Yesterday, I sat facing a table of four women and four children at Panera. The oldest of the children was a youngish teenage girl, primped and painted as we require. The next youngest was an overweight boy, maybe 12 years old, looking pretty standard-issue in his T-shirt, baggy shorts and tennis shoes. The other two children were unremarkable. Both very young. A quiet little girl and a little boy who ran around in circles trying to choke himself on his own tongue or whatever. It’s amazing that little boys grow up to be anything at all.
It wasn’t until everyone at the table had eaten and the ladies were talking among themselves that the weirdness kicked in (although a friend assures me that it wasn’t as weird as I make it out to be) …
The 12-year-old stood up, positioned himself behind the teenage girl, who was still seated, and started manipulating her hair. Not teasing her, but caressing her, stroking her hair back and up the way a hairdresser might demonstrate possibilities to a client. There was a sexual flavor to his attentions, too, right on the cusp of deniability.
Nobody at the table paid any attention, though, not the women or the teenage girl, who by this time was deep in conversation with her elders. Once or twice, the boy said, “Look, momma! Look what I’ve done to Jenny’s hair!” holding it up or off to one side, not at all trying to be funny. On he went, oblivious to their disregard, and on they went, oblivious to to him.
I kept expecting one of the women to say, “Okay, Bobby, Jenny’s hair has had enough now,” or for Jenny herself to ask Bobby to stop, but neither thing happened. I imagined stepping over to one of the women, leaning close and whispering, “Excuse me, ma’am, but your party is not invisible and little Mr. Sebastian there is creeping me out.”
Obviously, I have no idea what Bobby’s story is. Or Jenny’s. But their stories aren’t so much the point to me as the assumption that people seem to make in places like Panera that they’re unobserved.
They seem to define “family atmosphere” as “where people can behave as if they were the only family present.”