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At the end of summer camp one year, everyone got an award for something. In retrospect, I suppose this was intended to build our confidence and make us all feel special in our own unique ways, which is not a terrible thing to perpetrate on children. I think I was about 10 years old.
My award was for “most independent camper,” probably a reference to my propensity for wandering off by myself and failing to participate in group activities unless I was forced to do so. I imagine the counselors sitting around trying to think of an award, and sort of laughingly landing on “most independent” as a kind way of noting my preference for avoiding people, or failing to do whatever everyone else was doing.
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard it, and I took a certain pride in my “independence.” For years parent-teacher conferences had described me as a “loner,” and I was into that, too. If you keep people around you all the time, you’ll eventually come to rely upon them, and that sort of thing just leads to disappointment and heartbreak when they let you down. Easier to rely only on myself.
I think this idea is depressing, to some people? But I always found comfort in it. Relying on other people means trusting them and trusting them is just EXHAUSTING. (This was a big reason why I never planned on getting married before I was 30. Which didn’t work out as expected. Obviously.)
My perspective on trusting people has changed in the intervening years. Like now I know that relying on others is okay, but I also know I am a super classic introvert, so I’m NOT a broken freak just because spending time with other humans plain wears me out. I have limits is all. And my limits are way easier to manage when I work WITH them, instead of fighting or refusing to acknowledge them.
Thus, I’ve always been a person who liked doing things alone, even things most people think of as inherently social activities, like shopping, or going to the movies. As a film student in the late 90s, I would trot myself down to the old Nickelodeon theater behind BU’s College of Communication building, pick a film at random, and go see it by myself. I’d do this at least once a week. And I LIKED it -- I mean, I’ve never understood the need for company at the movies anyway. You’re sitting in dark room and not talking for a couple hours. You can do that alone.
And yet even my classmates thought this was a little odd. Because it’s just not a thing people do.
Like going out to eat in a nice restaurant alone.
By Wednesday night of my New York trip a couple weeks back, I was all used up for people. I wanted to go out to get dinner, but did not want to meet up with anyone (my sincere apologies, friends I did not get to see!) so I did what I always do in such situations: I asked my friend Twitter for recommendations.
Specifically, I asked for places that were good for solitary dining. I was a little stuck, as solo-dining places tend to be cheaper joints, and the available venues in the neighborhood where I was staying tended toward more pricey make-your-reservations-a-month-in-advance types. In the ensuing conversation, it occurred to me that were I a more entrepreneurial spirit, there could be something to a ratings site that specifically ranks places by their friendliness to solitary diners.
Or maybe Yelp could just add a “Good for overstimulated introverts” tickybox on their search form. That would work too.
Although I’ve never much shied away from eating alone in restaurants -- and in fact do so on the regular in my normal Boston-bound life -- these are always places that I know well, and that are popular with people with laptops.
I felt a little self conscious going someplace I’d never been -- particularly a place that was probably going to be a little more upscale than the Korean BBQ places that were my other option (wasn’t in the mood for it, otherwise I would have gone there). I also feel self-conscious in a general sense while alone in New York, because it always seems like everyone else knows exactly where they’re going and what they’re doing except me. Being married has made me more reluctant to explore new places on my own, although I realize this is totally ridiculous and kind of annoying.
So I spent a good half hour on Yelp, scouring the poorly-lit user images of restaurant interiors, automatically disregarding any that featured my most hated of space-saving city-restaurant seating plans, The Long Bench.
The Long Bench is that seating arrangement in which a wall of the space is lined with, literally, a big long bench, with tables and chairs opposite all the way down. Thus, one diner sits on the benchlike seat, and another sits in a chair across, the table between them. Repeat in rows of bench, tables, and chairs until you get to a perpendicular wall. It's a very efficient model, and as such it tends to be super popular in space-limited urban eateries all over.
But I'm not fond of The Long Bench myself. One downside is that it often means you're sitting unusually close to stranger-diners on your either side, which can be fun, if you have friendly neighbors, or awkward, if you have neighbors having uncomfortable conversations. Or first dates. First dates are the worst.
Also, there is the small matter of physically accessing the long bench. I suppose there are people in the world who don’t knock things over just by looking at them, but passing my butt that close to another person’s food is just begging for catastrophe.
As I was still searching through Yelp, my hopelessness growing, Kat Kinsman, who cracks the whip over at CNN’s Eatocracy blog and who is also generally an awesome person, answered my plaintive Twitter plea and supplied me with like six options in easy walking distance. I decided on a place called A Voce, mostly because I could get a reservation. For one.
I trundled over, cheered that I not only had a personal recommendation but that I had actually managed to get myself out instead of giving up and ordering room service. When I arrived, the atmosphere was pleasant enough, and dimly lit, and when the maître d' asked me how many, I said, confidently, “One.” (I had forgotten my reservation entirely; later in my meal, the maître d' would come by my table and ask if my name was Lesley, to which I gave him the biggest side-eye ever, only a moment later to realize, oh, sorry, yeah, I had a reservation.)
The maître d' led me to my table. At a long bench. THAT FIGURES, I thought.
But before I could even begin to decide which of my neighbors I would rather inconvenience by squishing past them, the kind maître d' literally pulled the table all the way out so I had room to sit on the bench seat. While I’m sure this happens often, I felt like a fucking princess.
Once I was seated, he pushed the table back in, and I immediately realized that if I needed to use the restroom, or, like, LEAVE, I was going to have to get assistance.
BUT IT’S OK, I told myself. I AM DINING ALONE.
Thusly imprisoned, I started ordering cocktails and if I’m honest I am not sure how many there were by the end. I ate a fresh ricotta appetizer that was mind-blowingly delicious and I felt only a brief glimmer of regret that so much of it would go to waste because I was only one person and there was enough exquisiteness for three people at least. I ordered orecchiete pasta that was all local market ingredients (there was sausage and a pesto and it was fantastic) and ate every last atom of it.
I read things on my phone when I got bored. The maître d' kept coming back to chat, and we talked about food and Boston. I ate my fantastic meal mindfully and patiently, because there was nothing else around to distract my attention.
To conclude, I ordered a panna cotta with green apple sorbetti for dessert and I am not a foodie -- obviously -- but it was marvelous even to my underdeveloped palate. The cocktails made a pot of something called Black Velvet Tea sound good, and then a man appeared with Limoncello-infused marshmallows and I thought maybe I was dead and seeing an angel.
By the end, I felt as though I hadn’t been dining alone at all -- I was indeed dining in a room full of people. And EVERYONE WAS AWESOME. I’m not much of a drinker so the unknown number of cocktails (there was gin and tonic but then also a couple things with Pimm’s in them) probably helped. As the restaurant slowly emptied, my seatmate to my right asked for help escaping the bench -- “There is no way my ass is going to fit between these tables,” -- so I shifted my table over to give her space, laughing at myself for thinking I was the only one who finds getting in and out of those seats so awkward. Of course I’m not the only one.
I paid my extravagant triple-digit solo dinner bill and wobbled warm and becocktailed out into the quiet of Madison Avenue, retracing my steps to my hotel, until I turned onto 5th and saw the Empire State Building looming over me all glowing red and unreal like a towering fairytale castle in a book, like a church of New Yorkness, and I wasn’t even sad that I was alone to see it. Not every moment needs to be shared. There’s value in living a moment alone, in being present in yourself. I felt magical and grateful and proud.
I went back to my hotel room and slept like a kitten. The cocktails probably helped.