“Are you waiting for someone, miss?”
The question from the bartender is simple enough. He sees a young women sitting at the bar on a Monday night, obviously at ease and not rushing to grab the menu at first chance pretending to be fully occupied by its contents. In his mind she must be waiting for someone to join her. But the truth is she is not and she is not afraid to say it. Well not anymore.
The decided “no I am not” followed by a smile throws him for a brief second. But he hands me the menu and the drink list, leaving me alone to decide. I am not in any rush. My phone is decidedly put away in my purse, which hangs from a hook under the bar and out of reach. I don’t reach for a newspaper or display some thick novel as a not-so-subtle Do Not Disturb sign plastered for all to see. I sit comfortably at the high counter, looking around me and taking in the people, place, and smells. My mind lingers over two dishes – should I go with the gnocchi or salmon tonight? A glass of Vermentino swirls casually in my right hand.
I started dining out alone my first year of college. The majority of my courses fell Monday through Thursday and aside from my part-time job I found that my Fridays held much of my free time for the week. Before being engulfed by weekend shenanigans and early morning study sessions those Fridays offered me a moment of respite. They became my “me days”. Sitting at one of my three favorite cafés in downtown Santa Barbara, I would have lunch alone and read. Hours would pass by and while the waiters and waitress wouldn’t rush me to move, I did experience the occasional judgmental look of fellow diners. For some reason the image of a lone diner invokes feelings of sadness and I was keenly aware that I was a young, unaccompanied female sitting amongst families and groups of friends. I could feel their stares and would bury myself deeper into my book.
When grad school rolled around my alone time switched from casual lunches to nighttime bar crawls or coffee houses. I had discovered that I did my best studying with white noise. Earplugs and music were replaced with the loud chatter of a couple dozen drunken college students. My lunch was replaced with a tall beer and plate of samosas; my novels with a stack of heavy textbooks and spiraled notebooks filled with scribblings and lecture notes. There is a decided difference between a café and bar. I couldn’t have picked a less desirable place to be alone on a Friday night but there I was feeling brave and, yes, even a bit afraid. The empty chairs around my small table in the corner meant an automatic invitation to any man who felt I needed a friend. It baffled them that a young women alone at a bar was not there for the sole purpose of finding a little strange for the night. Even when she specifically said “no thanks” it would take a few repeated nos before they would leave me alone and most would just give up and move on to the next available-looking female. A few did press their hand with promises of free drinks and a great time I would never forget. I usually just rolled my eyes and returned to my notes.
After college dining out became a lot easier. I started noticing that I didn’t necessarily need a safety blanket. Sometimes I would bring a book because I couldn’t put it down but also couldn’t ignore the repeated hunger rumblings growing in my stomach. Other times I would be engaged in text conversations with various friends. I would catch myself laughing out loud at things they would say and not being embarrassed of doing so. But most of the time I sat alone quietly, enjoying my meal and just taking in my surroundings. I loved the solitude.
Once out of school and striking out on my own I started to feel a lot more comfortable in the public space. Soon I was going solo to festivals, music events, museums, street fairs, random day trips outside of the city, and even to movies (currently one of my favorite alone time activities to this day). There is a profound sense of freedom and independence when you’re able to do things solo without feeling the shame of being alone.
From an early age we are taught to view eating alone as an at home activity or an on-the-go quick bite to eat. During my formative years eating was associated with family time. Meals that were kept inside the home offered my parents the chance to ask me and my brother about our day at school, things we learned, and kids we met. Life lessons were handed along with the dinner rolls. If I went out to eat it was either with my family or at a friend’s birthday party or home. I never once considered eating by myself. As a teenager I started experiencing group meals out of the confines of the house more and more. The meals were rarely if ever fancy, often consisting of pizza, burgers or tacos, but they were still regulated to groups. Even at school we quickly clustered into groups of two or more at lunchtime, fully aware that if caught eating alone we would be that kid.
Now, when I am perched on my stool or slouched comfortably back in my chair, I get to think about my day uninterrupted; what I want to eat, work, friends, life issues I need to solve or what TV show I need to catch up on. I get to sit and ponder life’s great mysteries or enjoy watching first-hand a first date or group celebration. If a game is playing on the corner flat screen I’ll glance at it from time to time. It doesn’t cause me sadness nor do waves of loneliness wash over me. Sometimes I catch the eye of a fellow single diner and mutual understanding passes between us. We are happy, we are content, and the only question I need to ask myself is where to next?