I travel a lot for work. From Kentucky to Florida and all the small towns in between… I’ve worked there or driven through it. I’m always on the go. Unfortunately eating healthy on the road is easier said than done, especially when you have deadlines. I have become The Fast Food Ranger. I am the Baron of Buffets. Okay… so it’s not a title worth bragging about… I know.
I’ve come to learn that buffets are so simple and fast that I can zip in and out in under 15 minutes… sometimes less. I’ve got this down to a science. Mom and Pop style country buffets are the best, but when all else fails… I’ll do a quick Pizza Hut buffet and hit the road again.
It was a small-town Pizza Hut at lunch time. It was a blistering summer day in LA (Lower Alabama) and the humidity seemed to stick to everything from my forehead to my shirt. My sunglasses fogged up the second I got out of the car. Immediately upon entering, I was greeted by a friendly but extremely loud waitress. It was almost overkill how loud and welcoming she was. I’m not complaining, but it was slightly uncomfortable. She sat me in a booth and literally bombarded me with friendly service.
She appeared to be in her late 30’s or early 40’s. She had brown hair and was wearing an apron. She had all the earmarks of a hard life. That withstanding, her personality was upbeat and impressive.
“Are you gonna do the buffet with us today?”, she asked.
She takes my drink order and I approach the spread of artery-blocking pizza on the buffet. Part of my modus operandi is to stack slices super high to avoid wasted time of repeated trips. Remember… I am the Buffet Baron! I hadn’t sat down very long at all when she was refilling my drink. I had maybe taken 4 sips out of it.
“Did you find what you wanted? Is there any kind of pizza you want on the buffet? I can have them cook one up for you.”
“No ma’am… this is fine.”
“Well you let me know if you need anything at all!”
I continued with my lunch. It wasn’t anything special but after all, it was a Pizza Hut lunch. As I sat scarfing my pizza, I noticed a young boy walk in and immediately start clearing tables of plates and glasses. He had on jeans that had a hole in the knee. Not distressed expensive jeans, the hole was not a fashion statement. He was wearing a black t-shirt. Black is not a color choice I would have chosen on such a hot humid day where the temperature was pushing 100 degrees. I totally accepted that he just worked there… in the kitchen perhaps. I thought maybe he had gone out to take a quick break and was just now returning. Maybe he decided to give the waitress a hand with cleaning up. After all, she was the sole waitress on duty. He didn’t look like he could be much older than 17 or 18.
“Here’s you a refill hun”, she said as she brought me a full glass.
My drink wasn’t even half empty yet. Dang… I couldn’t figure out if this was the best service ever or if she was just hellbent on continuously interrupting my meal. It was both annoying and yet somehow refreshing. It was a little awkward in a way, but it was also nice to see someone take pride in their work.
After this last encounter with the refill, she sat down several booths away. The young boy who I assumed was an employee sat down across from her. She continued to talk boisterously again.
“So did you pick out a movie for us tonight?”, she asked the boy.
“Do you need some more money?”, she asked as she reached into her apron and pulled out some bills.
It dawned on me, this boy was her son… he didn’t work there at all. In fact he just dropped by to see his mom. He must have walked from one of the nearby neighborhoods. It was also apparent that maybe he had an intellectual disability.
“Alright then, I’ll see you when I get off… I love you!”, she said as she stood up and gave him a big hug.
The boy left and I was just finishing up my lunch. She walked over to me with one final refill in a to-go cup along with my ticket. I got up and walked to the register. I pay for all my expenses with an American Express card that my company pays automatically. She rang my ticket and I filled in a $4.00 tip on an approximate $8.00 lunch tab.
“Thank you! Come back and see us!”, she said. I guess her inside voice was just always going to be louder than most people’s outside voice. But for some reason, now it didn’t bother me in the slightest.
As I made my toward the glass door, I suddenly took a quick detour to my booth. I reached into my pocket and I pulled out a twenty. I nestled it under the edge of my plastic round plate and then left the cold air conditioning to be greeted with a blast of heat bouncing from the asphalt parking lot.
I had no sooner clicked the keyless entry fob to unlock the door, when I heard that boisterous southern accent once more.
“Sir! Sir! Excuse me!”, she said.
I pretended not to hear her the first time. My hand was on the handle of the door and I was hoping to just leave. As I lowered myself into the driver’s seat, I could see she was in a trot heading toward me.
“Sir… you left this on the table”, she said as she waved the bill in front of her.
“Yes ma’am”, as I smiled and cranked up the car with the door open.
She had a perplexed look on her face upon seeing my disposition. I was not reaching out to retrieve it.
“You already paid me at the register, remember?”
“Yes ma’am… this is for your movie night with your son. Why don’t y’all rent two movies and get some popcorn and snacks?”
Immediately she started crying. I stood up and she threw her arms around me in tears.
“God bless you”, she said.
I held back my tears. It wasn’t that I wasn’t feeling the emotion with her. I just didn’t want her to remotely think this was done out of pity. To be honest, it wasn’t out of pity, my service had been nothing short of exemplary.
As I pulled away, I realized that was the best lunch I’d had in years. I’m not sure I can recall a lunch where my heart was more filled than my stomach.