“Excuse me,” I said quietly to the cashier, handing her my receipt, “Would you mind giving this to the next person who needs a meal?”

She took it, gazed at me in bewilderment, “But you paid for lunch! Don’t you like it?”

“It looks great, but I have no way to carry it back to the table,” I replied, pointing to my wheelchair, “So thanks, anyway.”

The Elmo stories (of Elmo, my replacement knee and then the fight to save him when I smashed my femur) have been going on for more than two years now. People ask to read them start to finish, so I’ve set up this Saving Elmo index page to let you view the whole series in one swell foop.

Hometown Buffet wasn’t my usual lunch spot, but I’d had to skip my casting workshop that morning to fix a flat tire on the loaner wheelchair. The bike repair shop was fast, efficient, and friendly, leaving me enough time to grab a quick lunch before heading down to what was left of the workshop.

I’d exited the shop to the sidewalk in the little strip mall, saw Hometown and rolled on in.

This is an all-you-can-eat buffet place; you chow down until you’ve had enough or the place shuts down. The cashier handed me a cup for water, pointed to the ranks of steam tables, and I’d headed that way, only to discover a problem.

Spiffy performance wheelchairs like mine are wonderful for transport, and you can get them into the car by yourself–which is why I had one. Yet they have one major drawback: You need both hands on the wheels to go straight–one-handed pushing takes you in circles–so you can’t hold anything, and they have absolutely no storage space.

The chair had enough slope that I couldn’t rest a plate on my thighs. I tried holding the plate in one hand, pushing the wheelchair with the other, and streeetching my toes down to the carpet to steer, but got nowhere. The carpet was too thick for easy transport.

After a few attempts I gave up, handed back my receipt, and tried to leave. The restaurant exit is an airlock; two heavy glass entry doors separated by a short, narrow hallway lined with gumball machines. The door shut behind me, giving me no room to turn around. I couldn’t quite reach the outside door latch without taking both hands off the wheels, which meant I could either open the door or go forward, not both.

I was stuck, staring out that glass door. I realized I was staring at the place where I’d fallen, last September. It was the first time I’d set eyes on it since the accident, and I felt a rising panic. It had been a trying week.

I redoubled my efforts to escape, but when I tried to back out, my wheels caught in the gumball stands. I was well and truly stuck.

OK, stop. Think. Someone will come. Calm down.

A hand touched my shoulder. “Hey!” said a soft voice, “Please don’t leave without your lunch!”

It was the cashier, eyes full of concern. “Honey, our food is really good, you’ll like it, I promise. Tell you what: You tell me what you want, and I’ll get it for you. As much as you want, and I’ll carry it to your table.”

Funny what a little kindness can do. Picture me, crying in the airlock of Hometown Buffet, enfolded into the arms of a total stranger.

“Come on,” she coaxed, opening the door, “Come back inside. I promise we’ll take care of you.”

I carefully backed up, and followed her inside to find people smiling encouragement. I was embarrassed to death, but the cashier simply picked up a plate.

“Now, our fried chicken’s really good,” she said matter-of-factly, “And we have homemade meatloaf. That’s my favorite.”

Food was the last thing on my mind, but… “Maybe a drumstick, some green beans, and a roll?”

She piled my plate high; a waitress rushed to fill my glass with water. They led me to a table and a little old lady in a wheelchair smiled as I rolled by.

“Us wheelies gotta stick together,” she said, patting my hand.

That’s how I came to have a fried chicken lunch with a bunch of non-strangers while reflecting on the wonderful folk in the world. Someone stopped by every couple of minutes, offering me salad, meatloaf, drinks. I ate some of everything, then set my fork down. This time, the cashier held the door open for me.

“You don’t want dessert?” she asked in surprise, “We have GREAT desserts. Not even a sundae?”

Nope. I’d filled up on a different kind of sweetness.

Thanks, ma’am.