Table-neighbor stage fright

Stretching out in cramped quarters

April Underwood
May 29, 2013 · 2 min read

Over Memorial Day weekend, my family and I found ourselves seated close to a couple who was clearly visiting San Francisco on vacation. They caught my eye because they kept leaning in to whisper to one another, seemingly unsure that they were allowed to speak at the same volume of the other patrons. They were in a foreign place, not sure how to act, and feeling exposed that their mistakes might be observed by us. Their discomfort was palpable.

Observing this took me back to 2005, right after my husband and I moved to San Francisco from Texas. We went to dinner at a small restaurant in the Mission where we were seated about eight inches from the next table. I remember it distinctly, because the proximity to strangers was pretty paralyzing. Our table-neighbors were on a first date. The woman had been in band in high school. The guy couldn’t make a decision about what he wanted to eat. The only thing stronger than my complete inability to tune out our neighbors’ conversation was the sensation that my mind had been wiped blank. I was totally unable to carry on a conversation because I felt exposed and uncomfortable.

I got in trouble for talking too much in school a lot. Growing up in the Panhandle of Texas, children (especially girls) were meant to be seen and not heard. But despite missing out on pizza parties and hundreds of gold star stickers because of my deficiencies as a “Good Citizen”, it never really silenced me. In fact, nothing really did until I threw myself into the bigger pond of San Francisco, and found myself sitting there on the world’s smallest stage: a table for 2 next to a couple who was oblivious to my existence.

Now that I’ve been here for 9 years, it’s infrequent that I even notice others in my personal space or earshot, and even more rare that am rendered catatonic by it. You can’t live in fear of a table-neighbor, or anyone else, being bothered or judgmental of you enjoying your life to its fullest. In particular, I feel like I’ve earned my own spot in the phyisical and audial space of this city, and the world. It’s an amazing feeling of freedom to just “be”, in any crowded space. I suspect that people who grow up in crowded cities might take this for granted. I don’t.

I. M. H. O.

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