Discover more from The Sword and the Sandwich
Notable Sandwiches #19: The Breakfast Sandwich
“We’re born squalling and we die rattling. And in between there’s breakfast”
Welcome to the latest installment of Notable Sandwiches, where I nibble through the strange and twisted document that is Wikipedia’s List of Notable Sandwiches in alphabetical order. This week, the rather generic “breakfast sandwich.”
I have written nineteen sandwich essays (actually, my editor David Swanson wrote two and a half of them), and somehow still I haven’t gotten past breakfast. I’m not even much of a breakfast eater—my usual morning fare is cold brew and Klonopin, and I’m never close to ready to do anything so fraught as eating for a few hours after I drag my miserable ass out of bed. Nonetheless, the onerous rules I have imposed on myself (one essay for every sandwich on the List, no skips) have again placed me squarely in the sights of the meal I routinely neglect. I’ve covered a range of breakfast sandwiches already, if you’re curious—bacon egg and cheese, the bagel/bagel toast, and the Irish breakfast roll—but now I’m faced with just… the concept of breakfast sandwiches in general.
In despair, I considered contacting the actual Earl of Sandwich, who is a real guy who exists and has a parliamentary email and everything, and I still may, if reduced to these class-betraying straits and risking, as Terry Pratchett once put it, “gilt by association.”Thankfully things haven’t yet come to such a pass. The fact that I have once again returned to breakfast, though, reminds me of just how mammoth this project actually is (the good folks at Sandwich Tribunal, who are much more straightforwardly eating every sandwich on the List and making their own recipes, very impressive, have thus far covered nearly five hundred sandwiches and are still going) and how very much I have just begun. Being faced with breakfast all over again feels like Groundhog Day: waking up to have made no progress at all; all progress fictitious; time stuck in a strange, ceaseless loop, dragging me on numbly through it.
And then I realized I’ve felt this way for at least two years.
A lot of people talked, earlier in the pandemic (which is still ongoing and kills roughly a thousand Americans a day), about how strange time felt in lockdown: warped and malleable and thoroughly unreal, stretched, like taffy, into an endless unchanging present. The writer Eve Ettinger pointed out in a recent piece that this relationship to time can be a symptom of trauma. “[My friends] began talking about the future as if it didn’t exist, as if their imaginative powers were gone,” Ettinger writes. “There was no future, there was only this moment, this week, this day, and getting through it. We could be stuck here forever was the vibe at large. This shift was alarming, because up until that point, I was the only person I knew who consistently related to time that way—thanks to complex PTSD.”
The Sword and the Sandwich is a newsletter about serious extremism and equally serious sandwiches. Please consider supporting this work with a paid subscription:
I have a fairly large bag o’trauma myself—rape, assault, abusive relationships of different kinds—though I’ve never been diagnosed with PTSD, just panic disorder and refractory, treatment-resistant agoraphobia. I have been, under my therapist’s guidance, going on tiny walks each day to try to increase my ability to move through space by myself in general: I rarely make it more than a block, since moving to a new neighborhood two months ago. The pandemic made that condition infinitely and indefinitely worse; the year-and-change locked down inside erased a decade of progress. Life in the same set of rooms day in and day out, with perhaps a trip to the cafe on my block once a day and perhaps an experimental walk to see if I can reach the Duane Reade this time (spoiler: I haven’t yet; that avenue block is really long and very busy and it all involves three separate street crossings and I get panic attacks so violent I have to bite my hand to avoid screaming, until I turn back towards home and feel a staggering rush of liquid and pleasurable relief), has a natural intense monotony to it that makes it very difficult to have any real sense of the passage of time.
It doesn’t help that the nature of my employment is profoundly solitary and even self-cannibalizing; it entails going nowhere and speaking to no one. So I measure time by the weather—colder, colder, warmer, cold again; by Jewish holidays coming and going; by the minute indicia of nature—stray cats, moss in the cracks—that can be spotted from my cement square of a backyard; by the sandwich essays that mark the passage of each week. Every so often it descends into a desire to completely annihilate myself, and I usually resolve that abyssal yearning by buying something stupid (nightgowns, swords, an enormous hat) and going to sleep for as long as possible. I have written thousands of words without leaving my house, read many more thousands than that, written about war, and Nazis, and bacon sandwiches, from the elegant prison of the space between the headboard and the footboard of my bed. It’s always wartime here. It’s always fucking breakfast. I’m here and I try to be everywhere and I’m nowhere but here.
I used books to escape turmoil in my house as a kid—it’s a cliche, I know, but it’s true, and I read so much as a child and teenager, churning through library books like a little Scantron-3000 with my bedroom door locked. I read as fast as I could because I was running away from home without running away from home: the Great Men of Literature, first Tolkien and then Roth (Phillip and Joseph), Bellow, Malamud, Kerouac, Melville, Balzac, Cheever, Hawthorne, and the poets—Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova, Apollinaire, Breton; and so many more, pouring pages into the hole in my heart, burning my skin when that didn’t suffice. As an adult I got a tattoo of a garlic bulb to cover the scars, because I can abide garlic at any hour, even at breakfast.
As an adult with profound agoraphobia I have started reading novels again—right now I am reading David Copperfield, because I had an existential crisis at 2am this week and decided it was a disgusting shame that I am 32 and had never read Dickens—because I am running away again, and, trapped by my disability instead of my youth, I cannot use my fucking feet. I’m writing this at five-thirty in the morning because my entrapment has bad sleep as something of a symptom; for some people, five thirty is a reasonable hour for waking, a reasonable hour to start a day, with coffee, and maybe a breakfast sandwich. For me it’s just another hour of the same day that has gone on since March 2020, when time froze, and I stopped being able to do the things I used to be able to do, and the world whirled on without me. Into war, plays, productive occupations, into the “new normal,” into death. Into lunch, even.
Forced to bite into the detestable breakfast roll that is my life, to chew each hour grimly through and swallow every day, I stand here at the threshold of morning and declare that I am sick of it to no one in particular. I am tired. The thought of bread and eggs repulses me. I repulse myself. As Dostoevsky’s Underground Man puts it: I am wicked and there’s probably something wrong with my liver. Dawn comes soon—coffee, pills. Another day, another article, another set of horrifying images and inadequate words. Before life there’s darkness, after it darkness: a sandwich. We’re born squalling and we die rattling. And in between there’s breakfast.
At least David Copperfield is proving to be a fairly tolerable traveling companion. I find the chapter titles particularly delightful (“I Begin Life on My Own Account, and Don’t Like It,” and so on). And hey: Chapter 35 is “Depression.” But Chapter 36 is “Enthusiasm.” David says: “What I had to do, was, to turn the painful discipline of my younger days to account, by going to work with a resolute and steady heart. What I had to do was to take my woodman’s ax in my hand, and clear my own way through the forest of difficulty.” A few paragraphs later he encounters the beatific and oblivious Doctor Strong at breakfast, buttering his toast. He goes on through the forest of difficulty, fortified by it. He goes on.