I was stood up by a friend last night for dinner. He emailed later, informing me that he left a message on my cell. But no message was received. So I ate by myself in a restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen (I’m in Manhattan for a few days). And the respite from conversation was actually rather bracing. After all, there are pleasures inherent in a dinner alone.
It was a pleasure I first discovered in my mid-teens, when I fled an increasingly fractious and unhappy household (and two parents acting out Strindberg on the Upper West Side) and would get a student ticket for the NY Phil or the NYC Ballet or something off-Broadway, and also would take myself somewhere cheap but interesting to eat beforehand. My budget for these evenings – we’re talking 1970-2 – was between seven and ten dollars, the ticket and meal included. And I always had a newspaper or a magazine or a book with me. Back then, I could even get away with ordering a beer or a glass of wine (even though I was underage – but I was tall and looked almost the legal drinking age of eighteen back then… or, at least I told myself that). With reading material leaning up against a glass, I could not have been happier. Especially as – like most artsy kids in the midst of that hormonal and clique-ridden nightmare called adolescence – I felt myself to be strange, awkward, singularly different, very much an outsider.
Little did I know that such perceived ineptitudes would help me formulate an independent identity that would, in turn, so inform my fictional universe. Just as the ability to sit by myself in a restaurant, a book or notebook in hand, would later so become my modus vivendi as I began to travel and write. And I have spent so much fruitful time over the years in a strange city, or some nowhere corner of the planet, alone at a table, drinking something with an alcoholic content, trying to get the day’s events and encounters down in my notebook, or simply indulging in the pleasures of having a book propped up against a glass and nothing pressing to do that evening…
Loneliness has overtaken me at many junctures in my life – at school, at certain junctures in college, and at key moments in several important intimate relationships. But the pleasures of eating alone have never been lonely ones. And yes that extreme Jansenist, Blasé Pascal, did get it so very right when he said (and I paraphrase here): All of man’s problems derive from the fact that he cannot sit alone quietly in a room.
Or sit alone at a table, dining alone.