The first place I ever lived as a "grown up" (not a dorm, not a house with college roomies) was in a house near a park overlooking a beach. I rented a room from a nerdy single man who worked at a University and who rented rooms in his house to visiting professors and lecturers.
At the time it never occurred to me that this might be a strange or dangerous arrangement, although looking back I wonder what possessed me to do such a thing. But I was off on an adventure, on a shoe-string no less, and would not be stopped for anything.
The man who owned the house was rarely there and I pretty much had the run of it. I slept in my room, used the kitchen when I wasn't eating fast-food on the go and set up a little office in what looked like a den that nobody was using. It was a satisfactory arrangement.
Periodically a note from my landlord would appear on my bedroom door -- a notice of the impending arrival of a visiting person, someone to rent The Third Room.
One day I arrived home with a bag of food from a local burger joint and entered the kitchen to find a strange man sitting at the table. He rose when I entered the room.
"Hello," he said, with a thick Russian accent. He nodded his head and took in the full length of me with a quick glance. "I am Doctor So-n-So." He told me he was visiting for a day or two for a lecture.
I sat down as he began asking me questions about what I was doing here and questions about the area. As we talked, I opened the cheeseburger to see what condition it was in after being hastily prepared by uncaring teenage wage slaves.
Inside the burger was a big, fat tomato slice. I don't eat tomatoes. I don't eat them because they taste like grass. And I've not understood for many years why people eat tomatoes if they taste like grass. Finally I came to the conclusion that to most people they taste like something else. Like a tomato, I guess. Whatever that tastes like.
As politely as possible I tried to pull the tomato off to the side and laid it on the foil wrapper my burger came in. I closed the sandwich up and started to eat and noticed The Doctor had stopped talking and was staring at my tomato all laid out on the foil, unsightly and in mayo-covered disarray.
"Why do you do that with your tomato?"
Mouth open, burger ascending toward gaping maw, I stopped and said, "What? The tomato?" I looked at the tomato.
"Yes, why do you put your tomato to the side like that?"
"Oh," I said, now embarrassed. "I don't like tomatoes."
"May you what?"
"May I eat your tomato?"
"Um, sure. Really? Yes, of course."
He smiled at me in a very friendly manner and, still standing, held the tomato slice in both hands as if holding a sandwich and bit into it.
"Why you don't like tomatoes?"
Now I was becoming uncomfortable, as if he had done something really personal like announced he was going to take off his shirt and dance the macarena for me, or asked me my height and weight or told me intimate details about his current lover.
Here is the Truth: I'm ashamed to be a picky eater. There I said it. But it's not just because I'm fussy. Sometimes things just taste wrong. Tomatoes taste like grass. Cilantro tastes like soap. Celery makes me barf. Mushrooms taste like old food that should have been thrown out weeks ago. But to be fair, I like a lot of stuff people don't like -- eggplant, brussels sprouts, asparagus, broccoli, and many others.
I resisted the urge to defend myself and simply said, shrugging, "I don't know. They just taste bad."
"In my country there is not a lot of food. Sometimes you wait for a long time in line to get food and then when you get to the front of the line there is no food there. If you see food you eat it whether or not you like it because you don't know when you will get more. I cannot allow food to go to waste. Everywhere I go I am always asking people if I can eat what they left over. Old habit. I am sure people think I am very strange."
And he laughed, completely not caring if I or anyone else thought him strange. He just stood there at the table, happy to be not wasting my discarded tomato.
He should write a book called How to Make a Middle-Class American Girl Feel Like a Heel in One Easy Step.
To this day I cannot take a tomato off a sandwich without thinking of him.