8800 Grossmont College Drive, El Cajon
"I love the smell of burgers in the morning," says Jim. We stand here, just below the mesa, Jim's nose twitching in the breeze. The smell's wafting out of Grossmont College's cafeteria, somewhere up these steps we're climbing. Jim is heading for his usual breakfast, a two-patty hamburger with lettuce, red onion, tomato, pickles, and mayo, $2.99.
"Student rates," he says. "Can't beat 'em."
Jim heads off for his burger-breakfast. But me, I'm made of sterner stuff. I've come here to Grossmont College to see about -- don't laugh -- returning to finish what I dropped a while back: see if I could come back, study.
So I find my way to the administration office. Once I get inside, though, I panic. This is ridiculous. I had my chance, man, years ago -- how could I even afford it now?
A woman comes up. Fallback! Plan B!
"Anybody know where the chow hall is?" I ask. A tall, good-lookin' gal from the employment office shows me to a small door. "Through there," she says, and disappears. I go along a passage and then through another that opens out onto -- oh wow, a hall that could maybe handle a basketball court. Students spread out among two dozen tables, chowing down, talking, or staring into laptops. There are tables under green umbrellas outside as well. And at the far end, the actual cafeteria. "Is this the only eatery on campus?" I ask the girl cashier. "Pretty much," she says.
So we're not talking UCSD's huge dining center with all the concessions and smoky Persian and Somali food tents. This is just a part of the Student Center building. Its orange tile floor, cream tile walls, and strip lighting could make it your typical institution, except that the place buzzes with life.
I swing up to the counter. Hmm. They have burgers from $2.49 (single) to a double cheeseburger ($3.49). They have lots of breakfasts, too, officially done at 10 a.m., but still going strong at a quarter of two. And these are really good prices. A pasta bowl for $3.89, a crispy chicken sandwich for $2.29, a beef-and-bean burrito for $2.99. Plus pizzas starting at $1.99.
"An amazing number of folks get burgers in the morning," says the guy behind the counter. His name's Tracy.
I'm almost tempted, except the female student next to me orders a "chicken katsu." Turns out it's today's special, the most expensive thing on the menu at $4.99. Tracy loads the plate with red-skinned sautéed potatoes, sautéed veggies, like squash, zucchini, and carrots, and a big slab of crumb-coated chicken with a creamy sauce on top. There are special soups, too. Your choice: beef and mushroom, chicken noodle, or potato and bacon ($1.99 regular, $3.79 for the large).
"I'll have what she's having," I say, even though everybody else seems to be buying the breakfast burrito. This guy Liam, who's studying environmental engineering, gets one with sausage and Tater Tots for $3.15. "Every day I get this," he says. "This place has the best."
Pretty soon Betty brings out my plate. She looks familiar. Oh yeah! "Anybody ever tell you you look like J-Lo?" I ask her. "Not quite," she says. She pats her butt. "I'd need to put a lot more junk in my trunk."
I head off with the crowd to the coffee place for a large coffee ($1.60). I go through the glass doors to the patio and the green umbrellas and plunk down near a bunch of Japanese exchange students chomping and laughing. They're all eating the pasta bowl, penne plus a couple of vegetables. Meanwhile, I'm busy carving in to the chicken. The red potatoes and sautéed yellow squash and zucchini are great.
The kids rattle away in Japanese. "That's the problem," Mami tells me. She's one of the girls. "We intended to come to a school where there weren't many Japanese, so we would be forced to speak English. But here at Grossmont there are lots of us. We talk Japanese all the time."
And the food? "It's good," says Tatsu, the lone guy. "But at home we would have lots more vegetables, and we don't use so much oil in their cooking. It's healthier."
Well, this may not be as healthy, but it was a surprise fill-up for me. I get up, all energized. New resolve. Stride back to the admissions office. And, wow, they say, heck yes, half our students are adult returnees coming back after the wild years. Any time! Which sounds great. I take a catalog and head back outside. For a moment, I look across the valley. Oh boy, now I recognize it. It's where Carla lived as a kid, where she used to build forts in the trees with her brothers. I get all sentimental, duck back inside and buy a double burger to go, for her.
Back home, I produce it with a flourish.
"Straight from your alma mater," I say.
"Bedford!" Carla says. "You know I'm on a diet. Please get rid of it."
Diet? Man, I had forgotten. Oh well -- heh heh. Guess I'll just have to get rid of it.