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Thursday, August 11, 2011

I Don’t Have Solomangarephobia

 hat? You aren’t going to sit at the bar?

She didn’t say that, but I could tell that’s what the host was thinking.  It’s part of the attitude attached to going into a restaurant without someone else to eat with. The truth is, it kind of sucks. I have always dismissed the notion that there is something wrong with dining alone – that there is a real cause for the irrational fear some people have. I realize it’s a common affliction and it appears to be more common in women than in men. But all types of people of both genders experience it. But I never have, although I think I am suddenly beginning to realize some of the root reasons for the desire for company. The need to avoid loneliness when tying on the feedbag. But that is not entirely why I’m telling you all this. I’m not here to unravel the mysteries of solomangarephobia -- that’s what it’s called by the way.

A solomangarephobic is someone who fears eating alone. I’m not one of those. In fact, I rather enjoy it to some degree. Not because my dining experience is enhanced by filling a lone chair at the table. No, it’s because I’m an observer. I’m the type of person that the solomangarephobic person is worried about – the ones who typically don’t appear in your dining room. They worry that people are looking at them. They worry that others think up all kinds of awful things about why they are alone. It’s a serious self-esteem issue, actually. Generally the other diners in the restaurant have no interest in the lonely eater across the room. They are interested in their company and mostly their own food. Still, the fear exists.

Back to the issue – I like to watch people. Perhaps it is the writer in me. I like to observe people’s actions, interactions and most of all listen to their dialogue. They tell me stories as I sit at my quiet table pretending to watch the golf game on the flat screen over the bar across the dining room. But actually I am carefully listening to their every murmur. And I like to glance at them just often enough to pick up the body language, to find out what these assholes are really talking about, despite their choice of words. Not that everyone is an asshole – but for our purposes here today and the story I was told while nibbling my salad and eating garlic bread, the term fits enough of the characters in play to justify the utterance.

So there I stood. Waiting. Not walking into the bar. Waiting. Waiting. The host finally approached, having given up on her wish that I would just grab a stool and order a beer and spare her the energy exertion necessary to do her job.

“Did you want a table or a booth?” she said.
“A table,” I said.
I had been to this place several times before and I knew the tables were right out in the open, in the middle of the room and the booths were all crammed along the walls. You can’t keep a good eye on the people around you from a booth. Always go for the table if the floor plan has this advantage. Sure enough, she led me to a table in the very middle of the restaurant. It was big enough to seat five, but she cleared off the silverware for the other four spots, leaving just one.
“Someone will be with you in one minute,” she said.
I was betting it’d be at least three to five.
I noticed the place setting left in its position would have me sitting with my back to the rest of the patrons. I would face an empty corner of the restaurant – a section that was not open during this slow weekday lunch shift.
“I don’t think so,” I mumbled to myself.
If anything, that would be my fear. I’ve never been able to sit comfortably in a room with my back to the majority of the people or the main way in or out of a room. There may be a name for that, too. But if there is I am not aware of it. Also, I have to be able to see the other people to observe, obviously.

So I slid the neatly napkin-wrapped silverware across the table and pulled out the chair on the other side and settled in with my menu, giving it a quick glance. When the waitress arrives, completely disinterested, about six minutes later she gave a half-hearted smile and said, “Know whatcha want?”
“Yep,” I said.
After a silence that was long enough to make her uneasy she spoke again.
“What can I get for you?”
What effort that must have taken.  Here’s Mr. Lonely, dressed like he just crawled out of bed. Ratty flip-flops, ripped khaki shorts and a plain tee shirt wrinkled enough to convince anyone it doubled for pajamas. He probably tips like shit, too.

“I just want the Garden Bar and a sweet tea, please,” I answered quickly.
What a relief. The Garden Bar is self-service. All she had to do was refill my tea occasionally. Suddenly Mr., Lonely is OK in her book. At least if he’s going to tip like shit all she won’t be doing much unnecessary work.
“OK, great. Help yourself. My name’s Tina if you need…” her words faded at the end because she had already turned and rushed back toward the bar area where what appeared to be her boyfriend was camped out on a stool downing pilsner glasses filled with Budweiser.

She returned within two minutes with my tea and a plate of garlic biscuit things that tasted surprisingly good. She plopped the plate of biscuits down on the table and one of them slid off the plate and onto the table. She quickly grabbed it with her hand and held it for a moment, staring at me as if to ask, “Should I put this back on the plate.”

I was as curious as she was about the predicament, so I didn’t lend any advice. Hesitantly she decided to put the dropped biscuit back on her own tray and take it to the garbage. Nice call. Tina’s a pro.

I got up, went to the Garden Bar and built my lunch. Mixed baby greens, red onions, garbanzos, eggs, Parmesan, mushrooms, bacon and rye croutons with a little bleu cheese dressing. I also got a side of pasta salad from the bar and some fruit. My meal was all set. I returned to the table and started looking around at my fellow diners. It was a slow lunch, as I mentioned before. I really only had two parties within earshot to listen to and watch. A woman of about 60, her 30-something daughter and a newborn baby were at one table. Aside from myself they were the only ones in the dining room when I had arrived. Since returning from the Garden Bar, the reluctant host had been forced into action once again. She was leading a party of three to a close by table just one booth down from the two women and the newborn. When I saw two of the three members of the party, roll their eyes upon noticing they were seated near a baby I knew these were the ones to watch.

In fact, the other table provided little more than smiles for me. The baby would laugh and make a big, toothless grin and the apparent mother and grandmother would smile – and that made me smile too. But they didn’t talk much aside from baby talk with the little one. Since the baby talk was probably irritating the party of three, I was fine with it despite the fact that I usually avoid nonsensical babble with children. I talk to them in plain English as if they understand, even when they don’t. It tends to make them understand sooner. It worked with my own child anyway. I reserve the foolishness for funny faces. They like that.

The party of three was made up of one female and two males. The two males appeared to be friends based on their comfortable back-and-forth banter with one another. The girl was the apparent girlfriend of one of the males – the big muscle-bound male with the Easton cap and sunglasses on the back of his neck like Guy Fieri. (For the cultured, Guy is a chef, author and the owner of Johnny Garlic’s and Tex Wasabi’s in Santa Rosa, California, which I have unfortunately not made it to just yet. For the rest of you, he is the annoying host of “Minute to Win It” – a prime time network game show you’ve probably seen more than once.)

The bulky boyfriend, we’ll call him Johnny Garlic, was decked out in a tee shirt that looked at first glance to be a Hollister appliqué style garment. But it was covered in phrases half-hidden by the booth about Jesus and something about celebrating a… turd? It couldn’t say celebrating a turd, but it sure looked like it. Maybe if he didn’t roll his sleeves up to reveal the maximum surface area of his “guns” then I’d know what I was reading. Johnny had muscles, and he was apparently proud of them. Of course I felt lucky to even have a shirt that I could try to read. The sunlight from the nearby window made it obvious that he could have come in sans tee with nothing but the wife-beater he wore beneath it.

Across the table sits his buddy. We’ll call him Working Class Horndog. Just looking at him in his black “Let Go Drinking and Do Something We’ll Regret” tee shirt that featured two stick figures having doggy-style sex and barfing at the same time made me reminisce about the days of the Working Class Dog. Rick Springfield’s 1981 album featuring “Jesse’s Girl.” This song would most definitely connect with the guy’s emotions, although he may not be familiar with the tune since he was likely born a few years after it left the charts. I may not be able to tell a person’s life story by watching and listening to them as I eat my lunch across the room, but I can say for sure that this guy wanted to nail his buddy’s girlfriend so bad he could taste it. And she’d probably be better off with Horndog. He seemed the smarter of the two at least – although smarter in this case probably means the difference in Ds and Fs in high school biology.

The girl, who we’ll call Spandex, is an above average looking, mid-twenties girl with brown curly hair tucked under a cycling cap, spandex ankle-length pants and three layered shirts on in the middle of August. Some people may immediately point out her long beak, but I have never been one who thought big noses were unattractive, so I thought she was cute enough. And although she tried hard to hide her body, it was in pretty good shape from what I could tell. So I could see Horndog’s attraction without knowing more about her. And even if she had been unattractive physically, Horndog seemed like the kind of dude evolved enough to see inner beauty in a girl. At least this one in particular. And more importantly I could see Johnny Garlic’s forgetfulness. He had long since forgotten that his girl was pretty nice looking and appeared to be happy and healthy. A meathead like Johnny could do much worse but unfortunately never has to.

Horndog laughed incessantly at everything Spandex said, and Johnny just gulped his beer and ate all four biscuits before anyone else could try one. You could see it in his eyes that Horndog had fallen in love with Johnny’s girl. And I couldn’t help but wonder if Johnny wasn’t wise to it. Johnny acted completely unaware of the situation, but might the biscuit gobbling have been less about greed and more about spite.
“Fuck these two,” he might have been thinking. “I know something’s going on, and when I find out for sure I’m going to bury this sonofabitch in a shallow grave somewhere. Fuck ‘em. I’m eatin’ all these goddamn biscuits.”

Poor Horndog. He might be dead already.

And the reason I thought this might be a possibility is because of the actions of Spandex. She was soaking it up – a bright, happy smile on her face. She rarely looked at Johnny and she kept her eyes locked on Horndog almost all the time, even when she was chewing her food. And no one does that.

At this point I had all but decided I must have read the signals wrong. Maybe I had been sidetracked by the deliciousness of shredded bacon, cold garbanzo beans and chunky bleu. It could happen. Maybe Johnny was just Spandex’s brother, and Johnny is trying to set his buddy Horndog up with his sister. That makes sense. It has to be that. Of course. And then…

“Can you let me out, babe,” she said to Johnny. “I need to go to the restroom.”

He wasn’t thrilled about having to get up, but he did. Spandex gave him a gentle scratch on the back as she got up and pecked him on the cheek. I could see the sorrow in Horndog’s eyes.

“You lucky, dumbass,” he must be thinking.

Then I got more confirmation as the two sat in somewhat of a silent stare-down for the majority of the time Spandex was gone. When she returned, the table went back to its regular light mood. Spandex was Johnny’s girl. Oh hell yes. Johnny knew. I was sure of it. This was better than Young and the Restless. And Horndog didn’t stop as he continued to compliment and chat up Spandex while ignoring Johnny.

Tina walked by me and paused long enough to slosh some tea into my half-empty glass and spill almost as much across the table without so much as a glance. She was headed to the table where the people had ordered three meals and promised a bigger tip. The leper colony that had become my table was not a major issue in her life at this point.

Tina put on a big, fake smile and approached Johnny, who suddenly came to life. I hadn’t mentioned it before but Tina was a looker too. Perhaps even a more attractive lady than Spandex. Her sandy brown hair was pulled up into a mess of curls on top of her head, exposing a long, slender white neck atop a body that a person like Johnny Garlic might say was “tight,”

And Tina was into Johnny too, for the apparent same reasons that Spandex had once fallen for him. Even with her boyfriend getting drunker by the sip nearby at the bar, Tina flirted obviously but carefully because of the presence of his main squeeze sitting inches away. When Spandex caught on and spoke up, trying to end the flirting and get on with the server-related talk, Johnny was quick to react.

Just as Spandex asked something about the menu, Johnny spoke up.

“You are just saying the stupidest stuff today,” he said and shrugged her to her side of the booth. The uncomfortable silence for a moment was filled with all types of emotion that hung in the air, thick like cigarette smoke in a low-ceiling bar. Spandex was embarrassed and ducked her head silently. Johnny was feeling like a “real man” and Tina was feeling a bit empowered as if she had ordered the beheading of Medusa and watched the deed carried out before her eyes. Meanwhile, Horndog felt rage and with fewer witnesses and bigger balls he would have cleared the table in a single lunge and ripped Johnny’s tongue right out of his mouth and eaten it. Instead he just looked away and ignored it. And now Spandex was feeling embarrassed, disappointed and angry most likely.

Personally, I was simply feeling romaine, baby spinach, lollo Rosa and radicchio slide easily down my throat chased by ice-cold tea.

Johnny’s chest appeared to swell even more than it already was. His muscles flexed and his “tribal” tattoos poked out from inside the rolled sleeves. Tattoos that seemed cool to girls like Tina despite the fact that he looked more like a farmhand straight from the seat of a John Deere than a Maori warrior headed into battle. Tina was getting fidgety. I half expected them to embrace on the spot. But they did not. Tina looked deeply into Johnny’s eyes and said, “I’ll check back in a few.”

The party of three sat quietly and did not talk much. What little that was said seemed to be mostly small talk and Horndog’s attempts to make Spandex feel better without calling out Johnny, who would certainly pound him into mush later in the evening at the first sign of mutiny.

As I finished off my salad, Tina quickly came around and asked if I wanted more tea. I said no. She didn’t ask if I wanted dessert. How could I? Lonely jackass with no one to have a simple lunch with. Probably needs to get in better shape to attract a mate or at least get a friend. He doesn’t need dessert. I won’t even ask him. It’ll be my good deed of the day, to help him resist temptation to eat his grief away. And it’s not like he’ll figure the up sale into the tip anyway.

The truth is I didn’t want any dessert, but I was bothered that she didn’t ask. Isn’t that part of the job? Or is this just residual bullshit from my days as a restaurant manager?  Regardless, I didn’t like it.

I also noticed that the first party – the two women and the baby – were getting up to leave. Tina had earlier slipped them a check inside one of those black leather booklets you always see in sit-down restaurants. They left the money discreetly in it, an edge poking out the top. Tina picked it up, retrieved change and brought it back to them in the black leather booklet.

After asking me about more tea and my refusing, Tina quickly jogged over to the POS system, today’s replacement for cash registers in many restaurants, printed out a ticket and walked by my table and dropped it without stopping.

“There you go.”

There was no black leather booklet to discreetly put my cash or credit card in. Instead there was only a curled slip of paper from near the end of the roll. It rocked back and forth in the breeze caused by the fans above. As it rocked one way I could read the total. I reached in my pocket, grabbed a $20 bill and tossed it beside the ticket. Tina eventually came back by without speaking and picked it all up. A few minutes later she came back with change and another, “There you go.”

I tipped approximately 24 percent, took one last sip from the mixture of sweet tea and melted ice and got up. I walked past the party of three on my way to the door, catching Horndog’s eyes.

“Have a good one,” I mumbled to him, nodding. But I knew all along there was not a good evening in store today. He’d either end up losing his girl, his friend or both; or possibly wind up in a hospital after a fierce beating from the man who was celebrating a turd. He nodded back in a very friendly way that spoke to me. As if he were looking for a new friend already. But it wasn’t going to be me. Not this time, Working Class Horndog.

I slipped out the door without so much as a “Thank you and come again.” I got in my car and drove home – alone and no longer hungry.

(August 2011)