Dinner for one

If one were to listen only to the sentimental jazz tunes from the American songbook of the 1940s there’d be no question that the most austere life is one spent alone. Every ditty promotes a sometimes wistful though always loving companionship. And while I won’t contest the aspiration I nonetheless ascribe on some occasions at least no inconsiderable merit to the alternative – being on one’s own.  An ancient friend of mine once remarked that he savoured dining alone because he had the best possible company. Unquestionably there was a measure of arrogance in the pleasantry – he wasn’t the most modest person. But I have sufficient confidence in the relic’s wisdom to allow for a kernel of truth in the quip. Indeed if I were to reflect but a moment on the occasions when I have dined alone the reminiscences are unequivocally fond though perhaps sometimes glossed with a patina of melancholy.

To be honest though I haven’t the same jubilation for being alone in all instances, some of which amounted to unqualified loneliness.  My twenty-first birthday party for example was ripe with despondency.  Because my birthday falls in early December it always suffers the distraction of Christmas and – more aptly when I was at university – semester examinations. Everyone including me had more rigorous matters than birthdays to command their attention. As usual the decision was mine to be alone on my birthday but the oversight of that seemingly important 21st birthday celebration wrought an avalanche of maudlin self-pity and unnecessarily pointed self-doubt. I have since accommodated the wretchedness by characterizing the event as an existential awakening, a requisite “coming of age” so to speak. I therefore account the solo event as a glowing addition to my repertoire.

Apart from that singular historical blip I rather appreciate the times I have spent alone. For instance I took a trip alone to Cape Cod one September years ago, a time when normally I would have been in the company of least one other.  Antecedent to that holiday I was caught up in a sudden fizzled love affair, too late to change plans, too maddening to want to. Besides I had just bought a new Oldsmobile Cutlass convertible, sparkling emerald green with a tan ragtop and I had no intention of depriving myself under any circumstances of what I conceived to be the thrill of driving the car through the autumn foliage of the New Hampshire mountains and along the spumy coast of the Atlantic Oean. Though I won’t say the adventure was an unmitigated hoot, neither will I say it was a fiasco. The congestion of Cape Cod at that time of year necessitated having to make what were literally some narrow choices. After the very popular late afternoon “tea dance” overlooking Cape Cod Bay had shut down at the Boatslip, Provincetown was instantly flooded with hundreds of revellers looking for a place to put on the nosebag.  It was nothing to have to wait hours for a table at a respectable restaurant.  To overcome that further indignity I capitulated any ambition for a schmaltzy “table with an ocean view” by opting instead to perch at one of the many heavy polished wooden bars on Commercial Street and order whatever the bartender could conveniently retrieve for me from the kitchen.  It inevitably made for exceedingly cozy surroundings which paradoxically did nothing to insulate me from my own sphere of isolation. It is an unalterable truth that in social settings being alone tends to highlight the condition because most everyone else is in the company of others.  Venturing small talk even with the most proximate person at a bar is invariably either ephemeral or flawed, there just isn’t the time or interest to explain how it all unfolded. Nonetheless if one is willing, the opportunity for repartee is there for the expenditure of some energy.

I had a more engrossing experience in the seemingly nondescript Lackawanna Station Hotel in Scranton, Pennsylvania. I ended having to dine alone because my traveling companion was stricken with a temporary illness. But I had an appetite and a thirst. It was the last leg of our return trip to Canada and I felt obliged to do it justice. The hotel was once a grand railway station reminiscent of Union Station in Toronto.  The extraordinarily high ceilings and correspondingly enormous light fixtures lent themselves to civilized dining.  I was seated at a curved bank table, red leather seating, white linen and silver service. The waiter was appropriately dressed in traditional black and white livery. I began the outing with a Grey Goose vodka martini accompanied by a dozen oysters on the half-shell. I told the waiter that I was in no rush and that I would most certainly have a second martini. The waiter had the foresight and courtesy to bring to me a copy of the Wall Street Journal which I expansively opened onto the dining table and read while alternating between sips and slurps. The next course was a turtle soup with a Dry Sack Sherry. Then followed filet mignon, baked potato and a demi-bouteille of Champagne.  Dessert was fruit, cheese and Porto.  As can be imagined I rather poured myself out of the restaurant and slept soundly that night.  The next morning I discovered that I had no record of having paid for my dinner, apparently forgetting to collect the credit card receipt.  When I made enquiry at the front desk, the clerk, after digging around in the overnight records, apologetically announced that she fully understood my concern. What however was surprising to me wasn’t the extent of my magnanimity to the very deserving server but rather the size of my account for the meal itself – effectively I had been charged a mere $40 or so as the hotel had “comped” the meal in deference to the disappointment we had voiced with our suite upon our arrival, necessitating the inconvenience of a transfer to another room. Though some of the details of the meal that evening are a blur I nonetheless recall the overriding sentiment of hedonism as I enacted what to me has always been the exemplary pattern of dining. The point is that dining alone permits one to live out certain fantasies and preferences which are not always either convenient or sociable. Frankly the only thing that could have improved the experience would have been a cigarette or cigar but  that was pushing it even then.

Because I now have the privilege of protracting my morning breakfast over several hours as I compose my taradiddle or scan the day’s news and email, I seldom bother with a noon hour meal. When however the occasion arises my preference is usually for Vietnamese soup. There is a “hole-in-the-wall” establishment in Bells Corners which I frequent when in the city. Many of the patrons are similarly solo, probably working stiffs catching a quick but nutritious meal. The universal dedication in these circumstances is strictly gastronomic or dietary. There is nothing artistic or philosophic to commend the restaurant which is outfitted with the customary square tables and sturdy metal chairs. And there is certainly no threat of a stigma to dining alone. The pay-off is always satisfaction and price, in that order. The idea of lingering at table is unimaginable.

Recently I accidentally enjoyed a meal dining alone. I was attending a Law Society symposium in a downtown hotel and in my enthusiasm to get there I had arrived earlier than anticipated.  To kill some time – and to energize my batteries – I asked the maître d’ at the lounge/bar/café whether I could get something in fairly short order.  He assured me I could and seated me at small window table next to another where two gentlemen were  engaged in a business discussion. Their commercial chatter was of no curiosity whatsoever. It is quite astonishing how the lexical sets of even the most indistinguishable conversation can foster or not any interest. Harkening to my previous experience I asked the host whether he might provide me a newspaper.  He soon reappeared with two editions. Though I hadn’t expected it, the simple meal was surprisingly delicious. The dinner rolls were exceptional (a sentiment which coincidentally my sylphlike server enthusiastically shared with me). Plus I allowed myself the now infrequent indulgence of butter. The so-called main course was a salade Niçoise, the distinguishing feature of which was perfectly seared chunks of fresh tuna. I finished with a black coffee which I only partially drained as the time had slipped away more quickly than I had realized.  Sated and assuaged I left the restaurant with an runaway spring in my step!  No doubt part of my buoyancy was having discovered the place serendipitously.

On the general theme of solo performances and exploits I have to confess that it is not my habitual vernacular. Though I wouldn’t normally think of it as an uncharacteristic blessing, I suppose by some standards I have been lucky to enjoy the company of others throughout most of my life. I know there are some who bemoan what they perceive to be their fate of solitariness. In some cases it has admittedly precipitated a horrid destiny. Nonetheless I consider that even we who have the advantage of companionship should be careful to preserve some time alone. I suspect it is instinctive no matter how “open” one’s relationship may be with others to set up invisible barriers in any social context, the effect of which is to inhibit the more delicate elements of one’s personality. Relieving that necessity surely seems to be healthful in my experience. Yet as convinced as I am that the universe is ultimately personal I have never attributed to being alone anything more than a temporary respite. Like so many other treats in life its value lies in its novelty and infrequency. I do of course now and then contemplate my ultimate and more sobering experience of dining alone, whatever the circumstances may be. That surely is a rumination best kept to oneself, for one of those private moments at a dinner for one.

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

The Hollow Men” (1925) a poem by T. S. Eliot