If you were a sandwich, what kind of sandwich would you be?
Hey, where are you going? Come back! I’ll get to the point eventually, I promise.
Now, before you answer, read the question again. It isn’t: What kind of sandwich would you like to be? It’s: What kind of sandwich would you be?
You may consider yourself a sophisticate: a croque monsieur — ham, Gruyère cheese and mustard on an egg-battered rustic loaf dusted in powdered sugar — when everyone else sees you as peanut butter and jelly on Wonder Bread.
We live our lives in the gap between the sandwich of our dreams and the sandwich of our reality.
I’ve had occasion to ponder this lately. There’s a cafeteria-style eatery off the lobby of the building my office is in. It’s one of those loud, busy lunchrooms that has a lot of offerings: salad bar, hot food bar, Mongolian barbecue, sushi . . .
It also has a deli counter where you can order anything from a BLT to a cheesesteak.
I was standing there the other afternoon, staring at the menu and trying to decide what to get, when the sandwich lady behind the counter looked at me and said, “Holland Tunnel?”
It suddenly struck me: She thinks I’m a Holland Tunnel, which is their term for a sandwich composed of thinly sliced turkey, Virginia baked ham, Monterey Jack cheese, coleslaw and Russian dressing on a soft, toasted hoagie.
This annoyed me. Just because a Holland Tunnel is what I usually order didn’t mean I wanted one now. Surely I’ve ordered sandwiches other than a Holland Tunnel in the years I’ve been going to that eatery. And in any case, I don’t go there every day for lunch — or even every week. I have a rich gustatory life outside that cafeteria.
But the sandwich lady has reduced me to a single menu item. In her eyes, “my sandwich” is a Holland Tunnel. I am a Holland Tunnel.
“I am not a sandwich!” I wanted to shout. “I am a human being! I contain multitudes!”
Instead, I said, “Um, yeah, Holland Tunnel, thanks” and shuffled back to await my sandwich.
As she prepared my sandwich, I grabbed a bag of Kettle brand salt-and-black-pepper crinkle-cut potato chips, as is my custom, then went to get a bottle of Diet Dr Pepper Cherry.
But they were out of Diet Dr Pepper Cherry. In fact, on closer inspection I saw that the other bottles on the shelf — all those colas, teas, juices and flavored waters — had been rearranged in such a way that there wasn’t even space for Diet Dr Pepper Cherry. There had been some sort of soda cull, and Diet Dr Pepper Cherry had not made the cut.
I threw myself to the floor and began wailing, pulling at my hair and rending my garments.
No, I grabbed a bottle of Diet Dr Pepper. The sandwich lady announced “Holland Tunnel,” and I stepped forward to receive the wax-paper torpedo that she lifted in silent benediction over the deli counter’s sneeze guard.
So what’s my point? All of us put on masks for the outside world. Some masks we wear to obscure what’s underneath. Some masks show the faces we want others to think we have. This I knew. But I’d forgotten that other people put masks on us, too.
The sandwich lady puts a sandwich mask on every person she serves. Mine is made of thinly sliced turkey, Virginia baked ham, Monterey Jack cheese, coleslaw and Russian dressing on a soft, toasted hoagie.
I make no apologies for my desires — there’s something about the crunch of the coleslaw and the tang of the dressing that appeals to me — but it wouldn’t hurt me to broaden my horizons, to be the sandwich I wish to see in the world.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.