El Oso

February 12, 2010 § Leave a comment

Bear grins like a teenager on a fieldtrip, he is excited to be out on the town. This is no school bus chauffeured visit to the Statue of Liberty, although at lunchtime on a weekday, the Old Country Buffet off of Robert Street also appears to have taken in “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…” The squat Bear holds the door for the slender Bancroft, who is busy brushing wood chips off his jeans. They give each other a knowing look, full of pride from their solid morning of cutting lumber on Bancroft’s lakefront property. Their comfortable banter suggests a deeper story for this Carhart clad Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

Sauntering up to the perky blonde cashier Bear and Bancroft slip into the thrifty but proud universe of AARP, holding up senior cards, their window to a golden discount. Bear studies a display on the wall where the names and senior card numbers of contemporaries are listed.
 “Lucky,” says Bear as he points out he has yet to win the monthly free meal sweepstakes. Bancroft nods at Bear, but he’s busy flirting with the young waitress. Bancroft’s expert charm comes through a toothy grin that reveals a few missing pieces. His grizzled white beard and remnants of white hair poking out of his “American Indian Movement” baseball cap accentuate the dichotomy of a man who knows everyone at Gatsby’s party, but chooses to hang with the uninvited. Bancroft pulls out a twenty from his stocked wallet, he is treating, he always treats.

The pair, a curious match to everyone but themselves, pushes ahead towards the buffet. Bear zeroes in on the salad bar, a noticeable detour as he is a burly urban Native American, a group known for its propensity for obesity and diabetes. He explains that he’s a new man, no more pizza, fast foods or soda. A month long course in diabetes prevention has helped him lose forty pounds and a Medicaid funded YWCA membership is keeping him fit. Bancroft is busy making small piles of various food combinations on his plate. His appetite isn’t what it used to be as he heads towards his 78th birthday. A small pile of eggs topped with goldfish crackers, some red colored jello, banana pudding, and a couple of veggies. Bancroft is a little sheepish about this poor man’s version of tapas so Bear doesn’t make fun.
 This is round one for Bear and Bancroft at a restaurant that proposes as many rounds as one can handle. Based on the relative super-size of the Midwestern crowd, and numerous white porcelain plates piled with half eaten food, there are a number of four and five round bouts being fought at lunchtime. The Old Country Buffet food islands are a slightly liberated version of the high school lunch counter. More variety, slightly more fit lunch ladies who stay trim by walking from mash potatoes to apple cobbler with white nurse hospital shoes, and some comfy fake leather booths to slouch in while one eats. The social scene is also a curious throwback to awkward high school dynamics.  The cliques have changed, or aged rather, but the cornucopia of diversity is alive and well. Big burly jocks now come in the form of electricians and contractors, shoulders slumped slightly under the weight of happy hour High Lifes and post adolescent reality.  Nerds congregate in their Comp USA and FED-Ex golf shirts.  Computers have made the once ridiculed pubescent intelligentsia indispensable.

Immigrant day laborers sit down to eat the hefty meal that will power them on their 14 hour work day. A group of veterans meet for a special occasion in the windowless, carpeted, private banquet hall. Other over-the-hillers peek in the room to catch a glimpse of these revered members of society.
 Across from Bear and Bancroft sit a group of four middle managers. Tasseled loafers, pleated khakis, brown ties and yellow dress shirts hint at a world of cubicles, paper shredders, and palm treed computer screen savers. They discuss overhead costs, bottom lines, and the long-legged Lena from accounting.

In this sea of hungry society Bear and Bancroft laugh, smile, and connect. “I get up at 5 now,” says Bear. “I’m at the Y by 5:30, cause all the treadmills are taken if I get there late.” Bancroft points out that Bear is eating a piece of pizza, a no-no in his new life. Bear reiterates, “I eat better now,” as he eats the slice in three bites. A large Native American woman walks in the restaurant just as Bear and Bancroft discuss how most of their Native friends are heavy and unhealthy. “His kids all weigh more than 300 pounds,” says Bear about a mutual friend. Bancroft chimes in, “he’s got diabetes and all his kids are going to get it too if they don’t change their habits.” “Yeah,” says Bear, “I remember taking him here to Old Country Buffet, and his wife would bring along a big purse. After eating they’d stuff it full of chicken and rolls and stuff to eat later.

Bancroft laughs at a bright pink dessert topped with a Cool Whip hat at the dessert bar. He grabs one of the small dishes and tests out the intense block of hydrogenated sugar that looks more like fiber glass than tasty treat. “Not bad,” says Bancroft. Two bites later the pink stuff gets discarded, but not before the whipped cream has quietly disappeared. Bear is now eating something with gravy, “I’m down to 178…I used to be 220.” A fleet footed lunch lady clears the plates from the table and buzzes off towards the kitchen. The two old friends slouch back in their chairs to digest. They look around and take in the crowd. Two car mechanics in matching blue jump suits sip coffee. Their oil stained fingerprints mark the time on ceramic cups.

With long arm stretches Bancroft and Bear rise from their seats and head towards the door. Passing into the parking lot they spot one of the lunch ladies sitting on a curb inhaling deeply into her cigarette. “See you next time,” she says with a smoky exhale. “Take care,” they respond in a chivalrous tone, as they turn over toothpicks in their mouths and climb back into Bancroft’s oversized truck. “I only drink diet soda now,” says Bear as Bancroft starts the engine. “Good for you,” Bancroft replies as he flips the turn signal and steers the enormous truck left, back on to Robert street.

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