ONCE, IN THE MIDDLE OF AN AFTERNOON class on Victorian lit, my friend Roxane dialed out for beer. A six-pack of Coronas, a box of Lemonheads, plus a guy to drive it over in 30 minutes. "Don't forget the limes," she said. For the next hour and a half, Roxane was God, and Jane Eyre, with candy and a couple of cold ones, never read so well. Lesson being: If you can't go to the food, let the food come to you. Maybe it's about laziness, this love affair with the meal delivered. Or indulgence. Megalomania. Exhaustion. Spontaneity. A Freudian yearning for nourishment on call. A 1 a.m. epiphany that a lump of cheese and a squirt of mustard simply will not do. Here's a week in the life of no going out. No hunting. No gathering. From virtual grocery carts to cakes that fly: Food's on its way.
No names. No crooning sweet pleasantries. Despite the smiling, waving mascot on the menu, tonight there's just a disembodied voice on a phone. But first, a recording: "Pink Dot is your source for liquor, soda or prepared meals in around 30 minutes." Then a woman: "Whatcanwegetyou?"
"Uh, a bag of ice, please?"
"Visa, Master, Amex?"
"Last four numbers?"
Fumbling with the card. Awkward shifting of the phone. "Forty-five minutes," she says. Pink Dot, formerly PDQuick, formerly Pink Dot, and I are regulars, meeting twice a month for late-night/early-morning Diet Coke rendezvous.
At 1:28 a.m., three knocks on the door. Through the peephole, I spot a mass of familiar bushy black hair.
"What's new?" Normally, not so much as a "Hello" from any Pink Dot man -- so far they've all been men -- but Joe and I go way back: two bottles of Arrowhead. A cup of minestrone. A slice of mousse cake. He had asked me once if I was from the Philippines, and ascertaining that yes, I am, now speaks to me only in Tagalog. The gravelly voice, the mustache, the deep tan, and the thick glasses always askew -- he reminds me of jaded old men sipping San Miguel beer, smoking cigarettes, driving jeepneys through heat and perpetual traffic. Not so in L.A., where vintage Pink Dot drivers once shuttled around in VW Beetles with roof-mounted propellers.
Are they busy tonight? He glances down the hall as I sign the credit-card form. A little, because of soccer, the World Cup. There's some shouting from the apartment across the way. Joe eyes it suspiciously, weighing options -- Russian Mafia? Frat party? Clandestine love affair gone horribly awry?
So, Joe, what are people ordering tonight?
"Liquor," he grunts, handing over the chilly plastic bag. He notes my pajamas, the generous tip, the darkened living room, and looks me in the eye conspiratorially: "What are you doing with the ice?"
CHEF ON THE WAY
Legend of Chef on the Way spreads like an urban office myth: A man arrives, in chef's outfit, sporting a funny hat to deliver yummy gourmet goodies he's concocted himself. Intrigued, I have a menu faxed over. The iconography: two drawings of wavy-haired chefs with platters of food, jetting forward on roller skates. Though they've accounted for the scenario of one person ordering 10 dollars' worth of food ("Take the work out of planning dinner by having it delivered along with your lunch, now"), I roam the workplace collecting orders to meet the minimum delivery requirement: one Chinese chicken salad, one insalata caprese, one chicken-medallions hot entrée "stuffed with spinach and julienne vegetables" in Marsala sauce with mashed potatoes.
On the phone, Herbert has a "can do" attitude. Do they take credit cards? "Sure do!" Do they really wear the chef outfit? "Sure do!" Do they like wearing the chef outfit? "Of course they do!" Just before we bid farewell, he actually says it: "Chef's on the way!" An hour later, Chef Michael arrives, in dark-blue-and-white pinstripe pants with a white button-up coat, sans pouffy cap. "Yeah, I left it in the car," he grins sheepishly. "They say we have to wear it, but pshh." He'll deliver to about 50 people on a typical day, mostly to production studios and media outlets. The chefs make the food and then personally deliver it -- Chef on the Way is a total concept, couture fast food.
As evidence that Michael has made both the salads in the plastic bag himself, there are tiny splotches of dressing on his lapel. Chef on the Way is his first job in the culinary industry. Sadly, no roller skates, but Chef Michael has a twinkling black crystal earring and highlighted hair. He's articulate and accommodating, explaining in one quick burst that the chefs rotate -- cooking, delivering, preparing entrées or salads -- and that the service began in March and was conceptualized by two chefs in the catering business. On the plastic container that holds my chicken medallions, there's a sticker that reads: "Microwave me, toss your salad, use me again, freeze me." I also get a toothpick, a chocolate mint and a moist towelette. ä22
THE WEB GROCERY DIARIES:
Netgrocer vs. Albertsons.com
Day one: Netgrocer's first deadly sin is in crashing my browser. Twice. I place my order: a bag of granola, plain, and three cans of "Beef Feast" Fancy Feast cat food. Estimated time of delivery: four days. Searching for water on Albertsons.com brings up 546 products from "deli ham" to "watercress" to "nipples and bottlecaps." A virtual shopping cart on the left-hand side of the screen updates as I add items -- a bag of Foster Farms Buffalo Style chicken tenders and one box of Teddy Grahams. Estimated time of delivery: 32-35 hours.
Day two: Confirmation e-mails arrive with password reminders and order totals. Netgrocer promises to leave non-perishable delivery orders at the door, even if no one is home. FedEx is its middleman of choice.
Day three: Albertsons.com delivery arrives! Vina, identified by her name tag as "Dot Com Driver," shows up on schedule at 10 a.m. On the dot. "Is this all you ordered?" she asks, flexing her biceps. Like driving a Lamborghini 5 miles per hour on the autobahn, like asking the Hulk to uncap a jar of cherries, Vina's ready to strut her stuff. She's outfitted in black polo shirt and black slacks with hair pulled back into a no-nonsense ponytail, but I wonder about her lanky frame. What if I ordered a lot of things? "No problem," she says. "Even if I got 20 totes, if I have to take them out of the bag one by one and hand it to you, I work it the way it's best for me." She balances a clipboard jauntily on her hip, "We've got our own refrigerated trucks," so cold foods are fair game. Even if there are stairs? "No problem." Even if the elevator's broken? "No problem." In the summer, people order a lot of sodas and water, she says. I'm her third new client this week. I hand her my credit card, but she shakes her head, "Oh, we don't need that. Only if we think it's fraudulent." In the plastic bag, two chocolate Nabisco Cremewich freebies. From Netgrocer.com, another e-mail: "Delivery has left the warehouse." Cats are restless.
Day four: Official holiday. I will cut Netgrocer some slack. Albertson.com's buffalo tenders are crisping in the oven.
Days five and six: The weekend. The milk is about to expire, and still no granola. Breakfast is but a distant dream. The cats are gnawing the furniture. In the relentless social Darwinism of dot-com grocery shopping, survival of the fleetest has come down to three cans of Fancy Feast and a box of chocolate bears.
The experience of SkyMeals is like the Blue Danube space-shuttle scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey -- luxe, cool and a little cheesy. When I call, SkyMeals is in its first official day of service. Jill, who takes my order, also happens to be the chef and has taken just three orders. "Where are you flying?" she murmurs. Rome? Paris? Monte Carlo? Her voice is mellow, calm, like sweet butter. Rest assured, the Web site says: "Not all Skymeals have to fly." Perhaps I will want it waiting for me when I arrive home from my voyage?
How is the charcuterie platter? I ask. "Oh," she sighs, "it is beautiful."
Their menu is a far cry from gummy airplane chicken. It is a poem, a soliloquy: Try the "Gado Gado" salad with quail eggs on endive, the "Painter's Palette of Fresh Fruit" or "Flash Seared Ahi Tuna." A "concierge" is available to take orders seven days a week. Travel tips from the Web site include ways to avoid "economy class syndrome." For $14.95, the chef will fix a SkyKids peanut-butter-and-jam sandwich on rustic whole-grain bread. This isn't just gourmet flying lunch boxes, this is Lifestyle. Jill places my order for a Sky Brunch (imported smoked salmon, Roma tomato, caper-and-olive tapenade, blueberry tea loaf), a charcuterie platter (sliced prosciutto, terrine of pâté, Brie cheeses, cornichons . . .), a flourless chocolate-and-roasted-pecan cake.
Two days later, 30 minutes before the scheduled delivery time, Francisco arrives with my SkyMeal. Where are the Kubrickian lovelies in pillbox stewardess caps and space booties? Francisco is dressed neatly in gray slacks and brown button-up shirt. "So far I'm the only delivery guy," he says, offering a purple-and-gold shopping bag. He has pasty-white skin, and when I shake his hand, it is soft and clammy. He is deferential in a shy, earnest way: "They have me working mornings and evenings." When I unpack the meal, there's a shoebox-size black carton lined in silver foil. Inside, two miniice packs, plastic utensils tied up in a white paper napkin, salt and pepper shakers, and a pretty, appetizer-size portion of various cold meats and cheese. The chocolate cake is sprinkled with bits of shaved gold flakes and powdered sugar. The terrine of pâté is cut into the shape of a star. But the Sky Brunch, nowhere to be found, has missed its flight.
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Pink Dot, $3.50 delivery fee, www.pinkdot.com.
Chef on the Way, $10 minimum, (323) 466-CHEF.
Albertsons.com, $9.95 delivery fee; Netgrocer.com, shipping rate $3.99 and up, depending on region and total price.
SkyMeals, (800) 296-8180 or www.skymeals.com.