A stigma I’ve never understood is the one placed on people who are comfortable doing ‘social’ activities alone. For whatever reason, it is assumed that they’re to be pitied; that they are alone because they have no other choice. When you walk into a restaurant by yourself, the default presumption is that you’re waiting for someone else — not that your entire party has arrived. Then, you have to do the whole “party of one” song and dance for your host, the raising of a singular finger, the silent admission that there is no one to wait for. Whether we have Hollywood or Harry Nilsson to blame for it, one is predominantly thought of as the loneliest number — even if the solo person believes otherwise.
I like to eat out, and I like to do it alone. I usually have a book with me, or I bring some work along, and when the meal is over, I’m actually hesitant to trade in my solitude for the obligation to bat lashes, trade barbs. I choose to be in public because the luxuries of home — the television, the bed, the dearth of pressure to do something worthwhile — these things are tempting, and I often lack the will power to choose productivity over a nap. Getting dressed and leaving home to read a book, take a walk, or just be alone with myself for a moment provides me with peace, not despair. Overall, I view contentedness with being alone as a positive thing, one that ultimately makes me better at spending time with other people.
Except, one Saturday afternoon, I realized that while I’d been spending time alone, I hadn’t been spending it with myself. I had ducked out of the sun into a mostly-empty sushi restaurant for lunch, but this time it wasn’t preemptive. This time I had no book, no work, no distractions. For once, I was truly alone.
So I had no choice but to observe. I watched the chef chop sushi into precise, digestible strips; I watched a family of two parents and two toddlers laugh and converse in their native tongue; I watched passersby on the streets of Park Slope, all whirling skirts and tucked-in shirts. I noticed all the sorts of things I’m attuned to tuning out.
Sitting there, it occurred to me that I’d come to a point where music and story and escape were the norm; that I’d rather interact with media than people — my headphones married to my ears, my hands glued to books, scent and touch something I’ve learned to turn off when necessary. I guess these are the defense mechanisms that develop when living in a city.
But in that sushi restaurant, sitting at my table for one, listening to the rush of conversation erupting from a neighboring table and the clop clop clop of a chef’s knife; the pouring of water; the quiet but deliberate footsteps of the waitress; the titter of halved-conversations echoing into the almost-empty restaurant from the sidewalk; the shuffling of menus; the sound of ice crushing; the mixing of cocktails and the flushing of toilets; I realized I am never alone, that my usual distractions were never protecting me from humanity. They were a vehicle to disengage, a way to cut through the noise, and only that. But sometimes the tittering and the shuffling and the laughter are needed reminders: I am never alone. I looked up from my plate to smile at my companions.