I’m in a hotel dining room, eating breakfast. Everyone is wearing masks, some are wearing latex gloves. I am wearing a bandanna around my face like I’m about to rob a stagecoach.
Even so, these scary modern times haven’t changed the state of the American hotel continental breakfast. Nothing can change that. I’m pleased to report that hotel eggs still taste like they were manufactured by the Reebok corporation. And all “sausage-like” products still taste like deflated footballs that were cooked on the radiator of an old Chevy.
The first thing I see in this dining room is a young family, hands folded, eyes closed. They are saying grace. The youngest boy is bowing his head in exaggerated reverence. Eyes shut tightly.
When they finish praying, I hear a communal “amen.” Everyone lifts their masks, and begins to eat.
“Mom?” says the boy. “What does amen mean?”
I love overhearing this kind of stuff. And I’m glad I overhear the kid ask this because sometimes I wonder whether kids still ask these wonderful questions.
As it happens, I remember when I asked my granddaddy the same thing. I was a 5-year-old. We’d just finished saying grace.
“What’s it mean?” was Granddaddy’s reply. “Aw, well, amen just means ‘over and out,’ ‘ten-four, captain, ‘aye aye, sir.’”
And the thing is, I completely understood what he meant because Granddaddy spoke fluent Kid.
So here I am eating my manufactured “meatish” product, listening to parents explain the mysteries of Ecclesiastical Latin words to a child and I’m smiling. Because I live for this kind of stuff. I love to people-watch.
In fact, during the pre-pandemic era, when I traveled a lot, hotel breakfasts were my favorite moment of the day because you could people-watch all you wanted. I’m finding that people-watching during the COVID era is just as interesting, only a little more poignant somehow.
Three tables over from me, for instance, is a woman and her daughter, eating breakfast in silence. The woman’s daughter looks maybe 15 or 16, and the girl is very pregnant.
Her mother is worrying over her like a busy hen, making sure she has everything she needs. The mother keeps asking, “Are you comfortable, sweetie? Are you in pain?”
“Mom,” says the girl, in a teenage whine.
The mother answers, “You need to eat, we have another long day at the hospital.”
All of a sudden they both look like they’re going to cry. Soon they are holding hands across the table. Their voices become whispers.
“Don’t worry,” says the mother. “The doctor said not to start worrying yet. We need to wait for the tests.”
“I’m scared,” says the daughter.
“I know. But you’re gonna be fine.”
Several feet away from them is a man in business attire, playing on his phone. He looks lonely. Nothing looks more lonely than a man in dressy casual, scrolling on a phone, eating alone.
His phone rings. He answers, which is considered a breach of etiquette in all dining rooms. In fact, this is one of the rudest things a guy can do, hotel-wise. It’s only a few steps beneath belching in the elevator.
But if I’m being honest, I’m glad he answered because on the other end of his phone conversation I overhear the voice of a child saying, “Daddy!”
The man’s face erupts in a smile when he hears this and he whispers, “I can’t talk now, honey.”
Then he listens, nodding and saying, “I miss you, too, sweetheart. Uh-huh. Yes. Okay. I know. Oh, I love you so much. I miss you every second. Always and forever.”
When he hangs up, his face has completely changed. And I know exactly who he’s thinking about.
But today’s people-watcher’s gold medal goes to the woman responsible for keeping this dining room sanitized and clean. She is clad in mask, apron, face shield, and rubber gloves. She is tireless in her efforts.
This woman has been constantly scrubbing surfaces, disinfecting tables, wiping counters, mopping hallways, collecting garbage, and asking breakfast guests if they need anything.
She says to me, “Joo wanna refill on that coffee, sir?” Her accent is Spanish.
“No thanks,” I say. “I’m okay. Gracias.”
She smiles from behind her mask. “No hay problema.”
And I don’t know why, but I am touched by her honest eyes when they smile. Because here is an older woman, working her tail off beneath 50 pounds of personal protective gear, tending a to-do list that’s five miles long, and somehow she is concerned about the state of my coffee. If that’s not kindness, I don’t know what is.
I find even more additional kindness in my final glimpse of Mother and expectant teenage daughter. And I feel a surge of something hopeful run through me when I watch. Because even though this world is a mess, there is undiluted beauty in little corners.
The mother is helping her daughter put on a coat, one sleeve at a time, the way you might help a 5-year-old. Then she helps her daughter with her mittens. And you can see the girl is a little embarrassed. She’s also worried about something.
The daughter says quietly, “I’m scared, Mom. What if something happens? What if…?”
Mom leans forward to kiss her child’s forehead. And even though the daughter can’t see her mother’s face during the kiss, I can see it. And I wish I could save a snapshot of the watery expression found in the mother’s eyes. For it’s the same face I believe heaven gives its children whenever they say “amen.”