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A bang in the restaurant sent us all to the same thoughts

An American restaurant worker
An American restaurant worker

It was a quiet, routine morning in the buffet breakfast hotel at the agreeable family hotel in central California. People politely waited in turn for their jolt of coffee drawn from large standing thermoses; some were still half-asleep but all generally content with this modern American ritual of “free” made-to-order omelets prepared by smiling men in oversized chef hats, heaping piles of yellowy eggs, sausages, potatoes, bins of cereals, and a pleasant—if not dazzling—assortment of grocery-style breads, muffins, yogurts, fruits, and juices.

Suddenly, there was the loud pop of an explosion that filled the buffet room.

Some of the small children drew in coloring books, disinterested teenagers were already texting furiously, and parents struggled to snap out of their borderline travel grumpiness while trying to plan another day of late summer tourism. Aproned brown and black folks cleared table after table, refreshed bins and refilled coffee mugs. Wrinkled copies of USA Today were strewn about.

Nobody particularly noticed anyone outside his or her own immediate sphere; the communal aspect of the rushed, no-frills meal was tolerated enough. There was a generalized anxiety just beneath the default, approving tone.

A large silent television monitor hovered above, showing CNN: beheadings, radicalized Muslims running amok aboard armored vehicles blazing with submachine fire, bloody fighting in Ukraine, an American mother pleading for her journalist son’s life in a video message to a grisly caliph, footage of militarized Missouri policemen marching through a suburb, a befuddled US president, a nine-year old girl on an Arizona outing mishandling an Uzi rifle at “Burgers and Bullets” and killing her instructor. Pass me some of those waffles, son. Shall we go to the pool later?

Suddenly, there was the loud pop of an explosion that filled the buffet room.

Some people stood up; all of us certainly stopped eating, filling, scooping, or spreading more slippery jam out of those irritatingly unavailing little plastic cubes. No one really panicked; there was no apparent shooter, no smoke, no anything really but the collective, stomach-curdling apprehension that instantly converted all of us from strangers into a family of Americans circa 2014.

“You don’t know what to think these days,” said a pale-looking, fortyish dad from his impromptu family table to me, sitting alone adjacent with my iPad. “It wasn’t a gun shot, I know that for sure,” said a well-built woman in her early twenties, who, when I looked at her, had the disciplined appearance and brisk timbre of a military officer.

As for me, I felt my heart pounding a bit even as I observed various levels of fear and resignation mixing across the suddenly transformed, connected group of formerly incidental wayfarers who hadn’t much interacted but were now engrossed in rueful, therapeutic conversations, philosophical, pessimistic musings, and the prevailing need for human contact. “Probably was a generator or something,” said one of the chefs in an authoritative tone that we all needed.

I gathered my iPad and notes and began to walk out of the eating area. My eyes met those of a middle-aged black woman, an employee of the hotel who worked in the kitchen and who had a kind face that was nonetheless acquainted with toil and sorrow. We looked at each other like old friends with mutual understandings and kindred spirits born of the general suffering of these times and the bottom-line, pressed humanity of every single one of us coping these days.

“It’s madness, isn’t it? I don’t want this world anymore.” She spoke to me. “Yes, you realize that you imagine terrible things just having a piece of toast at breakfast,” I answered. We both were thinking about the same things: mass murders, airport security scares, terrorist plots, imploding buildings, falling airliners, school children fleeing in horror with their sweet, fresh palms waving in the air.

“Bless your heart, Mister.” She uttered, as I walked away from my closest friend in the world at that moment.

See my new book, 'DANGEROUS FRIENDSHIP: Stanley Levison, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Kennedy Brothers'

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