At the Chinese Buffet With Lee Marvin


On our kids’ birthdays we allow them to pick whatever meals they want. My older son Conor turned 13 recently, and in those relatively few years he has learned to play the system to the hilt. Somehow Mary El and I got roped into providing a breakfast at Burger King, followed by a trip to the Chinese buffet for lunch/dinner. I think that in at least half the contiguous United States such a diet would be grounds to have my boys temporarily placed in foster care. If you happen to be one of these states’ representatives, please come and get them as soon as possible.

Mary El took him to BK for a healthy breakfast of grease sticks with maple syrup and some kind of deep-fried, vaguely potato-like substance. He had two of those. I looked up the nutritional value of that combo one time on the back of a place mat. It said, “You’re kidding, right?”

These are the jokes, folks.

Conor was in his newly teenaged glory. Until about an hour later, when he was face down in the couch moaning that his stomach hurt so badly he wished it would just explode like Alien and end his suffering once and for all. For his birthday we didn’t say I told you so.

We decided to put off the trip to the buffet until 3:00 to give Con some time to recover. The rest of us hadn’t poisoned ourselves with belly bombers, so we were getting hungry. Passing up Chinese food was NOT an option. So when the time came, Conor screwed his courage to the sticking post and crawled into the backseat. He spent most of the trip in the fetal position. With great gastronomical distress comes great responsibility.

I’m not sure what hurt him more, his stomach woes or the fact that he was squandering this opportunity to participate in what was, for him, a culinary royal flush. How often does the opportunity arise to have exactly whatever meal you want no matter how bad it is for you? All right, how often when you were 13? Conor, like the rest of us in the family, is a foodie. He hasn’t quite developed taste, but he knows what he likes. He’s also a world-class planner of exactly the type of good time he wants to have. Let’s go to the park, get ice cream, see a movie and play a game when we get home! Got home too late to play Monopoly? Now it’s ALL ruined! Self-sabotaged again! So entering the Holy Land of a Chinese buffet and not being able to eat was tantamount to Tantalus never being able to reach that delicious, low-hanging fruit. Only with chicken sticks.

Going to the Chinese Restaurant was one of the highlights of my lower middle class childhood. It was rare, first of all. Most of the time we went when my mother had exhausted every possible scenario for fixing dinner and payday was still a few days off. That, or a super-special occasion like when Skylab fell or someone managed to graduate. It was mysterious and wonderful. The red booths, the foreign music, the fish tank. The sharply dressed waiters who brought Pu-Pu platters. Actual fire, right there on the table, rising out of magical blue goo!

Now we’re fed like pigs at a trough by servers who can hardly hide their disdain for us overfed fatbodies. I miss the waiters who used to go back to the kitchen to laugh at us. It was more noble somehow. But self-service is now king. We make our own coffee, we pump our own gas and we load up our own plates.

C’est la vie. But I digress.

We picked a seat far back in the restaurant in case Conor began to moan again. He lay down in a heap in the booth behind us, garnering a few double-takes from people on their way to the restroom. We told the waitress we were getting three meals and a “maybe” and ordered Conor a Coke to sip on. The rest of us went on with the business of earning our servers’ disdain by becoming overfed fatbodies. Mary El bemoaned the fact that there were no crab legs, which didn’t come out until 4pm. Like the gun in Act I, this will be important soon.

As we neared the end of our meal, a miracle occurred. Conor’s stomach rose from the dead like Lazarus. With the strength of ten Grinches plus two, he arose from his prone position, dusted himself off and threw himself back into the fray that is the Chinese buffet. He was thirteen, dammit, and he would not be denied his birthright in soy sauce. Conor wanted himself some crab legs. See, I told ya.

Conor and Mary El have caused the stock of crab crutch companies to soar over the past ten years. Give them a pile of crustacean limbs, a nutcracker and some melted butter and get out of the way. And disdainful servers were bringing them out by the truckload as we spoke! Somewhere a crab is trying to make a fist in protest and realizing he can’t anymore. Conor’s birthday was saved! Except…

We paid for lunch, not dinner. And the buffet was being guarded by the formidable restaurant owner, who I’m sure has made it her mission in life to allow not even ONE crab leg to be eaten by some conniving late lunch guest. We would never try such a tactic ourselves, because besides being morally wrong it would involve knowing what time of day it is at any given moment. We’re not that clever.

But Conor wanted crab legs and it was his birthday. Mary El is the more intrepid of us two. She volunteered to make a run at the crab legs like Lee Marvin in “The Dirty Dozen”. If anyone made a fuss, she would explain that Conor wasn’t feeling well when he came in and now he would like to have dinner, so charge us the extra two bucks. Mary El has a way of expecting the rest of the world to be as reasonable as she is, which is why she takes on these missions instead of me. I’m certain everything will soon go to hell, and it usually does. My back was to the buffet and I didn’t watch. I did, however, casually remark to Conor that it would be funny if the owner said something to Mom.

It wasn’t. No sooner had the words escaped my mouth, I heard the owner raising her voice: “That’s for dinner! Not lunch!”

I know, my son wasn’t feeling well…”

Not lunch! You pay for lunch!”

I know we did, but my son didn’t eat…”

No crab legs! Crab legs for dinner!”

Add it to my bill. lady! My son’s eating crab legs!”

I was in hysterics. Proud, embarrassed hysterics. Mary El came back to the table with Conor’s crab legs, began to shell them in an annoyed manner and said, “Check the bill when it comes. We’re paying for ONE dinner!” Then the funniest, best part of the whole experience occurred. Mary El looked over my shoulder and found the owner wherever she was in the restaurant, made sure she wasn’t looking, and surreptitiously snuck a piece of crab leg into her mouth with a look of pure, unadulterated rebellion. Take it out of my mouth…I dare you! Hell hath no fury like a woman denied crab legs.

And you don’t mess with Lee Marvin on her son’s birthday. 

    • Kae
    • September 14th, 2012

    So funny! Happy Birthday, Conor!

    • theresa galimi
    • September 14th, 2012

    OMG, hysterical. What a way with words. What a unique sense of humor.

  1. Thanks guys.

    • Karen Mills
    • September 15th, 2012

    I could picture that Mary Ellen face as I read this! Wish I could have been a fly on that wall!

  2. As long as you were a fly that didn’t want crab legs after 4.

    • mike
    • September 16th, 2012

    trying to raise a fist and realizing he can’t anymore. that’s writer stuff.

  3. “Tantamount to Tantalus…” is my personal favorite, but that would be bragging.

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