed a conveyor toaster with funeral-director solemnity; when their bread and bagels crisped and slid down its chute, they’d shroud them in foil and eulogize them for the cashier itemizing their tabs. This had cream cheese, tomato, and capers. Designers art-directed their Greek yogurt one blueberry at a time. Editorial assistants in statement heels teetered up to the juice wall like hothouse butterflies flitting to an orange slice.
On winter mornings I went straight for the steaming canisters of slow-simmered steel-cut oats I never had the time or patience to prepare at home. When a woman is tired of perfect oatmeal, she is tired of life; for there is in perfect oatmeal all that life can afford. I swirled mine with cinnamon and crumbs of brown sugar, I paid, like, two dollars for it, and I thawed my hands on its cardboard pint cup as I rode the elevator 20 stories up to my desk. I kept a teaspoon from the silverware drawer at home in my file cabinet’s pencil tray.
I was the head of what was often a one-person department. When we shipped the magazine each month, I had to be at my desk to receive and pass my page proofs; it didn’t matter much if I had pneumonia (which I caught twice) or was stranded downtown after a storm (which Manhattan caught all the time). Desk breakfast welcomed me downstairs like the security guards who let me in without my ID because we’d waved to each other when I left at midnight. Desk breakfast was a chance to get my feet back under me in the morning, and it kept my hands busy while I scanned my mail and prayed my sources had come through while I was commuting or sleeping.
These days I tend to skip breakfast altogether. I ducked out of office-based work to freelance from home a couple of years ago, and while I still use the FUCK THE ECONOMY mug I always plunked beside my oatmeal in my cubicle, I now take my coffee on the sofa in front of my laptop. I am far better suited to working this way—for one thing, I’ve stopped coming down with pneumonia—but when it snows, I think fondly of the drifts that collected like clouds on the cafeteria’s glass ceiling and the retreat beneath it. Company life sheltered me in a number of ways—I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss employer-subsidized health care, a structured retirement plan, and discounts on complicated haircuts—but those warm mornings comforted me. Corporate breakfast, I salute you.