Table for one

So, this girl walks in to a bar.

It’s a dreadful evening, weather-wise, and the corner pub has been transformed by the rain.  Gone are the throngs of twenty-somethings, with their ubiquitous vodka-sodas and tipsy chatter.  Instead, a few damp jackets dry out on chair backs as their owners occupy the stools around the small square bar.

“Is this seat taken?” I claim an empty stool next to a lone guy with a business-traveler look to him.  Everyone around the bar is sipping beer, chatting quietly, nibbling from plates of food.  The place feels like a communal dinner table.  I’m kind of digging it.

Within moments I have a pint of Magic Hat Oktoberfest in front of me.  I pull my John Irving paperback out of my bag and settle my elbows on the counter.  The quiet din of conversation is a lovely backdrop for some light reading.

My black bean burger and french fries arrive; I set the paperback face down and reach along the bar for the ketchup bottle.  Business-traveler guy smiles and hands it to me.

“What are you reading?”

I smile hesitantly.  On one hand, I’m not opposed to a little friendly chat with a stranger.  But on the other, I kind of just want to enjoy my dinner and my book.

This is always a tricky thing to navigate when dining solo.  Back in the real-job days, I traveled frequently and often found myself eating dinner alone at the hotel bar.  And in my experience?  Interactions with strangers are most often surprisingly pleasant. You never know when someone has a funny or touching story to tell.  I’ve learned a lot from the stranger on the next stool over.

But there’s always a small chance of disaster.  As in: you’ve committed yourself to a two-hour lecture on the evils of television media from a certifiable lunatic.  As in: you’re about to hear an lengthy tale from a (very drunk) older woman about her sex life.  As in: you unknowingly sat next to a powder keg of bat-shit-crazy, and your kind hello lit the fuse.  In which case: congratulations, your dinner has been ruined.

Really, it’s not unlike chatting up the person next to you on a long flight.  Odds are good that they’re perfectly normal and will provide a few minutes of pleasant conversation during take-off and landing.  But there’s also the small chance that the next four hours of your life are going to be miserable.

It’s a calculated risk, engaging with strangers.

I give business-traveler another once over and decide to bite.  I smile and explain, in a couple of sentences, the plot of the book.  (Which is no easy feat, by the way, for an Irving novel.)

He nods politely.  I can tell he’s not a consumer of epic fiction: he was just trying to start a conversation.

We chat amiably for a few minutes.  I find out that he is indeed an out-of-towner: Florida is home.  We discuss hurricanes and LeBron James.  At some point, the conversation drifts off to a natural conclusion and I return to Irving.

That was nice, I think to myself.

I finish my beer at a leisurely pace and ask for the check.  Business-traveler does the same.  He pays cash for his and stands to leave.  We exchange it-was-nice-to-meet-yous and take-cares; he retrieves his sport coat from one of the chair backs and heads out into the rainy night.

There’s a bit of a social stigma about dining alone.  But once in a while I rather enjoy it.  If executed with skill and a little luck, it’s just the right amount of social interaction.  It’s not a dinner date with friends – something that would require changing out of my pajamas and putting effort in to actual conversation.   But it’s not eating alone on the couch, either.  It’s in between.

As someone who often goes all day without talking to another person, it’s nice to get out of my apartment and eat with other people – even if we’re all on our own bar stools with our own novels.  Which is not to say that I don’t love sharing meals with the hubs or with friends – I absolutely do!  But sometimes a few pleasantries with a stranger and a good book are all I need.

I linger for a few minutes, avoiding the inevitable walk back to my apartment.  It’s still pouring and the bar is cozy.  I secretly wish it could be so intimate and friendly all of the time.  But as soon as the skies dry, the droves of downtown workers, happy-hour revelers, and pre-partying clubbers will return.  Those bar stools, so inviting and easy to come by tonight, will be a precious commodity.  I feel a little jealous.  This is my neighborhood.  I want it to be my bar.  I don’t want to share it.

The bartender passes by and asks if I want another beer.  Tempting – very tempting – but no, thanks.

“Hey, so how are you liking the neighborhood so far?” she asks.

“You remember me?” I’d only eaten there once before.

“Of course!  You just moved in to the building next door, right?”

I smile and nod, and tell her that I’m liking it quite a bit.  I pull on my hoodie and prepare to brave the rain.

“Well, see ya soon!” she calls cheerfully.

Maybe it can be my bar after all.

And I might even be willing to share it with actual dining companions.  Sometimes.

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19 responses to “Table for one

  1. Aw, that’s sweet! I was afraid he was going to go all loony on you out in the rain. I pretty much always have a book handy and I don’t think there’s anything unusual about reading in bars. It’s nice to have when I need to indicate to someone that I’m done talking. 🙂

  2. I secretly love dining alone. Especially with a good book 🙂

    p.s. I totally thought the business dude was going to ask for your number!

  3. Haha…sorry to disappoint you guys. I do have some fun stories of weirdo people from my work travel days though! 🙂

  4. Ok, I love this!

    And you remind me, I need a bar I can go to alone. ;p (Too many douchey ones around here booo)

  5. this is so great! i love it. i enjoy dining alone every once in a while too and my friends think i’m weird.

    p.s. i’m with megan: i totally thought he was going to ask for your number too!

  6. this was just lovely. i don’t often comment in response to blog posts, but this was really just wonderful. i’m a ‘young professional’ (is there a less-tacky way to say this?) in my first year in a new city, and i can’t say i’ve yet found the courage to slip into bars on my own. more often than not, if i’m not with friends, i’m at home, on the couch. but you’ve inspired me to try venturing out… and maybe striking up a conversation…

    • Thanks! And I totally agree, someone needs to invent a better term for young professionals. It sounds so…I don’t know, student-council-ish. 🙂

      Good luck getting out there! New cities are tough. It definitely takes effort. :/

  7. this was such a joy to read. i used to do quite a bit of coffee-shop-sitting and a little bit of alone-dining when i lived abroad, and there is something really beautiful about it that you’ve captured perfectly with this piece. and it’s good to hear that you’re settling into the new neighborhood alright!

  8. I enjoy eating alone sometimes. It’s kind of nice to people watch, read, or just do nothing but enjoy a drink and some good food!

  9. I hear ya! Even blogged about it way back when…inspired by a Time Out NY feature about the same topic 🙂

  10. I adore your writing style and can’t tell you how happy it makes me when you show up in my google reader with another of your fun posts for me to enjoy. “You unknowingly sat next to a powder keg of bat-shit-crazy, and your kind hello lit the fuse. ” Fantastic!

    (Eating alone with a good book is so, so nice. I always feel so defensive when someone creeps up and tries to get chatty with me. I’m busy, ya bozo — don’t you see this book in front of me?)

  11. Sounds like a wonderful evening. 🙂

  12. You write beautifully; great story!

  13. i love the entirety of this post, but most especially that you tried to explain the plot of an irving novel briefly. “soo, this woman accidently castrated this dude during a car accident, and then…” too flippin’ funny.

    can you write more posts like this? i dig them. thaaaanks!

  14. Loved this post, Shelby! I like dining alone too – I found it to be especially empowering after a bad break-up a while back. Hehe, maybe I need to lighten up though, because I probably wouldn’t have been as amenable to the convo with the stranger. But you’re right – most of the time they end up being surprisingly pleasant!

  15. Teh righting…you haz it.

    Very nice read.

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