Aspen Times Weekly: Going Stag
SOLO CUP (OR BOWL)
One is the loneliest noodle, according to South Koreans, at least. On April 14 they celebrate Black Day, an anti-Valentine’s Day of sorts, by donning dark clothing and eating jajangmyeon, a fragrant, sweet-salty stew of pork, black beans and onions over fat noodles. The traditional dish is pure comfort — Korean spaghetti and meatballs, one might say — the perfect antidote to loneliness.
ARE YOU ONE of the nearly 33 million people who have watched social psychologist Amy Cuddy’s 2012 TED Talk, “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are”? If so, you may have tested the Harvard Business School professor’s hypothesis: that assuming a “power pose,” or an expanded, superhero-like posture, subconsciously boosts confidence (likely by raising levels of testosterone and lowering cortisol in the brain) before daunting social engagements. (If you haven’t seen it, go watch the 21-minute clip on YouTube — it’s one of the most-viewed TED Talks to date.)
This is why I ducked into a dark alleyway in Denver recently to channel my inner Wonder Woman for what felt like much longer than the 90 seconds Cuddy suggests. I was about to dine at a buzzy restaurant — alone.
I’ve eaten solo in public before — a lot, perhaps more than the average person (more on that later). However, just 20 minutes before I stood in that shadowy passageway with my hands on hips, shoulders down, chest puffed out and legs in a wide stance, my usually healthy confidence in this social arena was shaken. I had pulled open the door to another restaurant, a bustling noodle shop, and had entered with head high. I paused in the entryway while I felt the familiar sensation of strangers gazing up toward me, the unaccompanied girl. There was no hostess stand, but I made eye contact with a server standing across the tiny dining room. I thought he might greet me when he finished refilling a water pitcher. He didn’t.
So, after a minute or two of standing there, deflecting eye contact from seated patrons, I approached two empty seats at the bar. I shook off my jacket, draped it over a chair and posted up next to another solo diner who was slurping broth from a giant bowl. That got the server’s attention. He whisked over, eyes wide. “May I help you?”
Clearly, this bar was not first-come. Why he left me standing by the door for so long and then let me go so far as to settle in, I’ll never know for sure.
“I have a wait list for these seats, unfortunately,” he said brusquely. “Probably about 30 minutes. Just one?”
I mustered a chipper, “That’s OK, thanks,” before grabbing my jacket and purse from below the bar and making a beeline back toward the door. Outside, the cool air warmed my cheeks, flushed in defeat.
At that moment I understood clearly why some people find stag dining an intimidating prospect. Perhaps it begins in grade school — nobody wants to be likened to the loser sitting alone on the fringe of the cafeteria. Or associated with that universal image of the sad sack hunched over at a table for two with the second seat unoccupied, surrounded by happy couples and laughing groups. Obviously that person has no friends and definitely can’t get a date.
While the act of eating is an individual experience, dining out is rooted in social interaction. I bet that people go out to eat first and foremost to hang with others rather than to focus on food.
As it turns out, more folks are eating alone than ever before. In 1958, The New York Times reported, ostensibly for the first time, that dining alone was “no longer viewed as odd.” Today we consume more than half of our meals and snacks alone, according to a 2015 study by the Food Marketing Institute. However, one distinction: Most of these meals happen in private — at home, in the car or at a desk. Witness the rise of food- and grocery-delivery services in relation to shrinking households and fewer family meals in recent years.
Dining alone in restaurants is rising, and restaurateurs are responding by facilitating interaction among solo diners. For example, a search for “communal tables” in Denver on Yelp spits out more than 1,400 results. Still, how much do these people sitting next to each other in shared spaces interact, anyway? Mostly, heads are bent and eyes are focused on an electronic device in hand.
This may be distraction from the awkwardness of being alone, but it’s a cop out. Instead, I suggest a bold move: Take a table for one, and summon every ounce of willpower to keep the crutch — phone or tablet — out of sight. You never know whom you’ll meet or what kind of conversation awaits. Becoming comfortable takes practice, but the rewards are worth it.
I write from experience. Before Aspen, I spent seven blissful months living on the road. I was homeless, most of my possessions had been destroyed in a fire, and I was collecting unemployment after the company I worked for went bust. In exchange for all this, though, I owned a rare gem: pure freedom. Since none of my friends was in a position to abandon their home or job, I was left to zigzag across America alone in search of a new life. During this once-in-a-lifetime adventure extraordinaire — between visiting friends and friends of friends scattered across the country — I ate a lot of meals by myself. At least more than 400, and probably half of those were in public. Eating in cheap motel rooms and at campsites gets old fast, and often I just wanted to be around other people.
Interestingly, I rarely felt lonely. Usually I ended up sitting at the bar and chatting with strangers. I’ll never forget the time in Northern California when a chef rushed over from a slow kitchen to show me the 10-pound mushroom he’d foraged earlier that day. It was bigger than his head. Or the time I splurged on the namesake protein at Le Pigeon in Portland, only because there happened to be a single seat at the chef’s bar — in the corner, natch. I wouldn’t have hung out with a bunch of bikers for a whole week during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally if I hadn’t been eating alone at the Firehouse Brewery in Rapid City, South Dakota.
And, come to think of it, I wouldn’t be writing this now if I hadn’t stopped for lunch at the Woody Creek Tavern after 48 hours in Aspen in September 2011. I wonder if bartender Tim Lucca would have stayed behind the bar if I’d been with friends. Instead, he came over to ask why I was there by myself.
Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t have a choice.
Back in Denver that night, as it turns out, the second noodle shop I visited was nearly empty. My power-posing moments before may have worked, though. Even though he was minutes from closing, the owner let me in, and I wolfed down a hot dinner while the staff cleaned up. Had I rolled in with a crew, it’s safe to say, we’d have been shooed away and out of luck.
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