Food-court pastoral

At Downtown Plaza, a glass-enclosed arc of seven eateries gathers shoppers for a respite from consumption in the form of more consumption. There is, on any given Saturday evening, a riot of neon and halogen and skewed stone tabletops in entropic array, with occasional little leafy trees and high hopes proclaimed for the place by its overreaching name, Terrace Cafes. Chow Line Troughs is not a better name but is more accurate.

It insulates its mostly teenaged throng from all that wafts around the outer emporium—the assaultive Muzak and redolence of hyper-sweet confections or body creams or even the effusive perfumes that came in with them, eau de eagerness, you might say. It offers other smells, like pizza, and other music, like the gusts of staccato conversation that go, “Are you hungry / I like your hair color / you want something to eat / dude you’re not gonna do Sbarro / now I can’t decide / you’re too wishy-washy / whassup Mike / oh I love chocolate-covered raisins / wait let’s think about this / nothing too sweet / when’s your mom gonna pick us up?” They haven’t much time for interpersonal eye contact, what with all the scanning, sizing up and being seen to do. And besides, they are hungry, yes.

Call it an extension of that great American social crucible, the school cafeteria; or liken it to the plains of Serengeti, with its circulating prides and packs and that tense, predatory watchfulness, its cyclical aggravation and gratification of appetites. Know this is a place where much deliberation occurs: Should it be Steak Escape or Hot Dog on a Stick? Whatever rapture and deliverance the former may offer, the latter rebuts with the pop-art immediacy of its primary-colored uniforms and forcibly friendly service. Whatever actual ingredients distinguish one from the other remain wisely undiscussed. And now, oh, hang on, the line is growing at Panda Express; maybe that’s the hot ticket.

It is important to register the extras: With glossy laminated name tags hung low under the breastbone or hooked from pockets at the hip, some cordial conventioneers, mannerly, unrelaxed, dining together probably to avoid dining alone, use up their safest conversation. Shopped-out mothers seem relieved just to be sitting down at last, their faces aglow with perspiration and the exchange of commiserating laughter, their infants refusing as if on principle any satisfaction from what they’re fed or told, and daughters flitting into orbit just long enough to collect more cash. Eatery employees on break sit apart nearby, alone with their thoughts, absently surveying and engulfing their dinners, certainly bored.

But now, never mind the background action. Note that Afro’d boy, head down, breath fogging the cold tabletop, and the olive-skinned girl with her head down beside his. Slowly he rises, takes an edifying last drag from the Pepsi, makes a tentative reach for her hand. Something might have bloomed here.