Alone … With My Own Kind

From as far back as I can remember … okay, not as far back as that, but from the time that I was about 18 … I have happily taken myself out to dinner. Alone! From as far back as I can remember … okay, not as far back as that, but from the time that I was about 18 … I have happily taken myself out to dinner – and not to the corner café but to really fancy restaurants. What comes to mind is a dining experience when I was an 18-year-old freshman at St. Mary’s College, Notre Dame. I was on my way to visit my parents who were living in Encino, California, at the time. I was to meet my grandmother in Chicago, and we were to travel by train (!) to the West Coast. I arrived in Chicago on the South Shore train from South Bend and decided – since I had a couple of hours – to take myself to dinner in the Empire Room at the Palmer House. I had a great meal and I felt elegant indeed dining among the Chicago swells around me.

I didn’t understand how odd this all was until I was on the faculty at the University of Pittsburgh, and as was my custom – since my husband commuted from Baltimore on weekends – I was dining alone in a lovely Pittsburgh bistro. At the table next to me was the chairman of the Department of Medicine and his wife, who was also a physician on the faculty. Over dinner she remarked that she could NEVER bring herself to dine alone in a restaurant. I couldn’t believe my ears, because here was an accomplished, professional woman, inhibited about eating alone, without someone to accompany her to the restaurant. And amazingly enough, one still hears this from time to time, as I also heard this a couple of weeks ago from another friend, who confided in me the same sentiment – and in this case, that remark was from a male colleague.

But nevertheless, I dine out with myself several times a week – both lunch and dinner – enjoying my New York Times and my own company in the process. But not just my company and my own thoughts and musings, but also the sight and sounds of others around me. As I may have said in previous blogs, I – like many writers – am essentially an introvert. I do love my friends; I love to be with them. But I also love to chat with waiters and even strangers when I go out. But then – when not with friends – I want to be left alone to my own company and thoughts.

But not entirely alone. I also dislike going into a restaurant and finding, for some reason, that very few folks are around – or in the worst case, no one else is in the restaurant. Not only do I begin to suspect everyone knows something about this restaurant that I don’t, and not only because I become the intense center of attention for the entire waitstaff, but also because I can’t have the pleasure of my own kind’s company. Thinking about all this seemed to call for a blog reflection.

In my latest book, The Fiction of Our Lives: Creating Our Stories Over a Lifetime, Chapter Six is concerned with the comfort of the familiar. And in its pages, I focus a bit on a couple of articles that appeared in the Times as I was writing the book. In a Jan. 22, 2014 op-ed piece titled “Old McDonald’s,” Stacy Torres reflects on a New York inner-city phenomenon involving establishments like McDonald’s and Starbucks as gathering places for folks of all ages, but especially for the elderly who want to socialize with others in restaurants that are cheap and accessible. (The lead photo is of the McDonald’s in Queens that gave rise to the story.) Torres quotes an old Italian saying that goes, “At the table, you don’t grow old.” She says “all of us, of whatever age, need to socialize in public places to feel connected and alive.”

This op-ed piece was followed a week later by another article by Michael Kimmelman called “The Urban Home Away From Home.” Kimmelman argues that in our solo society (see the third photo below that shows a whole book on the topic), such restaurants provide public, communal gathering places, becoming the neighborhood place where “everybody knows your name” – that old Cheers theme lived out in communities big and small across the nation.

So getting back to my own dining experience from adolescence to this very day (the last two photos show a couple of my local favorites!), I do seek out the company of my own kind to “feel connected and alive,” as Torres put it so precisely. As an introvert, I need my own space, but as a human being, I need the company of others. And when I really want to withdraw into my own head, I’ll seek out a restaurant where the staff do not know me so I can remain anonymous and just rub shoulders, so to speak, with others – while I work a bit at the table and then read the Times when the food arrives. But at other times, I do select places that “know my name” – wanting to be alone to work and think, but not entirely alone at that.

So where does this all come from, this need to see and be with our own kind? Well, the obvious answer is that we were born this way. From our earliest, prehuman ancestors we have inherited a tribal need to connect with one another. While still dwelling in caves, we gathered together for safety and for efficiency in food gathering and reproduction. We developed communal skills to ward off enemies and find food for our offspring. We still need to gather together with our own tribe. And depending on how far you are willing to stretch the tribal borders, you are more or less likely to be wary of the stranger in your midst. Obviously this is currently playing out in our political arena as I write this.

Let me close this blog by emphasizing – just so no one takes me for a misanthrope – that I absolutely love and cherish being with my circle of friends – both in Richmond and afar – and am utterly devoted to my two sons and their families. But as an introvert, I also need my space. And in the process of keeping my own company, I engage with my own tribal kind, which these days is pretty inclusive indeed.