Articles,  Radio Hour

Only the Lonely

By Jonathan Ammons

Jon’s essay appears in Episode 14 of The Dirty Spoon Radio Hour, which aired September 6, 2019.

I like doing things alone. I like going to see movies by myself, I like seeing concerts solo and I love eating alone. Don’t get me wrong, a booth full of friends is one of my favorite things. There is no greater space I adore more than sitting at a table with a dozen people or just a date. There is no better way to get to know a group of strangers than sitting around a dinner table with them and busting each others balls over a home cooked meal or over a spread of plates at some local joint.

But there is something about eating alone that I absolutely love. And I never thought of that as weird or unusual until about a year ago when I was sitting on the patio of the Noodle Shop down on Biltmore Ave. I had a table to myself and the Big Nasty was busking on the street. I had a table full of small plates; silver potato, steamed pork dumplings, Baozi, and some kind of soup, I’m sure. So there I am, basking in the lovely fall weather when an old friend from college spots me as he is crossing the street. He approaches my table and gives me a hug.

“Aw, are you here by yourself?” He asks in the type of tone people use to say how’s your mother, I heard she was ill? Or I heard you had to put your dog down last week, are you okay?

And my response was “well yeah!” Because to me, going out to eat by yourself is kind of a standard thing! As someone who is always around people and always out in public, a dinner by myself is a fun chance to catch up on back issues of Economist or finally dip into that book my brother gave me for Christmas four years ago. It is a sacred time where I can enjoy my food and actually give it the attention it deserves instead of pondering my witty comeback for my dates terrible icebreaker questions.

Take this for example: I love going to the movies by myself. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a film with someone and afterwards they looked at me and said “well that sucked” and I’m over there thinking what are you talking about! That was amazing! Then they want to go on for twenty minutes about what they didn’t like, thus ruining a perfectly good flick. Or the opposite, which is even worse. Is there anything worse than despising a movie and having to listen to someone go on and on about how great it was as you’re leaving the theatre and all you can think is stop talking, I just want those horrible scenes and that awful dialog out of my brain as fast as they can be forgotten! But when you go alone, you have no opinions to listen to but your own. It is just you, a giant screen and the directors ideas. It is perfect.

“I really like to eat alone” said Andy Warhol once in an interview. “I want to start a chain of restaurants for other people who are like me called Andy-Mats- ‘The Restaurant for the Lonely Person.’  You get your food and then you take your tray into a booth and watch television.” What a fantastic idea. Unfortunately Andy wanted to make it an Automat, you know, one of those places with the wall of trays under heat lamps where you stick in your quarter, pull down the little plastic door and pull out a pre cooked hamburger or cubed steak. Which could not be a grosser idea. But the concept of the lonely man’s restaurant is a great idea I think.

In countries like South Korea it is a cultural thing that one never eats alone. My friend Joanna lived and taught there for a while and she would tell me about trying to go out to eat by herself. “People at the table next to you would just clear a seat and invite you to sit with them! And it was really offensive if you didn’t join them! And at some places they’d just seat you with another party if you came alone!” I have heard that there is even a common greeting of have you eaten yet? in place of the ubiquitous American how are you?

I am torn on the Korean ethic here. Whereas I would love the ability to walk into any restaurant or bar by myself and know, beyond any shadow of a doubt that I will be introduced to someone new and have a conversation that otherwise never would have taken place, I think it might drive me a little nuts. Sometimes there is nothing better than sidling up to a bar, busting out your book and packing away a giant burger and fries while you eavesdrop on the awkward first date at the table behind you.

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