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Jim McDermottDecember 27, 2022
Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash

’Tis that end of the year season for Top 10 Lists. It’s funny, I always get excited to see what people are saying were the most important shows or events of the year. There is a great simplicity to a top 10 list, and also a clarity: Right from the start I know what I’m getting.

 But in the end don’t they all end up the same? There were thousands of television shows produced this year, hundreds of movies and millions of events, but odds are still we’re going to read list after list naming the same handful of things.

 Meanwhile, in our own lives the important stuff keeps blowing by us. I have long been haunted by an idea I heard in a homily by Paul Harman, S.J., a spiritual director in Boston: “Life is sometimes like living at the base of an active volcano. Every day a new layer of ash covers what happened today.” His point is, even the really good things from our lives eventually get buried in the daily churn of life. If we are not careful, our lives can become littered with gifts from God that we’ve completely forgotten about.

There is a great simplicity to a top 10 list, and also a clarity: Right from the start I know what I’m getting.

 So I was thinking, instead of focusing on what some critic or pundit has to say about what was important from the last year, what would it be like if we each went through our own calendars and credit card statements and made top 10 lists of our own, of the good things that got buried or the moments that we didn’t even notice at the time that were actually quite special. What if we took the time we’ll spend reading about “White Lotus” and “Tár” (again) to claim some of the gifts that God has given us?

 With that in mind, I offer you the top 10 lunches I had this year.

Feb. 16: Breakfast Tea and Spinach Cheddar Muffin at Think Coffee

After spending much of last winter wandering Manhattan trying to find somewhere I could get a Covid-19 test—weren’t last year’s holidays fun?—in early February, I finally succumbed to that blasted varmint Omicron and spent 10 days trapped in my room. Once I got past those first few days of being really sick I thought maybe it would be a kind of staycation. Instead, it made me absolutely nuts.

When it was over I immediately went to a tiny cafe around the corner from my house and purchased my standard order—a large English Breakfast tea and a spinach-cheddar muffin (note: muffins are healthy if they have vegetables). I then sat there at one of the shop’s little tables and just relished the experience of being around other people again. It was like I had been holding my breath for months. Finally, I could breathe.

April 3: Mushroom Omelet and Bottomless Mimosas at Carroll Place

When I first moved back to New York in 2021, my friend Barnaby invited me to brunch at a place he liked in the East Village. Though its N.Y.U.-adjacent crowd tends toward the hip and chic, the brunch itself is happily very eggs, meat and potatoes, and going here has become a tradition for the two of us. We sit outside (originally because of Covid, now because that is how we have always done it), talk about the shows we have seen and want to see. And eventually somewhere in between the second and third mimosa (don’t look at me like that, they’re tiny-ish), we’re having a conversation about real life.

Instead of focusing on what some critic or pundit has to say about what was important from the last year, what would it be like if we went through our own calendars and made top 10 lists of our own?

On this particular day it was unusually chilly and also wet. As we ate, it rained harder and harder, until eventually we had to press ourselves against the back wall to avoid the streams of rainwater that began pouring through the scaffolding above. I felt like we were in an episode of “Laverne & Shirley.”

May 22: Nashville Hot Chicken Sandwich and a Strawberry Shake at A.J. Bombers

The day before my niece Molly’s graduation, she received the undergraduate Clinical Excellence Award from the speech pathology department at Marquette University. (She is awesome.) Afterward, the two of us had lunch together at A.J. Bombers, a Milwaukee joint where people write on the walls and tables as they drink boozy milkshakes.

If I’m being honest, I don’t know if I really did get the Nashville or a strawberry shake that day. All I remember is how great it was to spend time with Molly.

July 6: Peanut Butter on Wheat Bread and a Sugar-Free Ginger Ale at Xavier

On days when I’m working from home, I tend to hole up in my room at the Xavier Jesuit Community until I have finished whatever it is I am supposed to be writing. That usually means that if I have lunch at all, it’s probably not going to be until around 2 p.m. 
Being a writer is great and also weird. You get to chew on so many interesting things, but writing can also feel like being in an intense conversation. When you’re done, it can be hard to communicate.
I always feel lucky to come downstairs and find other guys from my community eating a late lunch. Their presence drags me out of the ether. They are often willing to swim with me in it, too.

Sept. 1: Avocado Sandwich and a Montauk Pale Ale at Indie Food and Wine

I took the day off, and wandering around the city was unexpectedly amazing. Everything looked brighter somehow, and all the people more interesting, their lives teeming with stories. I don’t why this is, but somehow the world seems bigger or more thrilling when experienced on a day you’re supposed to be working.

When you work side by side, even just for a few months, you can start to think you know each other. But proximity can be deceiving.

In the afternoon, I was going to see “Bleu,”the first film in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s beautiful Trois Colores trilogy. Juliette Binoche stars as a grieving woman who tries to abandon her entire life after her husband and daughter are killed in a car accident. The silence and power of her performance and the exquisite beauty of the music and imagery are some of the first things that made me want to work in the movie business. I try to see it anytime it’s in a theater.

The trilogy was shown at Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, which has a pretty little café and wine bar that seemed to have as much appreciation for its own craft as Kieślowski and Binoche do their movies. I spent an hour there before the film reading a book and sipping a beer, savoring that marvelous feeling of playing hooky on a work day.

Oct. 25: Croque Madame and English Breakfast Tea at Fig & Olive

At the advice of a friend, when I visited London in October, I ventured to a part of the city I didn’t know on the off chance that I might be able to get a ticket to the new Elton John musical about Tammy Faye Bakker called “Tammy Faye.” Online nothing seemed to be available, but I had been told by many people before I left that when it comes to getting theater tickets, London is a magical place. So I traveled out to Islington on a rainy Tuesday morning and was stunned to discover when I got to the box office that there was a seat available in the 8th row center for next to nothing.

I don’t why this is, but somehow the world seems bigger or more thrilling when experienced on a day you’re supposed to be working.

Dazed at my good luck, I pretty much floated to a nearby cafe, where I was delighted to find an order of tea yielded a whole pot. I know it’s just hot water in there, but still when they give you a pot it feels like you are getting away with something. It all reminded me of a confirmation liturgy I once saw Milwaukee Auxiliary Bishop Richard J. Sklba perform. When each kid came up to be anointed, the bishop dipped his whole hand in the oil, then literally slathered their heads with it. “This is how extravagant God’s love is for us,” he told us.

Believe it or not, that’s what the musical was about, too.

Nov. 10: English Breakfast Tea at Irving Park New York

One of the things I love about meeting new people is that you often end up at new places.

At Irving Park New York, a coffee shop close to me I’d never been to, I was to meet a friend of a friend, which is always a little nerve-wracking. Some people think I’m an extrovert, but a lot of the time I can be shy and awkward. What I always have to remember is that good conversation is about letting go. It’s about trusting that the other person can roll with your brand of crazy. What was supposed to be a half-hour chat ended up to be a couple happy hours over tea.

Nov. 23: Spicy Chicken Sandwich Meal and Strawberry Milkshake at McDonald’s

I have this friend who is in a long-term relationship with McDonald’s McRib sandwich. Sometimes I’ll suddenly get a text from him out of the blue just to let me know that the McRib is back or that he’s just had one. (Note: I have never had a McRib myself.)

The day before Thanksgiving as he and I were shopping, he revealed that the McRib was once again back—where does it go when it is not here? I wonder—and we were going to stop and get one. In fact, he got two plus a quarter-pounder, none of which I would have paid attention to except for the fact that he ate all three of them so fast that I barely saw it happen.

The sound of their delight is like the sun breaking through on an overcast winter day, reminding me in my little bubble that the world has more in it than 12-point Cambria and too many adverbs.

Why is this on my top 10 list of lunches for the year when just thinking about it now has my stomach doing loop-de-loops? I don’t know. I guess I love it when people are just entirely and unselfconsciously themselves.

So Many Days in the Last Year: Tomato Soup at My Desk

This may sound odd given the topic of this article, but when it comes to work, I’m not a big lunch guy. In the office, I’m more like the America Media mole man, sitting in my cubicle and working until whatever I’m working on is done. And I don’t mind that. I get a cup of creamy tomato soup from Fresh & Co. across the street (which, again, is healthy because it is vegetables), and I’m set.

But sometimes while I’m tapping away, I can hear laughter echoing off the walls from the kitchen, where our O’Hare fellows are swapping stories, usually with Molly Cahill, Kevin Jackson or Jim Keane. The sound of their delight is like the sun breaking through on an overcast winter day, reminding me in my little bubble that the world has more in it than 12-point Cambria and too many adverbs.

Dec. 5: Crunchy Crispy Chicken Sandwich at P.J. Clarke’s

I have a special place in my heart for P.J. Clarke’s. Because it’s located across the street from Lincoln Center, I always assume it is super fancy, and any time I am invited there feels like a treat.

In point of fact, the Crunchy Crispy Chicken, in addition to having a delightfully satisfying name to say, costs less than $20. And it has Japanese pickles, which are vegetables, and therefore it is healthy.

Today I’m hanging out with my friend David. We get together every three or four months, and it is always good. Some people are like Christmas. Every time you are with them you feel like you’ve been given a gift.As we talk, I watch people in bright scarves go by outside, the lights in the windows and on the trees. And it really does feel like a treat.

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