The free meal

There’s no such thing as a free meal, but I forget this every time I book hotel rooms. There’s always an option for a complimentary breakfast or cocktail hour reception.

Being my father’s son, I’m quick to calculate and amortize the cost of these “free” offers into the overall cost of the room. If it’s only nominally higher, I’ll book it; I mean, it saves us the cost of a meal or drink, right?


The intervening months between trips clouds my memories of those “free” offerings. I forget how people line up like vultures on telephone wires just outside the cocktail lounge an hour before it opens. Each time a uniformed body emerges from the kitchen, a ripple pulses through the collected crowd as patrons flex their muscles for the coming madness. I imagine this is how the Hunger Games must feel.I spoke with one poor Japanese family in the aftermath of one such “social hour,” the mother desperate for a place to deposit her wilted daughter. The tiny girl clung to a half-empty specimen cup of goldfish crackers, herself a fish in need of water. The family looked shaken. I was embarrassed at the America they saw as grown men shouldered their way past children to grab the last of the dry chocolate cookies.

One would think people would be happy to let others take that last paper bowl of spiced rice crackers; after all, everything is free. It’s not as if they really lose anything. Unfortunately, my experience is that free things bring out the worst in people.

Breakfast was worse. We arrived late, which meant we arrived more than 15 minutes after the kitchen opened. I’ve discovered there’s a feeling of panic when people realize there aren’t enough tables to accommodate the people in line. The sickening feeling of need, that there might not be any omelets left or there’ll be a run on the bagels, is overwhelming enough. If you add the scarcity of places to actually sit after you scrounge up supplies, it’s near riotous.

The choices one makes in the face of this are unique. I find myself grabbing a powdered donut because, well, there was only one left. I figure maybe my wife will want it, even though neither of us has ordered a powdered donut by choice since middle school. I look at the food that ends up on my tray as I work my way around the buffet station and realize I’m embarrassed to be seen with it. A smattering of scrambled eggs is surrounded by dried bacon pieces and a muffin of unknown origin speckled with tiny red things.

One person is filling up his orange juice and drinking it right next to the dispenser so he can fill it up again when he finishes. I wait patiently at the toaster next to someone with giant headphones as he feeds the toaster like a retiree at a slot machine. He’s still there when we finish our breakfast; he seems to like really dark toast.

By the end of our stay, I’m toast as well. I need a vacation “free” from other humans. The scant dollars one saves with these offerings is more than paid for in stress, discomfort and shame. In the end, I can’t afford to ruin my day with these “free” meals.

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