I woke up late on the morning I was supposed to meet Jamie Layton, one of the college dining services staff members, for an interview in Sharples.
When I walked in the front door, I saw on the big red clock that it was already 10:07, and I felt a pang of guilt. Layton was sitting in between the two swipe stations, having a rather intense phone conversation, something about lawn mowers and landscaping. She noticed me and got up immediately, without missing a beat or a breath. We walked together to a table on the top level of Sharples, and when we both sat down, she cut off the man she was speaking to mid-sentence, said goodbye, and hung up.
“I say ten o’clock, I mean exactly ten o’clock. I don’t have one minute past or one minute early. I’m very on time,” she said during the interview. The guilt in my gut swelled.
We have all seen the sandwiches and salads stacked high on plates and counters at Kohlberg and Science Center coffee bars, and we’ve all been to a catered college event where the sandwiches looked vaguely similar to the ones at those coffee bars. Amazingly, each one of those salads and sandwiches is, and has been, hand-made by Layton for the last twenty five years of the college’s history. She was hired as a part time caterer under Paul Tuennerman, director of dining services for Morrison Custom Management, which provided dining services to the college before Director of Dining Services Linda McDougall assumed her current role. Before joining the dining services staff at Swarthmore, Layton used to sell spring rolls at Bryn Mawr and Haverford on a biweekly basis. While she runs her own catering business, she took the job at the college because of the benefits package that comes with being employed here.
“I probably work like, sixteen hours a day,” she said without batting an eye.
While Layton may be the embodiment of a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps work ethic, her path to a long career at Swarthmore was anything but typical. It all began when Layton was six years old, a little girl in war-stricken Vietnam. She told me she learned all that she knows about cooking and food arranging from her mother, who was a very good cook herself. Layton came to the United States in 1969, after living through several conflicts in Vietnam, including the Indochina Wars and the beginnings of the American Vietnam War.
“In a war country, you gotta survive … from then on, I did everything,” she said. And when Layton says everything, she means everything: she does the catering work for both the college and for her personal business, and raised her two children, all on her own.
How does one staff member get so many salads and sandwiches and the occasional floral arrangement out the door every day? Layton said that about four hours of her day, every day, are spent putting together chicken salad or tomato-mozzarella sandwiches, or some other combination of fresh meats and toppings. There’s even a different salad option almost every day, and Layton comes up with all the ideas herself. She said that creating each day’s entrees is like an automatic process for her.
“My head [is like] a computer … if I came to your house, I’d open up the refrigerator and I’d look around. I can come out with a whole lot of dishes. If I see a garden … everything [appears] in my head,” she said. Pulling out photos from a leather-bound photo album, Layton pointed out the meticulous details of her home garden: a beautifully manicured lawn, a prim and proper Japanese maple, a tiny shrine ornament. If her backyard is anything like the gardens that appear in her head, Layton’s mind must be filled with scenes of unimaginable beauty. But the beauty in life does not stand alone; rather, it often competes with the frustration and sacrifices of life.
Layton stopped providing catering services to the college in 1997, because after that point, the costs of catering projects were simply not worth the time and effort she put into them. Layton now focuses her energy on the food for coffee bars and her standard shifts at the Science Center coffee bar and at Sharples. The decision to stop catering doesn’t come with regrets, she explained.
“If I had two incomes, I would have opened a restaurant a long time ago,” she said. “… [but] I put all my energy into the college.”
When asked how she feels about the Swarthmore community, Layton said there was something very good going on at the college.
“Most of the people that work down here [at Sharples] are very hardworking,” she explained. “They should earn a little bit more. You have to be [at Sharples] day in and day out … And you see people rush. Sometimes they don’t even have time to have a cup of coffee,” she said. She held up an almost full glass of tea that she had been carrying with her; it was from this morning, and she had been so busy that she hadn’t had time to finish the glass.
“To me, because I was born and raised in a country that was very poor … I went through a lot. Most of the time, I’m disappointed [in the students] here. The way [they treat] the food makes me feel so sad. Very sad. Because when I see people take one bite out of [a sandwich] and throw it away, I can think about my brother and my sister and I [sitting in] a rice field because of the Japanese bombs … eating corn on the cob that people [had] thrown in the water and we eat it,” she recalled.
Despite the feelings she mentioned, Layton feels that Swarthmore is a good place.
“The people here are nice. Nobody bothers nobody. They just come in, they work,” she said.
After talking to Layton, I don’t think I’ll be able to look at a sandwich the same way ever again. The next time you order something from the coffee bar in a five-minute frenzy, I’d encourage you to think about how that sandwich made its way into your hands, and think twice before throwing part of it away.