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Sharp Memorial Hospital Cafeteria

3075 Health Center Drive, Kearny Mesa

Nobody goes to the hospital unless they have to. Or their buddy has to.

My buddy Cisco had to today. Tests. He’s like me: car-free. So our neighbor Linda offered her Nissan. Bless that gal. Oh, man. Worried about him. That smoker’s cough. I drop him off at Sharp Memorial on Health Center Drive — their new Outpatient Pavilion, a real palace — and suddenly have two hours to kill. What do you do for two hours up in deepest Kearny Mesa at 6:30 in the morning?

“Go have breakfast, for both of us,” says Cisco as the elevator swallows him up.

“We do have a cafeteria,” says the lady at the front desk. “If you turn left out the door, head up toward the walkway, second on your.…”

OK, I get lost a couple of times, but 15 minutes later, I’ve joined a stream of nurses and doctors heading up these stairs and onto a balcony with biscuit-colored umbrellas scattered along maybe 20 yards of deck. But, hey, it looks out toward trees and haze and, I’m guessing, right down to the coast. Then — even though there ain’t no sign — I follow this nurse through a mirrored-glass door in a mirrored-glass wall. And suddenly, we’re inside a big cream-on-cream cafeteria.

That’s OK. I’ll forgive them the color scheme, ’cause I can smell the cawfee and the bacon frying, hear a buzz of bleary people bonded by sleep deprivation. I’m also pretty sure they’re going to be charging hospital-cafeteria rates. Like, low.

Still, I feel like pretty much the only civilian right now. The cashier ladies are dressed in chocolate blouses and black slacks, the cafeteria staff are in midnight blue, the nurses are in chemical green, and flashing through them are the white-coats. Doctors.

“Eating helps,” says this gal Cathy into a cell phone. She’s sitting at one of the round tables. “I’ve been here for a week. Sleeping in a cot beside my daughter. She’s 24. Crohn’s disease.”

She must be talking to someone out of state, because she’s describing the weather, everything. Including, natch, the food. “Their chicken strips are great. Not greasy. Split pea soup’s to die for. The soup and salad…my dear, I’ve had everything. And it’s all so cheap.…”

There’s no music. All you hear is the burble of conversation and the zit-zit-zit of the two cash registers. I make my way through the checkout ladies toward a forest-green area — hey, color! — a servery and salad bar and an actual purple-painted entrance. That’s where you go to get a squirt of Purell hand sanitizer before you start touching the food.

They have a big breakfast counter where Marcus Rivera is making omelets. You know it’s him, because they have his photo and an inscription below congratulating him for making this a happy place to work in. He has a rack of chafing dishes loaded with everything from egg scramble to hash browns, to macaroni and cheese, to frijoles and bacon and salsa. For sure, we’re not being told to eat only nuts and twigs here.

But — this must be subliminal, right? — I cross to the salad bar, grab a plate and start loading up with granola, grapes, prunes, raisins, slices of pear and peach, a splot of strawberry yogurt…and then I stop myself, because I realize I’m going to be paying by weight, at $4.80 per pound. On the way to the checkout ladies, I pour myself a 12-ounce coffee into a “No CFCs” cup. My plate weighs 0.7 of a pound at the checkout. They want $3.38 for that, and $1.12 for the coffee. No refills, but it’s not a bad deal.

I sit down, surrounded by stressed people on cell phones. Nursing staff organizing gurneys for the day’s surgery patients, doctors talking about “duodenals,” patients’ relatives reporting to the family on how things are. I gouge into my fruits and yogurt. Mmm, now that I think about it, not a bad way to start the day. Must mention this to Ms. Carla. I wolf it down, then slip back to the Outpatients to check up on Cisco.

“Still another hour,” says the nurse.

So, heck, back to the trough. This time I decide to test Marcus’s skills. I order a cheese-and-meat omelet and start adding on from the extras set out in pots. Tomatoes, green peppers, hash browns, salsa, melted cheese on the omelet. Marcus tosses plenty of chopped sausage into the pan on the hot plate. It all costs $3.99, plus 70 cents for hash browns. Sweet deal. I grab a black plastic knife and fork, hand over $5.05 (including tax), and head back to my table. Oh, man. Hash browns, omelet, sausage. Sort of an antidote to the fruit salad I started off with.

Plus, pretty soon Cathy comes over from a nearby table and starts talking with the older woman doing a crossword at the table next to me. And then the three of us are sharing worries about what’s going on with our buddies. Cathy’s got the daughter going through Crohn’s disease, Yolanda has her husband upstairs right now, having his bladder biopsied. “We’ve been married 45 years,” she says quietly. I tell them about Cisco and smoking and how being uninsured sucks, and, bonded by mortal worries, we’re suddenly best of pals. I even get to talking with a tall guy in a chef’s uniform. He’s holding a meeting with half a dozen staff at the next table. Robert B. Hicks, in charge of all the food at this hospital. He’s eating an apple for breakfast.

“We serve 20,000 meals per week,” he says between crunches. And yes, absolutely, the public’s welcome, even if they don’t have a loved one being treated here.

Then, like midnight for Cinderella, it’s 8:30. Must be shift change, ’cause the place seems to empty out. Me too. I’ve got to go check on Cisco. It’s like take-a-deep-breath time for everybody. Out beyond the purple door lies reality, up and down, good and bad.

The Place: Sharp Memorial Hospital Cafeteria, 3075 Health Center Drive, Kearny Mesa, 858-939-3636
Type of Food: American
Prices: Salad bar, including breakfast granola, $4.80 lb.; breakfast specials, e.g., cheese and meat omelet, $3.99; lunch and dinner prices vary daily, but very reasonable
Hours: 6:15 a.m.–8:00 p.m. daily
Bus: 25, 120
Nearest Bus Stop: Health Center Drive and Frost

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eclectic Dec. 3, 2008 @ 11:45 p.m.

Please let us know that Cisco is doing well and send to him and his family my/our healing wishes.

Once I had some weird diagnosis, returned to followup, and bingo, the lung spot had diminished by 70%, I could have been one day from dead, but it appears it wasn't my time to exit, plus I no longer have health insurance so there. Yeah.

Sorry, I got distracted from the food.

We just never know, do we, when our time is up.


kansh Dec. 10, 2008 @ 3:23 p.m.

It's true. I've tasted many a dish from breakfast to dinner at this generic cafeteria. I guess they don't spend much on ambience and decor and maybe that's how they keep the price low. I have to admit, I"ve taken my 12yo and 9yo kids there on the weekend just for breakfast and they LOVE it. No, our family isn't depraved-- I think it's just the magnitude of selection from donuts to granola to biscuts/gravy that make them happy.


JulieParrots Dec. 11, 2008 @ 6:05 a.m.

You had me at granola. I'm all about yummies, especially low- priced ones.


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