Sunday, September 28, 2014

Alone and happy at an indoor picnic.

Three revelations came to me this morning when I went for breakfast at Burbank’s Hometown Buffet.

The first was that it had all the makings of a picnic in just about any Los Angeles County park.

The second revelation was that it’s possible to be in a restaurant, with my back to the crowd, with screaming kids around and not have a PTSD attack of paranoia and panic.

The third revelation was more of a confirmation of a definition of “happy” that I had stumbled upon on Friday morning during a counseling session.

It would take me a while to figure out the second revelation.

The third one came to me when after I left and was driving to my office.

The first one became obvious fairly quickly — only because I was alone, I was in no hurry, and I took the time to observe things.

I sat at a table for four facing the soft-serve machine and the syrups and toppings to its left — it’s where most of the action was taking place.

The first observation what that I was one of the only Caucasians in the restaurant — the rest was a delightful salad of Latinos, Asians, Blacks and South Asians.

The accents bounced melodically from table to table.

The first to visit were an Asian mother and her daughter, who was about 12 and had Down Syndrome. Mother enthralled me when she oh-so-patiently stood back while the girl carefully operated the lever while it filled the cone and swirled the vanilla as it rose to a drooping peak. If Mother’s eyes had met mine, I was ready to tell her what a lucky child she had — lucky to have such a caring mom.

When I was waiting for my turn at the sausage at the buffet station, a 12-year-old Latino asked his seven-year-old sister how many pieces of molded hash brown potatoes she wanted. As she said, “Two,” he shook his head like a little father and gently corrected her.

“Only one, Mija.” No argument would follow.

At the table to the left of mine, a father and his four-year-old son got up. “You stay here while we get some food.” I didn’t turn my head. From the periphery, I thought he was talking to his wife. Later, when she spoke in your young Spanish accent, I realized she was his daughter.
“I’ll be twelve in a couple of months!” She was already talking about her quincienera celebration that would follow in three years. She asked him if he could take her to Hawaii. Since Mother wasn’t there, I thought maybe he had custody for the weekend.

One thing for sure is that he was delighted to be present with his children.

Right about then a giant of a barrel-chested man in his 40s rounded the corner caressing his tiny baby up against his cheek. As they passed to my right, he planted a smooch so loud that everyone could hear it.

Right behind him — but unrelated — was a teenager with one of those soft casts on his right ankle. His sweatshirt was contradictory — “Fullerton Wrestling Champ.” I knew there was a story in there somewhere.

Pretty soon, the Asian mother was heading for the exit when she turned back and realized her daughter was eating ice cream from the bowl with a spoon as she walked.

“Put that down,” Mother said — almost impatiently but not quite. “You can’t take that with you.”

Everyone was in holiday spirit, even though it was just a Saturday morning breakfast. That’s when it donned on me that it felt as we were at a park. Even when I was a kid, I had observed that ethnic families made of the vast majority of picnickers — maybe even 95 percent of them. I had always figured that money had something to do with it. I had thought that maybe the white families were more likely to spend lots of money at theme parks.

But later, I came to realize that many of the white folks living in Southern California had migrated from “back East” and, as a result, were lacking a large, local extended family. Maybe the foreign immigrants came with entire families.

Regardless, Hometown Buffet had somehow took on the qualities of picnics in the park — like the picnics I had would see when I played football with my friends. We would chase the errant ball into groups of people speaking other languages.

And, all too often, someone would send us out with a barbecued drumstick, a tamale or seasoned beef or chicken on a wooden skewer.

Most important was the love that filled our eyes, our ears and our hearts.

That’s what I was feeling this morning at Hometown Buffet. It was an indoor picnic, and, even though I was alone, I didn’t feel lonely or sad — I felt like I belonged there.

I was sitting and contemplating when something surprised me. Two little girls behind me started screaming in joy. The fact that it didn’t startle me at all is what surprised me. Any other time, I would involuntarily jump at the loud noise — especially the shrill screams of kids. This time, however, it didn’t bother me a bit.

What was different?

I finally figured it out — since I was there alone, there was nobody with me that I instinctive had to protect. I wasn’t on guard. I realized that I was as comfortable there as I had been, traveling alone, on a Trés Estrellas de Oro bus from Tijuana to Ensenada — replete with kids laughing and crying and even sometimes falling asleep on my lap, as if I were their father. The bus was transporting love as well as people (and an occasional rooster or hen).

Looking back, it was that surrounding atmosphere of love that made the breakfast so enjoyable. I had arrived under a cloud of sadness, but when I left, I was strikingly happy.

Only later did I remember the off-the-cuff definition I had given to my counselor on Friday morning. It seemed to ring true.

“Happiness is when you can give love to people and feel their love in return.”

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