How a highchair fight at the Golden Corral is a mirror for our souls (which aren't pretty)
Now that we are living through our late-stage Idiocracy, it is often tempting to laugh at people rather than with them. In my ongoing self-betterment project - a renovation that is running way over-budget and behind schedule with frequent work stoppages – I frequently vow that I will do more to suppress this uncharitable, un-Christian urge. This is just a lie I tell myself, of course. Though it’s one I forgive myself for, since charity, they say, begins at home.
The latest decline-and-fall news that put me off my resolution comes from an unlikely place, or maybe an all-too likely one: a Golden Corral restaurant in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. I’ve never been a fan of Golden Corral or its Endless Buffet™. I’m not a culinary snob, or anything. An establishment doesn’t need Michelin stars for me to grace it with my presence. I just generally don’t care to see my food through a sneeze guard. Or to witness Mama June three knuckles-deep into the sweet corn pudding right before I get a crack at it. Or to be reassured, front and center on the company’s website, of the restaurant’s “sanitation commitment.” (Good hygiene is to be commended, mind you. But some things are supposed to be a given. And I’d rather not be prompted to visualize Gus the line cook washing his hands after dropping the kids off at the pool or blowing a snot rocket near the pot-pie station.)
But I get why people like the Golden Trough, as some call it. “The Only One For Everyone” has affordable prices and an array of fried foods and boundless carb-loading opportunities. It’s a place where you “can be your own burger boss,” and who doesn’t want to work for themselves? Though the Chocolate Fountain has mostly been out-of-commission during the pandemic (or operated only by staff due to the aforementioned sanitation commitment), even the breakfast menu provides no fewer than ten dessert options, including the much-coveted Chocolate Dipped Rice Krispies Treat Skewers. As the Wall Street Journal put it after buffets came roaring back after a long absence during our never-ending pandemic: “Americans are once again lining up for fried chicken, sushi rolls, and carrot cake––preferably on the same plate.”
And yet the other night in Bensalem, someone pulled the brakes on the happiness train, just about derailing it. It turns out the Endless Buffet wasn’t so endless, when the Golden Corral appeared to be running low on its Signature Sirloin Steak. As one concerned man in a hoodie told Philadelphia’s local CBS affiliate, “There was a shortage of steak and two parties were involved and one family cut in front of the other family, they were taking their time and they ran out of steak and got into a heated exchange at the tables.”
A heated exchange is putting it mildly. From the cellphone video evidence, a bench-clearing brawl ensued. Fists were flying. So were high chairs. Roughly 40 people were involved in the restaurant-trashing melee. There were no serious injuries or deaths, other than the death of participants’ dignity. As a sad coda, after the violence died down, one full-figured gent can be heard grousing, “All I wanted was some steak!” Thus putting us End Times scribblers on high metaphor alert.
Another melee participant told a local ABC affiliate that it wasn’t a steak shortage at all, which will come as a relief to supply-chain worrywarts. The violence, he said, was touched off when the man in line in front of him had grown irate after a cook first served the witness his steak, due to his hunk’o’sirloin requiring less cooking time, which one might regard as yet another cautionary culinary life lesson: only a meathead orders their steak well-done. Whatever the facts on the ground turn out to be, TMZ, as usual, best captured the mood of the Bensalem Golden Corral, and for that matter, of the nation, when it asked in its headline: “What’s the F***ing Beef?”
It’s a fair question. We seem a lot angrier as a people these days - everyone on a hair trigger, sometimes literally. Back during more innocent times – let’s call them the nineties - we used to watch the Jerry Springer Show, with all its hold-my-earrings-fur-flying-windmill-slapping - as a guilty pleasure. Now, we’ve living the Jerry Springer Show.
Hardly a week seems to go by without news similar to that of the highchair-fight at the Golden Corral. Here’s one that broke out after a flight delay at the Miami International Airport. Here’s hundreds of kids brawling at a Tampa trampoline park. Here’s a chair-tossing fistfight that exploded at a Miami dog show. All these, mind you, coming just in the last two months.
It’d be tempting to chalk this up to News of the Weird, or News from Florida (same difference). But our anger is too pervasive to do that, now. Not for nothing did at least a dozen major American cities top their all-time homicide records in 2021. Just being a flight attendant these days is now considered a combat billet carrying the same risks as being a Ukrainian infantryman or a Capitol cop at a Stop the Steal rally. (Here’s a Southwest Airlines attendant getting two teeth punched out by another woman last year.)
According to The 19th, an Austin-based nonprofit news organization, in 2020, the Federal Aviation Administration initiated 183 investigations of unruly passenger behavior, well above average, even for a COVID year in which air travel was significantly diminished. By November of 2021, that number had increased to 990 investigations, after reports of 5,240 unruly incidents. Even before the pandemic kicked off, and a domestic political civil war nearly did the same, a 2019 NPR-IBM Watson Health poll found that a whopping 84 percent of survey respondents said Americans are angrier today than they were a generation ago. (The other sixteen percent were presumably too angry to stay on the phone.)
Forty-two percent of those survey respondents reported they themselves were angrier in the last year than they had been in the past. And as long as I’m taking an honest inventory, I’d probably count myself among them. I’m mad at Donald Trump for being a burn-it-all-down jackass, and his party for being a bunch of go-along, throne-sniffing cultists. And I’m mad at Joe Biden for being a clueless old coot, and his party for propping up a guy who should be playing checkers in assisted living. I’m mad at an invisible virus for so often keeping me from the people I love. I’m mad at the sky, for continuously dumping snow on me before I can get my snow-blower fixed. And I’m mad at the ground, for reclaiming Howard Hesseman, aka WKRP’s Dr. Johnny Fever, who passed the other day, thus erasing yet another touchstone of childhood, which makes us feel as though our histories were written in disappearing ink.
I grew angry again over the weekend when some shit arrived in the mail. Not figuratively. A literal bag of shit, postmarked with a return P.O Box, but which came by way of an anonymous sender. My wife asked who would send such a thing to me. It’s hard to say – the suspect list is a mile long. Irate subjects? Irate readers? My mom?
It turned out to be my sister-in-law, who is a merry prankster. Gag gifts – this one actually caused gagging – are her thing. I should’ve known. Her fingerprints were all over it. Not literally. She’s not dumb enough to handle animal feces. Which is more than I can say for me, since upon opening it, I took the pile out of its plastic baggie, asking, “Who would send me brown Play-Doh?”
Before actually solving the mystery, I tracked down the company from which it came – Poop Senders (sorry scat fetishists, I refuse to provide them a hyperlink). They offer an array of fecal choices. You can send everything from cow dung (a “soft and stinky patty of poo”) to elephant crap (“serving up the zookeeper’s finest”) to gorilla droppings (“now we’re really getting gross”). I can’t be positive, but by matching the photos to my baggie, I believe I received a gorilla stool sample. Though predictably, it tasted like chicken’s.
Before the big culprit reveal, however, I found myself doing what I often do best: taking offense. I fired off an irate letter to the company, commanding them to tell me who my shit-bestower was, or I’d report them to the Better Business Bureau. I looked them up - they’d already logged nine complaints. Though I suspect people who mail dung for a living aren’t terribly concerned about their reputation. So I also threatened to report them to their state attorney general’s office. They could either reveal my tormentor, or reap the consequences. “Your call,” I warned ominously.
If they even saw the email, they probably crapped themselves laughing, then stuck said crap in a FedEx envelope to surprise another unwitting recipient. But after a mood-altering Kentucky-sourced elixir or two, I started regaining perspective, finally asking myself: “Who am I? What am I doing?” It is easy and fun to take offense, which is probably why we do it so promiscuously. A righteous cause, no matter how unrighteous it is, gives shape and form to our existence. Burning with anger might shorten our lifespans. But it tends to provide a warming fire against the cold chill of the everyday blahs while we’re still here.
And yet, after I tire of humanity, I find that the best way to regain my love for it, instead of seething with rage or irritation or even mild perturbation, is to get away from it for a while. Absence making the heart grow fonder, and all that. (Clichés usually become clichés because they contain replicable truth.) So the other day, I went for a long walk in the snowy woods to escape circumstance and people and my own thoughts, that last bit of business being the hardest thing of all to give the slip. It helps, while hiking, to put on a good audiobook. The voice in your head becomes someone else’s, and maybe they’ve thought something worth thinking, something that merits deeper reflection than just: who sent me that bag of shit?
On this day, my text luckily came from the great Frederick Buechner, the Presbyterian minister, highly-decorated writer, and theologian. I’ll let some of his words play us out. They might seem a bit preachy. But that’s to be expected, since they come from a book called Secrets In the Dark: A Life in Sermons. And since the pandemic has kept me, as it has so many of us, out of physical church for a good two years, a little preaching might be in order. This is from a sermon of Buechner’s called “The News of the Day”:
There is also what goes on in the small private worlds that you and I move around in. And the news of our own individual days in those worlds. Some of the things that happen in them are so small that we hardly notice them. And some of them shake the very ground beneath our feet. But whether they are great or small they make up the day-by-day story of who we are and of what we are doing with our lives and what our lives are doing to us. Their news is the news of what we are becoming, or failing to become. Maybe the best time to look at that news is at night when we first turn out the light and are lying in the dark waiting for sleep to come. It is a time to look back at the wars that you or I have been engaged in for the last 24 hours, or 24 years for that matter. Because there are none of us who do not one way or another wage war every day, if only with ourselves. It is a time to look back at our own searches for peace, because deep beneath the level of all the other things we spend our time searching for – peace, real peace is the treasure for which maybe we would all of us be willing to trade every other treasure we have. As we lie there in the dark, we might ask ourselves what battles, if any, are we winning? What battles are we losing? Which battles might we do better not to be fighting at all? And which in place of surrender should we be fighting more effectively and bravely? We are churchgoers. We are nice people. We fight well-camouflaged. We are snipers rather than bombardiers. Our weapons are more apt to be chilly silences than hot words. But our wars are no less real for all of that. And the stakes are no less high. Perhaps the stakes are nowhere higher than in the war we all wage within ourselves. The battles we fight against loneliness, boredom, despair, self-doubt. The battles against fear, against the great dark. In the whole Bible there are perhaps no words that everybody everywhere can identify with more fully than the ones St. Paul wrote to the Roman church: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” …..That is as rich a summation as any I know of the inner battle that we are all involved in. Which is the battle to break free from all the camouflaged and not so camouflaged hostilities that we half deplore, even as we engage in them. The battle to become what we have it in us at our best to be, which is wise and loving friends both to our own selves and to each other. As we reach out not only for what we need to have, but also for what we need to give. These are the wars that go on within families, within marriages, the wars we wage with each other sometimes openly, but more often, so hiddenly. That even in the thick of them we are hardly aware of what we are doing. These are the wars that go on between parents and children, between people who at one level are friends but at another level are adversaries, competitors, strangers even, with a terrible capacity for wounding each other and being wounded by each other no less deeply and painfully because the wounds are invisible and the bleeding, mostly internal. Sometimes we fight to survive, sometimes just to be noticed, let alone to be loved. Sniping and skirmishing, defensive maneuvers, naked aggressions, and guerilla subversions are part of the lives of all of us.….If only we could see that the people we are one way or another at war with are, more often than not, less to blame for the bad blood between us than we are. Because, again, more often than not, the very faults we find so unbearable in them are apt to be versions of the same faults that we are more or less blind to in our ourselves.
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Bonus clip: While I’ve never been a big fan of Golden Corral, I was, for childhood-tradition reasons, a once-fan of the very comparable Sizzler. As was the artist David Choe, who introduced Tony Bourdain to it in this wonderful episode in which Choe not only wears his red Sizzler suit, but also makes meatball tacos seem like a must-have dining experience.
Double bonus: Here is Howard Hesseman, aka Dr. Johnny Fever in WKRP in Cincinnati, losing himself while singing along to what’s probably the greatest Van Morrison song, “Caravan.” Which is exactly how I feel every time I hear it. RIP, Dr. Fever:
Hesseman...You were good for what ails us. Thanks, Doc.
Matt Labash meetup at the Golden Corral? Make it happen.