When the New York Times asked mountaineer Gregory Mallory why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, he famously replied “Because it’s there.” If they were to ask me why I used to eat at Hometown Buffet so often, my reply would be similar.
Hometown Buffet is not a place you go to enjoy a meal. Eating there is a sacrifice you make to remind yourself that you are lucky enough to not have to eat at Hometown every day. You do not go there because you really want to eat some Potato Cheddar Soup; you go there to prove that you can eat the Potato Cheddar Soup. It is not a dining experience. It is a test of strength.
Now, I don’t know if Hometown Buffets are independently owned and operated, because I’m scared that doing any amount of research into the subject will draw me into a DaVinci Code-like web of deceit and intrigue, but the one I’m writing about is closed, so I’m comfortable talking about it out in the open. If any other Hometown Buffet owner/operators are reading this, I’m sure your establishment is filled with fine dining options, though my remembered traumas will probably prevent me from ever finding out. Seriously, I’m scared that if I stare in the mirror and say “Hometown” three times, one of those AquaFresh flavored cakes will show up and I’ll have to eat it. But the scariest meal I ever had at Hometown didn’t have much to do with the food.
I was with three friends: Andy, his wife Helen and his brother Tom. We had scattered to the winds to collect our first round of food when I had decided that things would probably go down better if I had a beverage. While getting some chocolate milk, a large gentleman wearing a construction company hoodie muttered “I see a soulless creature.” I chose to ignore this, as it wasn’t very loud and he wasn’t looking at me. For all I know, he was working on lyrics for his new retro thrash metal band or something. So I sat down and went about “enjoying” my “meal.”
Tom and Andy came back to the table first. I didn’t bring up anything about what had happened because
It wasn’t really that odd for Hometown Buffet.
The guy was only about two tables away from us.
However, the topic of discussion wasn’t up to me, as the gentleman at the other table wanted it to be very clear that he now saw “three soulless creatures.”
He said it like Abraham Van Helsing letting Dracula know that he’s onto his shit. There was nothing accusatory about it: he knew we were soulless creatures and he wanted us to know that he knew. It’s one of the few times in my life that I’ve felt incredible pressure to turn into a bat.
The constant goading for us to reveal ourselves did not relent when Helen returned to the table, though she was not counted as a soulless creature. Of course, having missed the set up to all of this, she was a little confused when Van Helsing sarcastically proclaimed “It’s too bad they don’t serve virgin blood here.” Then again, we were all a little confused. I didn’t even expect to find virgin olive oil at Hometown.
At this point, the only response we offered was stifled laughter. Of course, the guy kept going, because I assume the desired response was the spontaneous shedding of our human skin. Things started to get ugly with the next line.
“Too bad that Hitler guy was right.”
There was a small amount of debate amongst our table, because we couldn’t tell if he thought we were Nazis or Jews, but the Semitic semantics of the situation were quickly made irrelevant when he got to his next line.
“It’s a good thing I sharpened my sword.”
It was made very clear that this sword was in the car and that, if it came down to it, he was prepared to stab us. Now, I’ve pissed off a lot of people in my life and a lot of people have threatened to kill me, but I’ve always felt in was in the metaphorical “you’re an asshole” sense. As evidenced by the blank stare and solemn commitment in his voice, I had no doubt that this guy had every intention of disemboweling us. I don’t know that I speak for everyone else at the table, but I was fucking terrified.
At that point, we decided to make a break for the car and hope that he did not decide to run for his sword. We made a clean getaway, up until the point where the fuel pump in my Pontiac failed. Luckily, we were a solid 30 miles away by that time. I can only assume he did not have the XP necessary to stop us in the parking lot.
I don’t know if I was terrified of being stabbed with a sword or just scared because I didn’t know what was going to happen. This was a potentially life threatening problem that I had no experience with and had no idea how to solve. We could have said something, but I assume that would have just pissed him off. I guess we could have fought him as well, but we had no idea how much PCP he was on. Leaving the scene may have felt like an admission of guilt, but it was the safest option.
Given time, perspective and experience, I’m sure we’d react differently. I mean, if he threatened to stab me every day, I’d eventually learn when he was bluffing and when to duck. It’d be like playing some bizarre real life version of Punch-Out, where the ref has decided that it’s A-Ok that King Hippo brought a sword into the ring. There would eventually be a pattern or some kind of tell and the situation would still be stressful, but it would be expected. Rather than a constant barrage of attacks, it would be a waiting game that required thoughtful and precise reaction. Plus, Andy is a cop now. He’s used to this shit.
In a lot of ways, Cystic Fibrosis is like being constantly threatened by a large man with a sword in a Hometown Buffet. It still taunts me and attacks me, but it doesn’t scare me like it used to. That doesn’t mean that it’s a pleasure to deal with—I’m certainly not fucking excited about the idea of my lungs filling with fluid—but for the most part, I know what it’s going to do. Even if what it’s going to do is terrible, it tends to telegraph its moves and I can at least prepare myself for most of them. Sure, it can sneak in a cheap shot—the day I spent coughing blood into a toilet comes to mind—I can feel my mucus getting thicker when I’m on the edge of being sick. I can feel my stomach tingle when it’s about to reintroduce me to the last 4 meals I ate. I’ve tried to learn how to react. Sometimes there’s not really much to do but let it tire itself out and hope it doesn’t take me down in the process. Other times, it’s all thunder and no lighting. It’s hard to know. But the more I’ve dealt with it, the more expected it becomes and the less scary it gets. You learn your normal operating range and you learn when you are getting your fucking ass kicked. Then you go to your corner and hope they drop some awesome drugs on you.