It’s late Sunday morning and I’m sitting in my favorite grease-hole diner. I think you know the type: where the eggs are runny, the corned-beef hash is burnt on the outside and uncooked in the middle, the coffee is horrid, and the service is rude but reliable. It really doesn’t get any better than this.
I’m by myself, reading a book. Fork absently in one hand, book in the other, I am oblivious to everyone around me–that’s one of the reasons to come to a place like this, right? Occasionally I chuckle from something I read. I expertly scoop from from my plate into my mouth without much thought, a feat that comes from lots of experiences–and a few stained shirts and books. Every once in a while I make the mistake of tasting the food, followed quickly by trying to fix this by drinking the coffee, which is of course also a mistake. The delicate dance continues.
By some miracle, I make it through most of the food in front of me. My stomach debates complaining, but it’s used to this and, in many ways, it is comforting to be full of greasy breakfast food. At the end of a chapter, I put the book down and look around for the first time in a while. I’m in the narrow window between breakfast and lunch rush and it’s quieted down since I first came in, though I know for the severs this is really the calm before the storm–this also means I’m on my own if I want a refill or to get my check.
I first notice the table across the aisle to my right. It is an older man sitting with what appears to be his two daughters, who are maybe 6 and 9 respectively. I notice him because he is ordering what I just ate, though he asks for his toast with extra butter. This is, I assume, a polite way of saying “with any butter,” as the toast only comes in two ways: traces of what might be the effort to put some butter on the toast but otherwise completely and absolutely dry or so sopping wet with butter that you could probably use a sham-wow before eating it and still have plenty left over to fill your butter snowmen molds. I drift away for a moment, only to have my attention subtly pulled back.
“Ah, ha ha, what did the world do, uh, before text messaging,” he says, trying to appear clever, which only serves to highlight his discomfort at having what is probably the small time he gets to spend with his daughters taken up by one of them who is, yes, texting on her phone. I think to myself that he would, perhaps, have better luck if he got a phone himself. I try not to intrude long on his time with his daughters, but it is clear how uncomfortable he is and I feel bad. This is highlighted more so when one of the girls says something starting with “my mom.” I glance at him and you can see the pain he is trying to hide on his face: “mom” shouldn’t need a “my” in front of it just like “wife” doesn’t need an “ex.”
I turn my attention elsewhere, letting the father have his short time with his girls. Good luck, my friend. In the next booth over from them is an older couple, perhaps early sixties, sitting opposite from each other in the bench. The man is reading a book and wife is slowly chewing her food quietly. After a few moments, the man chuckles and reads something aloud, which I assume he thinks is poignant but I am too far to hear, and the wife merely nods. They sit quietly again for another minute or so and then he chuckles and reads something aloud, which I assume he thinks is poignant but I am too far to hear, and the wife merely nods. This continues. She is clearly bored and uninterested and he clearly does not care. I wonder at how this can be, but before I get too far, I hear the ghosts of my own relationships past and being told not to bring the newspaper to the breakfast table (with clever retorts like “what better time to read the news than at breakfast?”), quickly feel guilty, and look away, giving them their privacy and shoving my ghosts and guilt back into the hole they belong in.
My eyes cross the aisle to the table in front of me. Another couple, sitting across from each other, older than the last–perhaps in their late seventies? Old enough to be noticeably old but not so frail that they require walkers or oxygen tanks or any of the lovely accoutrement which we earn on our final days before we turn in our return ticket. They sit quietly, not talking at all. I sit mesmerized. Chew, chew, chew. They do not even look at each other. In fact, they do not even look up–well, I can only guess about the woman, whose back is to me.
It’s then that I become aware of how much I’ve noticed when couples are sitting across from each other. It makes sense to sit across from one another, right? This way you can talk, you can look each other in the eye, maybe a passing caress as you each reach for the salt. And yet.. there is a time and a place for that, but looking at these two couples, I realize how far apart they are. The table might as well be a bottomless chasm which engulfs all conversation and emotion. I feel bad for them and I feel bad for every person I cared about who I did not take the time to saddle up next to on the same side of the table. I vow to never do this again and secretly vow to try to actually remember.
I feel an abrupt jar as the table on the other side of the divider gets new occupants. You know this diner table type, right? There is almost one table that is shared between two booths and when someone pushes down hard on their side, your jumps up accordingly. Mine does this and I find myself back in the present. Three teenage boys sit down and begin talking at unnecessarily loud levels before they are even situated in their seats. It takes a moment to sort out what they are saying, but I quickly understand why they are so loud: they are having three separate conversations and trying their best to get the other two to listen. I can’t even figure out what they are each talking about, but I quickly realize that I don’t care. Not only because I doubt I share the interests of a teenage boy, but I certainly have no interest in what someone who competes so loudly for attention has to say. Perhaps that makes me a snob, but I’ve come to be okay with that.
The conversation is clearly a contest. Each boy has no time or attention to listen to what the others are saying. They calm down a little once they get menus and drinks to where a casual observer might thing there are pauses and dialogue which consists of a statement and a thoughtful retort, but really they fall into the pattern of conversation without the reality of conversation. I’m sure I see myself better than I am, but I wonder if I was ever like this. I try to take my time to listen, but do I always? Can I do it better? I try, I really do, to not feel better than these kids, but I do not succeed. I know I can have a good conversation and I know I can listen. The question I ask myself (and I am unable to answer) is: do I use this knowledge as a crutch and assume because I can be a good listener I assume I always am?
Like many times before, I decided then and there that I never want to pretend that I am happy. I never want to have a relationship–friend, lover, whatever–where the act of being together becomes more important than actually having a relationship. And, here, I try not make any more assumptions for any of these people. Maybe there is nothing left to say, maybe they are happy not talking, or maybe just having someone around to compete with is enough; but that is not always the case and perhaps I have too much a idealized or romantic streak, but I believe we can have more, I believe we can do more with our lives and with our relationships.
I think I’ve lived this principle well, but it’s always hard to see at the time. My life is full of mistakes, but I try my best to learn from them. I feel like, sitting there along with my book, at least I am being honest with myself. I may be sitting alone but I’m trying to do it honestly and with dignity.
What kind of dignity is that? I’m not really sure. But it’s the best I’ve got and that is good enough for me.