Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Cheap Beer, Chow Halls, and the Cost of Consideration

About a year ago, I went drinking with a friend. Our chosen location of libation was a small, dark, grimy hole in the wall bar in St. Petersburg, Florida. The type of place frequented by college kids, hipsters, and other out-of-the-mainstream scene standards.

Despite their banners for 2-for-1 Pabst and other beer specials, I went for their top shelf and ordered an imported beer that ran me upwards of five dollars. My friend, on the hand, decided on the Pabst special, taking her first beer and arranging with the barkeep to have her second beer ready when she was done with the first.

After we found a table, my friend jokingly gave me a tough time for being one of the only people in the bar who didn’t order a beer special, Pabst or otherwise. Knocked back on my heels and slightly defensive at having my beer taste attacked, I told her I went through my cheap beer phase in college and because I was still living off the savings I accrued from the good job I was laid off from, I was going with a good beer. Since she had once told me she was a beer snob, I flipped the question and asked her why she bought the cheaper beer, implying of course, that the cost was reflective of the quality.

“When in Rome,” she said, smiling and nodding at our less than luxurious surroundings. As the night went on, we continued drinking, her downing two Pabst for half the cost of each one of my beers.

After she poked fun at my selection several times and suggested after each beer that I join her at the level of specially-marked selections, I finally deployed the often-used beer snob defense.

“Life’s too short to drink cheap beer,” I said. I then followed it up with an attack on her selection.

“I don’t know how you can drink that stuff,” I said.

Looking back, that might have been a little harsh, especially considering we had been drinking for a while at that point. But her cool, calm, collected response immediately made me eat my words off the foot I had so elegantly put in my mouth.

“Did it ever occur to you that this is all I can afford?” she asked.

I was silent. To be honest, it hadn’t.

I’ve been reminded of that night quite a bit lately here in Afghanistan.

On my base, there are two main dining facilities. When I arrived, they were both of the same poor quality. People told me they were among the worst on all the bases in the country. And considering there are over 100,000 troops from all over the world at numerous bases scattered all over Afghanistan, that’s bad. There was a joke that the day people stopped complaining about the over-cooked chicken, inedible lasagna, and meat of the day smothered in mystery gravy was the day they had officially been on the base too long.

About two months ago, however, the food at one of the dining facilities started to get better. It was a gradual change, starting with the appearance of individual boxes of cereal such as Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Apple Jacks to replace the giant self-serve dispenser of generic corn flakes. Then various flavors of single-serving milk boxes arrived – strawberry, chocolate, and even banana – regulating the generic milk and the styrofome cups to coffee supplements only.

According to word around the base, the improving dining facility was under a new contract, one that spent more on ingredients and brand-name foods. As the dining facility continued to progress, a spaghetti bar arrived, as well as a sandwich bar, a potato bar, and themed entrée nights, with highly passable, if not well-cooked, Mexican, Cajun, and even steak.

Soon the lines at the improved dining facility started getting longer as many people chose to eat at the place with the better selection, ingredients, and taste.

Unfortunately, not everyone was able to partake.

As part of the new contract at the new dining facility, the nearly 20 or so nations with troops on my base were forced to up their per-meal cost. In other words, instead of each country paying X per meal per customer, the new cost was now X+Y per meal per customer. For most countries, this wasn’t an issue. They paid and their personnel were able to eat better food.

But some countries opted not to pay. Perhaps they didn’t believe in the difference. Perhaps they didn’t have the allocated funds. Or perhaps they just couldn’t afford the increased fee.

I work in an office with at least one person whose country didn’t pay the higher per-meal cost. They are forced to still go to the remaining poorer quality dining facility. When it’s time for lunch or dinner I try not leave at the same time as they do to avoid going one way to my preferred location of dining while they go the other to where they have to go.  And if they ask if I want to go to lunch with them, I never say “No, I want to go to the good chow hall.” I join them. It’s not their fault their nations are not paying.

Sometimes it’s good to take a step back and realize the situation people are in before judging their choices. Sometimes it’s best to join them and partake in what options they have. Sometimes it’s best to put aside what you would prefer for the sake of friendships. They last longer than the taste of beer or Cinnamon Toast Crunch anyway.

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