God bless the buffet line. If you're a person like me, one with a voracious appetite, one who likes to pick and choose what you eat when you dine out, then the buffet line is your friend. As a loyal member of the "I Love to Eat" club, I've been a buffet line patron for years now. I've spent many hours over the years happily exercising my right to choose, selecting chicken, fish, hamburger steak, and assorted sweets while eschewing turnip greens (people eat those in a restaurant?), broccoli and cabbage. With the rise of the American buffet comes the freedom to eat exactly what you want, when you want it, and at the portion sizes you choose. That's heaven to a confirmed (ahem) "hearty eater" like myself. Alas, I recently encountered trouble in paradise.
A few weeks ago I went to my favorite Chinese buffet place for lunch. As soon as I entered the door I stopped, closed my eyes and inhaled. Ahh. The aroma of fried pork, stir fried vegetables and the delicate, subtle scent of fresh fried do-nuts greeted me like a long lost friend, welcoming me back.
I followed the waitress to a table. "Yu wan dreenk?", she asked in her charming, heavily accented voice.
"Un-sweet tea please."
She smiled, nodded and hurried off as I grabbed a plate and walked into the buffet area. One hundred seventy-five entrees greeted me. One hundred seventy-five excellent reasons to be exactly where I was, belly rumbling and salivary glands ready to produce at full volume. I stepped up next to a freckle-faced kid about 7 years old who was standing in front of the fried chicken container. His head came below the sneeze-guard over the food, and as he stood there ladling food onto his plate, he coughed wetly onto the chicken container.
Now I'm a Howard Hughes-like person when it comes to germs, and I stepped back in alarm as the kid stood there hacking for all the world like my grandfather after smoking a pack of filterless cigarettes. Well, no chicken for me today. I stepped over to another buffet table and looked around. Hmm. Fried rice. Sweet and sour pork. Sesame chicken. I inhaled the fragrant odors. Time to load up the old plate.
Right then, here came the Coughing Kid again. He stood beside me, his blotchy face furrowed as he studied the lay-out intently. He suddenly sniffed, reached up and wiped his nose with his thumb and forefinger, then grasped the ladle of the sweet and sour pork container. I could see mucous on the end of the kid's fingers as he gripped the ladle and scooped a pile of pork onto his plate. He looked up at me suddenly and grinned, all gapped teeth and rubbery chapped lips. I saw a trail of green mucous leaking from his right nostril, and I stepped back from the food, stomach churning. That's it, I thought. No Chinese today. I plunked my plate down and headed away from the buffet tables and toward the door. The tiny oriental lady behind the pay counter exploded in a torrent of incomprehensible Chinese as I opened the door, and a stocky waiter, eyes narrowed suspiciously behind thick black-rimmed glasses, barred my way out the door. Jiminey, in my hurry to get out, I'd neglected to tell any of the staff I wasn't eating today.
I shook my head. "I didn't eat anything. I'm not feeling well."
The waiter squinted at me. "You no eat? You no likee?"
"No, no. The food looks fine. I 'm just not hungry all of a sudden."
My slender female waitress, as lovely and delicate as a garden flower, approached and the two exchanged guttural phrases for several minutes, snarling at each other and occasionally pointing a finger at me. I stood, feeling foolish and still queasy after my encounter with Booger Child. They stopped barking at each other, and the male waiter said "Ok, you comma back soon, ok?" Apparently, he'd been convinced that I wasn't a freeloader trying to scarf a free meal out of them.
"Oh, absolutely. You have a great day," I said as I stepped past them and out the door. A moment later and I was in my truck and down the road, headed back for the office. I almost pulled into a McDonalds on the way back, but the thought of Booger Child eating greasy chicken and licking his fingers suppressed my appetite to the point where lunch was a handful of roasted peanuts washed down with a diet Coke. If I could somehow get a patent on that kid, I'd have a diet aid that would make a million dollars. Basil's Do-it-yourself Snot-Kid Diet. Now, excuse me while I go empty the contents of my stomach.