This is part two of an unplanned “dining out” series. Tonight, Nancy and I went out for pizza. What I didn’t realize upon entering the pizza place was that I had just entered…The Twilight Zone.
Picture this: It’s a Saturday night, a night like any other night, in a restaurant that could be anywhere…in any time…in any universe. You arrive, and there are four other occupied tables and booths. Nothing out of the ordinary. Or so you think. Before you sit down at your table, you position yourself so that you can see everything in the room. You like to observe, don’t you? You look around at the other tables and booths. Each one has at least two kids. One of them has four boys, another has two girls, a grandparent, an aunt, and a mom. You scan the room. Another booth appears to have two moms and their young daughters. Just an ordinary family-and-friends dinner. Now, a young couple arrives with their two young boys, one a toddler riding in his father’s arms; the other looks like a preschooler. It’s just an ordinary evening in your hometown, Anytown, USA…or is it? Cue theme music.
As you settle into your table and browse the menu, everything seems ordinary to you. Slowly, though, you begin to sense that something is just slightly off. What is it? You see and hear animated conversations at each table. That’s not it. Then, suddenly you realize what it is. You ask your dinner companion if she notices anything unusual about the scene. “They’re all talking?” she asks.
“Well, yes,” you respond, “but there’s something else…” Dramatic pause. You look directly into the camera then, in a look full of meaning, you turn to your dinner companion and breathe these words. “Don’t you see? Don’t you understand? Not a single child in this restaurant is playing a video game or looking at a screen?”
[Cue dramatic music. Short shrill violin strokes? I don’t know. Close up on dinner companion’s shocked expression. She scans the room and nods.]
You look over at that table with the boys. They’re all talking to each other AND to the adults. Still in disbelief, you jerk your head toward the table with the toddler and the preschooler. The family has arrived with a canvas bag of provisions. There has to be a device of some sort…Iphone? Ipad? God, at least a Galaxy? But no, not on this night. The toddler has some kind of wind up toy that fascinates him. The preschooler pulls out some sort of blocks or tracks that he assembles into a course for a car. It’s so strange. You are barely able to comprehend it. He’s playing with something that has…THREE dimensions.
At the table with the two girls and the aunt and grandmother, they are sharing some sort of eggplant appetizer. The children are eating the same thing as the adults…and they’re all talking together, kids and two generations of adults.
Now the boys’ table grabs your attention. There are four of them, boys, that is. They seem to be different sizes, so they might be different ages, but they are all talking with the two adults. They seem to be working on one of those mystery stories, because the kids are asking questions and the adults are pausing, thinking, and then responding.
Later, when it is time for them to leave, three of the boys get up from the table. Each one hugs the fourth boy and says happy birthday before leaving with the woman. The birthday boy stays behind, sitting in his dad’s lap. While they talk, the boy kisses his father’s cheek.
After the meal, as you get ready to leave, two more parties enter. One is a group of five, composed of four girls and a mom. The girls appear to be about the age that you teach, fifth grade.
“This could break the spell,” you think to yourself. You did just think that didn’t you? Of course. It’s only natural to wish yourself back to the familiar. “I’m guessing we’re going to see some serious texting,” you chortle knowingly to your companion. But your companion is not smiling.
“I don’t see any phones,” she says. “You may be wrong.” In fact, you are completely off base. This episode is not yet over.
Two of the girls sit next to each other and play that game where they hold out fingers and then tap the other person’s fingers to try to eliminate their “hand.” In all your years of teaching and watching, you’ve never learned that game, have you? Now, suddenly, you wish you knew how to do something useful with your hands besides pressing on keys? The other two girls are not playing. They are talking…to each other. Face. To. Face.
As you rise to leave, the people in the booth with the grandmother and aunt have also paid their bill and are readying for departure. One of the girls stands up, slides past her mom, and walks over to her grandmother. She reaches out her hands and helps her grandmother out of the booth. When her grandmother is on her feet, they hug…in public. Shrill violins play that Psycho music.
You scan the scene one last time, fixing it in your mind. As if you could ever forget it. It occurs to you that you should probably take a picture, so you’ll remember it always. You reach into your pocket for your phone…but all you find is a small spiral sketch pad. You race for the door. Pull. Wrong. Push. And you’re out in the fresh air, gasping. You look up at the waxing crescent cradling the less lit moon. You inhale deeply, glance back at the pizza restaurant, and wonder if you’ll ever get back to…The Twilight Zone. Roll credits.
Thank you to the families who made this episode actually happen tonight. Like a Johnny Depp or Christopher Walken performance, it was…delightfully creepy.