Summer. Twin Citians awake to sunshine, mid seventies, bearable humidity. I decide to visit my local Old Country Buffet on my day off.

I saunter to the bus stop and join neighbors—the developmentally disabled shrieking mom and her two slightly more developmentally disabled yet silent       teens from across the street. Toby crawls on the sidewalk picking up cigarette butts. “Toby!! Toby! Put that downnnnn!! Stop iiiiit!!” Mom pulls his shirt    tails. Toby smiles, sits crossed legged on the cement, gazes at traffic. “The bus is coming sooooon!!” She rakes a brush through Toby’s short dark hair,  does the same to the girl perched on the bench’s edge surrounded by bags packed for the pool or lake. They all sport the same hair cut.

Pacing is the woman from apartment 308—her shoulder length white, wispy hair like cotton candy. I notice her professionally polished dragon fingernails and the lopsided walk similar to mine. I wonder if she’s always had them—the nails and limp. Her adult son, his face placid, peers up Lyndale Avenue. 308 smiles in recognition, continues pacing. “Do you know when the bus comes?” She’s not a regular rider. “We’ve been out here over thirty minutes.”

I point to the #4F unloading passengers in front of Bachmans.

“The buuus!! Toby get uuup!! The bus is coming! Get uuup!! ”

We board. I touch my Go To Card to the pad, nod to the driver and take a front seat in the mostly empty bus.

“Hello, young lady,” The toothless gentleman across the aisle greets me. “Takin’ the grandkids to the park…” A regular, he greets me with the same opening, talks weather and sports which I tune out but nod and smile as if listening. I try not to encourage conversation. “Have a nice day,” he adds as I pull the cord signaling my stop.

At 66th and Lyndale another neighbor—an older man who’s been nervously waving for two years when he spots me in the pool. Only recently has he begun saying hello when we pass in the lobby or at bus stops. I wonder if he recognizes me without the swimsuit, shower cap on my head, nine feet of water. Maybe he thinks I’m two different people—the large black woman in the pool and the large black woman in the lobby, at bus stops. Could be. Either way, I like him. We wait together but apart for the eastbound 515. The bus comes and I’m on and off in a matter of blocks.

Old Country Buffet with its mediocre fare does not tempt me to overindulge. And like most areas of my existence within my control I have a routine. Lunch starts with picking the right table. Experience has taught me time and placement matter. I arrive around noon, senior friendly time. My favorite small table is available. In the first section, next to the beverage bar, two rows in—close but not too close to the buffet. I happily note the family of six finishing up. I place my “reservation” card face up. I mix my usual half lemonade/ half diet Sprite, head to the salad bar then decide on soup.

The chicken noodle soup is hearty. I skip crackers, breads, muffins. OCB recently replaced the ceramic dishes with kid and senior friendly plastic. Balancing my bowl I navigate through the steady stream of stooped seniors on walkers, children zig zagging with lopsided ice cream cones or glasses of blue/red slushies, morbidly obese patrons toting multiple plates, the bustling personnel refilling, cleaning, greeting. I make it to my table and take in the sights as I savor the warm soup.

This place is a great cross cultural study. The diversity—age, race, culture, economic status—beginning with staff, fascinates me. Whenever I visit, the managers—who work the floor, register, and even pick up a mop now and then—are white men. The cashiers tend to be African-American females. The wait staff refilling dishes, maintaing the buffet, cleaning are mostly Hispanic. The servers—who are tipped for clearing dishes—are mostly older, white females.

I go for a salad, then scan the entrees, put two pieces of fish on my plate. My server, Karen, signs my reservation card. This is new and without purpose Karen confesses as she greets me, makes pleasantries, moves on.

Somali men in dark pants and white shirts bearing name tags file in. A tiny Hispanic girl skips between the tables uninterested in the foods offered by an older sibling. An Asian father and his two children sit nearby. The boy teases his younger sister, playfully. They laugh. Dad scolds them. They do not listen. They chase each other around the chairs. Two African-American woman enter, survey the room, pick a table behind me. Perhaps sisters—both dressed in capris, short sleeve tunics, sandals. The legs and arms and chest of one woman covered with huge black splotches. I wonder what skin disease she has, consider asking then change my mind. I glance at my own disfigured hands, the Vitiligo not so bad in comparison. Still, I wish I could retrieve my once even brown skin.

At the dessert bar I concoct the same creation or variation as previous visits. A taste of lemon meringue, a taste of chocolate cake covered in soft serve, a sprinkle of chocolate chips. The guilty pleasure will be balanced by my walk home, laps in the pool, hours cleaning and rearranging bedroom furniture, and the promise to follow my low carb diet Sunday thru Thursday.

Satiated but not stuffed I turn my card over, leave a tip for Karen. I’m done but stay as voyeur—engrossed in the humanity surrounding me. What life stories do these people have? Our paths cross, we bump elbows, dine like one big happy family full of painful secrets and yet…  Activity at the front draws my attention. Karen stands uneasily by a large man in his sixties leaning on a footed cane. He says something, looks distraught. Karen seems unsure. I tune in.

“I swear I’m gonna kill myself! I’m gonna do it right here! I swear it!” The man leans away from Karen, his face contorted. My eyes lock with hers. She wants to leave him but can’t now. I’m a witness. They exchange words. Karen takes his arm and they come slowly my way. The man continues to rant. His steps are labored. Their progress painful to watch. As they near I hear him say table, and understand that he needs to sit close but not too close to the buffet.

“Would you like this table,” I offer. “I’m done.”

The man looks at me, tears in his eyes. “Thank you, Miss. Thank you. God bless you. I love you!” He pats my shoulder with a heavy, shaky hand.

“Thank you,” Karen whispers.

“This is my favorite table too,” I say to him as I gather my bag. “Enjoy your meal.”

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