Sunday at the Buffet With My Father

The food was wonderful and the service was stellar, so why was everyone complaining?

At the retirement community where my dad lives, on Sundays at 11:30 a.m., they have a buffet. It's a special event, more special even than Japanese Food Night or BBQ Outside Afternoon. There's a dress code. Men have to wear jackets and ladies have to wear a dress, a skirt and a top, or a pantsuit.

It was the dress code that led my dad to boycott the Sunday buffet for the first eight months he lived here. Nobody was going to tell him to put on a jacket. I kept on saying, "What's the big deal? It's just a jacket," but it was the principle of the thing.

Then one day he called me and told me every Sunday they have a buffet, and he went to it and it was wonderful. They had prime rib! He said this as if it was the first time I'd heard about it.

"I don't know why I haven't been going to this!" he said.

"I know exactly why," I said. "It's because you didn't want them to tell you to put on a jacket."

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He invited us for the following Sunday, and my husband Stan and I leapt at the chance to go. I put on a skirt and top, not having a pantsuit in my closet, and my husband and 17-year-old son happily put on jackets. We stopped at my dad's apartment in the complex to pick him up and he was wearing a powder-blue jacket and looked great.

We got there a few minutes before 11:30 and a line was forming. Stan, our son, and I were thrilled because we love a brunch buffet, but in general the mood was dark. There were several reasons for the discontent: the line was too long, sometimes they didn't open the doors exactly at 11:30, sometimes the wait staff wasn't as responsive as desired and who knows what else.

As we stood in line, a friendly woman approached me and eyed my dad, husband and son appreciatively.

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"Are you with all these men?" she asked.

"I am."

"They all good-looking," she noted. "And all different ages."

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Then she looked a little bit too long at my son. "Mm-mm-mm."

Meanwhile another woman, noting that it was almost 11:30, tried to cut to the front of the line. She was turned away.

She muttered, "JESUS CHRIST!" and stomped off.

When we got to the front of the line, the woman working the desk wrote down my dad's room number. This took too long for the woman who had been eyeing my men and she whisper-shouted, "It's like she's writing an encycloPEdia!"

Even with the litany of complaints, there was something special about the Sunday brunch buffet. Everyone was dressed up. It was like going to dinner on a slightly threadbare cruise ship, or an old Victorian-era resort hotel that had hobbled into the 21st century. I loved it.

We were told to sit at Table 18. Nearby, two men were making omelets to order, with a wide range of fillings. They were pros. They each picked up two omelet pans, one in each hand, and flipped both omelets at the same time. It was a professional operation.

There was also a salad bar, a lunch buffet, which included a carving station, chicken, fish, breads and vegetables, and a dessert table, which included slices of cakes and pies, half of them in a section called "SF," which I learned meant "sugar free."

There was a problem at the dessert table. The pecan pie was all gone, leading to a heightened sense of discontent and some raised voices. My dad did snag a slice of sugar-free pecan pie but said it was horrible. He went back to try to find some chocolate pie but it was all gone too. He implored one of the wait staff for help, and, probably familiar with the rate with which the tenor of his complaints has been known to rise, she went into the kitchen to investigate. She emerged with a slice of chocolate cake and that calmed him down a little.

Meanwhile at the salad bar, a man with a walker was despondent. They had bagels and lox. But they had run out of cream cheese.

"How can I eat my bagel without cream cheese?" he asked nobody. "How can I eat my bagel without cream cheese?"

One guy wasn't wearing a jacket. He was wearing a big slouchy red T-shirt and I found myself feeling judgmental about him. Didn't he know this was Sunday brunch? What was he doing on my cruise ship looking like a schlub?

I felt not only that I belonged there, at the retirement community's Sunday brunch, but that he didn't. One of the elderly women looked at him, then at me, and shook her head a little. I shook mine back.

The buffet had been a success. We loved it. In a family too often lacking in traditions, this could be one. Every Sunday morning, dressed in our finery, we would socialize in the lounge area, amidst the grand piano and sofas. We'd get to know the other residents as we reconnected every week. It was totally worth getting dressed up. Even our son didn't mind putting on a jacket because he liked the bacon.

We strategized for next time.

We'd arrive at the check-in counter before the crowd, and get a table assignment. Then we'd relax in the lounge while the others lined up. When the clock struck 11:30 a.m. we'd walk in, right past that line.

We'd stop at the dessert table straight away and take what we wanted, so we wouldn't be stuck with sugar-free pecan pie.

My own life sometimes seems so complicated: taxes, college bills, vet appointments, trying to make a living. The seemingly endless demands on my time. People are always saying they don't want to go into a "home." If I can afford one like this, sign me up. I liked everything about it. The trips to shows and museums. The happy hour. Bingo. And especially the Sunday buffet. God, I loved the Sunday brunch.

The next day, my dad called me. "Well, they're doing away with the Sunday buffet."

"What? Why?"

"Nobody liked it."

"What do you mean nobody liked it? It was awesome! They were all fighting to get in! Who didn't like it?"

"The people who went to the meeting and voted."

"Well, this sucks," I said.

Those old people were infuriating. They were living in this beautiful retirement community, being served great food. The omelet guys were flipping made-to-order omelets two at a time! And all they did was complain. They could go to lectures, concerts, poker night. Other people took care of it all for them. They didn't have to do anything but show up. But their favorite activity, hands-down, was complaining.

"They'll still have a brunch, just not a buffet," my dad told me, trying to cheer me up. "It'll still be nice. They might still have the omelet station. I don't know. Maybe they'll still have the bagels and lox."

"You think?" I asked.

"But I'm going to bring my own bagels," he said. "Their bagels are hard as rocks."


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