Thursday, June 10, 2010

Adventures in Eating Out (Minus the Bear)

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, when I was in the Air Force stationed at Rhein-Main Air Base near Frankfurt, Germany, I often took my meals in the cafeteria at the base hotel. Since I don’t like crowds and noise and chaos (yeah, yeah, I know), I tried to avoid going there during peak hours.

Sometimes I’d have the cafeteria all to myself, and I could sit wherever I wanted, eat my meal, and read The Stars and Stripes newspaper in peace.

Until a family came in. Mind you, it was always a different family, since the Rhein-Main hotel catered mainly to transient military personnel and their dependents. But the makeup of the family was pretty much the same each time: They always had ten kids (or at least it seemed like ten) all under the age of four, one of whom was invariably a baby who never stopped crying.

No matter where I sat in that cafeteria, they always took the booth right next to mine. Every single time. There were a hundred other places they could’ve sat, including some with more space for their brood that I swear actually multiplied by the time I got to my dessert and the back page of the paper. But no—they always picked the booth right next to that lone skinny girl who they must have thought was bored senseless with her newspaper and her solitude, and surely would not object to having green jello flung into her hair.

The parents never took the seat that would’ve put their backs to me. Oh no, they always took the opposite seat, so their kids could lean over into my booth and stare at me as if I were behind bars munching on grass while someone hosed me down. On one occasion, one toddler actually climbed over the booth and landed in the seat across from me. The parents did not even budge. Instead—once it dawned on them they were missing a kid—they called out to him to come back from wherever he was. They had to do this several times before he complied.

Back in those days, I wasn’t assertive enough to speak up and say, “Excuse me, but would you please come and get your kid.” Hell, I wasn’t even assertive enough to pick up my tray and newspaper, and move to the other side of the cafeteria. I feared it would offend the parents. How stupid is that?

But I’m getting a little better about it.

Recently, after putting Baby Bear on the bus, Mr. Lucky and I went out to breakfast. Fortunately, the restaurant wasn’t too crowded, mostly couples or groups of adults. There was only one family in there with three kids, all preschoolers.

So guess where the hostess seated us?

That’s right. At point blank range for flying globs of oatmeal. She handed us menus, told us the name of our server who would be with us shortly, then walked away, leaving us to stare at each other in dismay.

Don’t get me wrong. Mr. Lucky and I have nothing against kids. We’ve had three of our own, all of whom we love very much. But when just the two of us go out to eat, we do not want to be near any kids, no matter how well behaved they are. It sort of defeats the whole purpose of why we’re eating out.

You’d think a restaurant hostess would know that. It should be in a rule book somewhere: Avoid seating couples without children near couples with children.

When the server finally arrived, I whispered to her, “We were wondering if we could sit somewhere else?” She whispered back that she didn’t blame us, and discreetly led us to a quieter booth on the other side of the restaurant. If the parents were offended—assuming they even noticed—I certainly did not care.

Our new booth was a vast improvement. Four well behaved adults occupied the booth behind Mr. Lucky. We ordered, and while we were waiting for our food, a strange, disagreeable look came over Mr. Lucky’s face. Then he sniffed his shirt sleeve.

“What’s the matter, dear?” I asked. “Isn’t your shirt April fresh? Do I need to switch detergents?”

He gestured to the empty booth across the aisle from where we sat, and whispered, “Let’s move over there.”

“Why? We’ve moved once already. We’re going to drive the server insane.”

Without another word he moved to the other booth. Since I didn’t want to sit by myself, I followed suit. And that’s when he informed me that someone in the booth behind him reeked of rampant B.O.

Fortunately we had no reason to move again. When the server arrived with our food, she made a good-natured comment on the fact that we’d moved, but she didn’t ask why and we volunteered no information. Better to let her think whatever she wanted to think, which is probably what most people think about us anyway.

Mr. Lucky left her an extra big tip.