Author’s note: This is the fifth installment of a multi-part series. For an optimal reader experience, read the introduction, Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV first. Subsequent installments will post daily.
Nothing attracts the best and brightest specimens humanity has to offer like a complimentary continental breakfast.
It was here, in the room off the front lobby I recognized now as the place Dustin went to retrieve my plastic utensils, I first began to realize part of the reason people who could afford to stay elsewhere did so.
It would be unfair to criticize the food. Any continental breakfast I’ve ever had is from the same starter pack: dense scrambled eggs of questionable origin, greasy sausage links, and blackened potatoes, all of which were cooked sometime during the Clinton administration and reanimated over Sterno burners for consumption.
The buffet was open from 7 to 10, but we arrived at 9:15, a rookie mistake to be sure. The early birds had already eaten in leisure and gone, leaving the leftovers for the masses.
There was an unspoken hurriedness in the air, an urgency to grab what you could before the hotel staff swept away the table of chafing dishes and left you to fend for yourself.
There were no free tables in the dining room, all of them being occupied by obese, masticating guests in Hawaiian print trunks and ill-fitting tank tops. One man’s plate consisted entirely of sausage, and he ate the links two at a time like Paul Bunyan, his gaze unfocused and glazed like that of a cow grazing.
The line stretched 15 deep in a cramped coil, the guests ahead of me taking their sweet time making choices, as though if they waited long enough a tray of cinnamon French toast or Bloody Mary station would appear. But they didn’t, and so the guests validated their pace by taking an extra long time selecting which of the four Heinz ketchup bottles they wanted to slather their eggs with.
At this point, I was kind of wishing we’d packed the waffle maker after all.
When it was my turn I made quick work of my selections, bypassing the biscuits and cauldron of bubbling sausage gravy out of fear for the potential intestinal pyrotechnics it might cause later. As I reached for the potato spoon, which for some reason the guest ahead of me placed in the tray of extra Sterno canisters, an old man behind me tapped me on the shoulder.
“Did I get your room number?” he asked.
“Beg your pardon?” I said.
“Your room number. Did you give it to me?”
“I don’t believe so?”
“Could I have it please?”
“Uhh…” I was no dummy. I’d seen enough irreverent buddy comedies to know you’re supposed to protect your room number like your bank account, lest someone puts poolside drinks and a crate of macadamia nuts on your tab. “What do you need my number for?” I asked in a tone I hoped conveyed politeness, but definitely came off as suspicious.
“I need your room number to sign you in,” he said. “Did you sign in?”
Now, I had seen a school desk in the entryway with a gridded piece of paper on it, but it was unmanned. “Oh, I didn’t realize we had to,” I said. “No one was there when we came in.”
I really looked at the old man for the first time. He wore a red golf shirt tucked into a high-waisted pair of slacks. In his hand, he held a plate with a pile of eggs on it. Nothing about him suggested he was an employee of the hotel; he didn’t even have a goddamn name tag. It was completely possible he was some family’s doddering old grandfather who forgot to take his pills, and, in his delusion, had decided it was his job to monitor the hotel’s free continental breakfast.
“I probably wasn’t there,” he said. “I can’t just sit there all day checking people in, you know?”
No, sir, I don’t know, I wanted to say. If you were under the employ of this establishment and assigned the role of breakfast miser, wouldn’t that be the whole point of your job?
“Just tell me your room number and I’ll get you checked in.” His smile had a crooked, dementia-vibe to it, and at that point I figured fuck it, if the old guy was scamming me, he deserved a treat on me. Plus, I didn’t even recall our hotel having room service.
I threw caution to the wind and relayed it to him, room tab be damned.
On the way out, I saw the old man back at the check in desk, holding court with two other septuagenarians. They laughed and jabbered, trading stories like they were at the bar at the American Legion.
Next to his plate of cold eggs and the potentially-contrived check-in sheet stood a glass wine carafe. On it, a printed sign reading “TIPS.”
The balls on this guy.