Last night I took five kids between the ages of 9 and 13 to Old Country Buffet. Old Country Buffet is a restaurant chain that specializes in being inexpensive. You pay according to your age. You eat, as the name of the place indicates, all you want. Last night, the younger kids were each charged eight dollars and change, and the older two were full price, eleven and change, which is a bargain considering what they packed away: macaroni and cheese; pepperoni pizza; big, pale slices of roast beef; tacos; cherry Jello; mashed potatoes, noodles and gravy; soft, pillowy rolls; garlic bread; french fries; roasted potato; ice cream with whipped cream, chocolate chips, crushed cookies, butterscotch sauce, hot fudge and strawberry sauce on top, chocolate cake with chocolate icing; and many cups of peculiar-hued fountain drinks (they'd fill their cups one part cola, one part Hi-C, two parts root beer, one part orange soda, and so on).
I've been to Old Country Buffet, the one right next to the DMV and down from the store that specializes in clothing for the workplace, maybe five times in the past five years, and I marvel at it each time I go.
The kids out and out love it. It's fun to watch them eat, once annually, unhindered by parental or dietary constraints. It reminds me of those daydreams we all used to have: what if the whole world were made of chocolate, and I could just pick up my pencil and chew, take a bite out of my math book, lick the desk. They fill their plates with one set of wonders, then go back and fill a second round of plates with more.
The staff and clientele all seem to have stepped out of a period or foreign film. Last night our clearer - there are no servers, because everything's buffet, but there are clearers who come by and remove the used plates regularly - told us her name was Gussie. She had gray hair but was not particularly old, chronologically. Maybe sixty. And yet she seemed more like the sexagenarians I'd met in my youth, back in the seventies. She had an ineffably archaic aspect about her. I went ahead and asked, because she was friendly, if Gussie was short for Augusta, and she said it was, that Augusta had been her grandmother's name, and it seemed to give her pleasure to say it.
Many of the people who eat at Old Country look like they have left their own old countries behind. You hear people speaking languages of Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Eastern Europe, South America. You see women in head scarves and families with toothless babies and toothless grandparents. The white American-born people who eat at Old Country tend to be obese, or very old, or prodigiously tattooed. Last night there was a young white man with a true bowl cut - it really looked as though someone had to have put a bowl upside down on his head and trimmed around it - there with a frail woman he called "Gramma,"who kept fingering the tripod cane she had balanced on the end of the table. There was an Asian woman, neither old nor young, eating all by herself, plate after plate, slowly, deliberately. There was a large family - an intriguing quantity of fathers and mothers and grandparents and children - that sat at two tables pushed together and spoke - I don't know, Turkish? Farsi? Kazakh? There was a middle aged man with the delicate build and high cheekbones of an Ethiopian or Somali with two little children, one girl, one boy. The man was wearing a suit, no tie.
The walls are decorated with more than a dozen framed prints, every one a reproduction of a different Norman Rockwell painting.
I am humbled by this place. I feel a perverse gratitude as I watch the children I have brought here fill themselves with soft starch and glistening grease, with sugar and salt, blithely sating their stomachs, their desires. An embarrassed gratitude - embarrassed not only because the food is unhealthy, and not only because I am aware that none of these children has ever known real scarcity, as, I imagine, most of those around us have, but because I fear we do not belong here, I fear we are interlopers. The children eat away. They rise and come back two or three or four times, grinning over their bounty, unconflicted. They do not register, certainly, the sorrow that I feel here, the slow, terrible melancholy of the place. Yet I feel another kind of gratitude, too, one that is not perverse, one that confuses me, tugs and pulls at my core, carrying a sense of sharp beauty as well as desolation, a quality of small hope.
I am moved by the families and the solo diners, eating with diligence or with pleasure, moved also by the cashier and the manager and the table clearers and kitchen workers. I am moved by the place itself, with its perhaps well-intentioned but somehow insultingly wrong decor: the posters of an Americana that never existed lining the walls. I am moved by the wall-mounted Purell dispenser near the islands of food; by the signs explaining the rules; by the smooth green Formica and the darkly patterned, sensible carpeting; by the effortful but also, I think, genuine aura of optimism, of pride. I would like to think - a shyly formed thought - that we are all countrymen in this room, eating side by side.