During my senior year of college, I had the best internship, working on my favorite television show. Unlike those who came before me, I didn’t land the gig because I was blessed with a golden ticket last name or because my parents knew someone. I worked hard, was patient, and made lemonade out of lemons.
At that point, through my 21 years of life, this was the dream come true. I worked twenty-ish hours a week for no pay because I gave a shit and found a place I wanted to spend time. I was also massively lucky to be able to endure an unpaid internship for a full year, something the world has more recently realized is discriminatory and wrong. What I lacked in paid American currency, I made up for in occasional perks like t-shirts and promotional tchotchkes that no one else wanted.
The host of the show had it in his contract that he would get a tray of wraps every day, and the office rule was that AFTER the host picked what he wanted, the rest were up for grabs. Which meant that dry turkey or too-rare roast beef wraps were my frequent lunches. Back then, as a hungry college kid earning a salary that the NCAA would have approved of, I never understood why the whole staff didn’t dive in. (SIDE STORY 1: when I was one of the last to leave the office, I would grab all of the remaining wraps and hand them off to a homeless person on the way home, and once a guy told me he didn’t want them because they didn’t look good.)
On the last day of my internship, the host wished me well, thanked me for a year of work, and upon finding out I had gotten a job with the other TV show in the same office, was told I was always welcome in the newsroom and to his sandwiches. Also, I was given a $200 Amazon gift certificate, which was the unpaid internship equivalent of hitting the lottery. (SIDE STORY 2: I bought a polo shirt, an iPod speaker, and a large George Foreman grill which didn’t even fit in my tiny first apartment kitchen! If I had bought Amazon stock that day, the $200 would be worth $19,736 today, which would be the approximate pay of a year-long internship.)
I tried to remind myself of that, and not about the time he accused me (behind my back but while in the same room) of trying to get a reservation at a popular D.C. restaurant by name-dropping him, which I very much didn’t do because I am not a complete asshole.
From there, I began my regular, post-college work at the other TV show, across the hall. And since I was now getting paid a starting salary that went mostly to D.C. rent, I took him up on the frequent, but not daily, sandwich offer. I sometimes felt eyes on me when I went to the platter, but I was trying to be fiscally responsible, since dinner was often hot dogs or Kraft macaroni and cheese.
It explained that the host’s chicken salad wrap had been taken, before the host had a chance to take it, with a stern reminder that the sandwiches were technically for him, and it was he who generously shared the remainders with us. And if he was having his sandwich taken, that goodwill gesture may be revoked.
Have you ever walked into a room and known everyone was talking about you? You just knew, right? This was that, via email. It felt like everyone was CC’ed just to maintain an authentic investigation. At least that’s what I believed. What I knew was that I hadn’t taken the sandwich because:
A) My lunch break wasn’t until 2 P.M. and it was barely noon.
B) I wouldn’t eat chicken salad if it were the only option, even if I was miserably hungry. Chicken salad is a disgusting, goopy monstrosity. I can promise you no one has ever seen me eat chicken salad, and no one ever will.
C) Again, I am not an asshole. I was raised right not to take from others, and have enough common sense to not pilfer from the king.
Even though the email did not ask the culprit to raise his or her grubby hand, I did what I thought an accused person would do, and replied. I explained that I did not take it, and joked that the penalty for whoever took it should be that they had to eat the entire pack of disgusting chicken salad wraps.
But I also knew in that moment that the days of me going for my 2 P.M. free lunch were in the rearview. I couldn’t return to the scene of someone else’s crime, especially as a prime suspect. The office manager told me I was right to be defensive—that I had been accused—and that they enjoyed my email, though I am not sure anyone believed me.
Years later a common joke in the office would be about me stealing a chicken salad sandwich, a lunch I wouldn’t wish on my enemy—which, more and more frequently, the man who thought I had taken it from him had become. And the biggest problem was that for those years, I was somehow still the punchline, instead of the paranoid host who probably made a million dollars a year, taking major offense to missing the most disgusting option in his own daily free lunch platter. I managed fine, learning a lesson about the cost of free lunch, but it hurt never having any coworker stick up for me when they knew I was not the thief.
In the end, maybe it was all a good reminder of the implications of a free lunch. It may not cost you dollars, but you’ll pay for it somehow.