Life Behind Bars

Woman eating aloneIf you follow this blog you know I like to travel, and I often do it solo. It’s part conscious choice: I’m an introvert who tends to avoid trips involving days at the beach (there’s not enough sunscreen on earth to protect my pastiness), or hitting nightclubs and casinos. Give me a self-guided walking tour, a few historic sites and a spot of shopping in a mild climate – I’ll be a happy tourist.

Traveling on my own is also sometimes a necessity: I’m single with a lot of coupled-up friends. If I scheduled my trips around their availability, I’d wind up spending an awful lot of vacation time on my sofa.

And of course there’s also solo work travel. I’m not required to do a ton of it, and the trips are usually short so I enjoy them. There’s something about staying in a hotel room that someone tidies for you each day, and eating meals (on the company’s dime) that you neither prepared nor cleaned up after, that feels like an adventure – and not at all lonely.

Given how often I travel alone, and how comfortable I am with it, I often surprise myself when I arrive at a restaurant solo and tell the host/hostess, “Just one for dinner.” Or, “It’s just me.” I can’t explain why I feel the need to include the word just, as if I’m apologizing. Maybe it’s because restaurants so often leave me feeling contrite for taking up a whole table, “just” for myself.

I was recently in Palm Springs for a music festival that my company sponsors. On my first night, I headed downtown for VillageFest, a low-key Thursday night street fair. I arrived early, and found a restaurant that looked promising. I was told I’d have to eat at the bar.

Let me be clear: one of the advantages of traveling alone is I can often eat at great restaurants without a reservation, because I’m usually willing to sit at the bar. But this large bistro in Palm Springs was – I kid you not – about two-thirds empty at this time. There were unoccupied tables for two everywhere, so being booked solid was definitely not the issue.

I forced a smile, said “thanks anyway”, and kept walking, eventually finding a more crowded restaurant where I was nevertheless seated at a real table, like a valued customer. I had two cocktails, an appetizer and main course salad, and dessert. I suppose I felt like making a point.

When I walked past the snooty bistro about 90 minutes later, it was bustling but STILL had empty tables for two. So, what was gained by snubbing me?

Fast forward to this afternoon. I was not traveling, I just had errands to run at San Jose’s Santana Row. Despite its vast array of shops, with even more in a sprawling indoor mall across the street, I’m not a fan of the place. Teslas are on display in the center of the complex, surrounded by beautiful people lingering – being seen by other beautiful people — in large open-air restaurants with white tablecloths and a complete set of wine glasses at each place. In other words, forget every Midwest mall you’ve ever shopped in.

I made the mistake of approaching a French-American themed café by myself, seeing quite a few empty tables, and asking to be seated at one of them. The unsmiling hostess replied that single parties must sit at the bar. Not that there might be a wait, unless I was willing to sit at the bar. I was alone, so the bar was my only option.

I later joked that the swells at Santana Row seemed terrified that I might infect them with my unglamorous single-ness. There were tables to spare, so I can only conclude that the optics of a person dining alone was considered potentially depressing to other diners – an unwelcome appetite suppressant.

Because every ludicrous situation I encounter brings to mind a Seinfeld episode, I laughed thinking of season 9, and germaphobe coworker Peggy who was frantic that proximity to Elaine would contaminate her. Too bad today’s restaurant hostess didn’t leave a keyboard within arm’s reach.

tv comedy seinfeld elaine benez
In 2015, Deloitte University Press released a study focused on a steady rise in single-person households in the United States between 1960 and 2014 that is expected to continue for at least 15 years. While this trend will influence the way communities and housing are designed and built, I hope it will also force establishments like Zin American Bistro and The Left Bank to value the growing number of us who are as likely to travel, shop, dine and reside solo, as in a group.

Show us to a table, if that’s what we ask for, because there’s no more space at the bar.


Living Single: It’s Complicated

Sean Lowe, a fan favorite on “The Bachelorette,” was cast as “The Bachelor” in 2013.
Rick Rowell/ABC

I’ve been thinking a bit lately about my single-person status. Unlike many of my friends, I’ve spent more of my adult life as a solo act, than as half of a couple. It hasn’t been a conscious choice. In fact it’s not something I think much about, one way or the other, unless someone else brings it up. Lately, someone (or something) always seems to be bringing it up.

A few weeks ago, I bumped into an old friend who I had not seen in about seven years. During that time, she went through a tough divorce, and her oldest daughter left for college. Meanwhile, I moved apartments twice, changed jobs several times, built a small photography business on the side and started blogging.  Yet her very first question to me — once we got past the perfunctory how-are-you-you-look-great-so-do-you stuff — was, “Are you seeing anybody?”

I was perplexed by the question, or more accurately by the timing of the question. I was not a big dater when we hung out together, and even then was not preoccupied with finding a man. There are so many ways to assess how someone you haven’t seen in a while is faring: where she works (or in this economy, IF she is working!), her and her family’s health, whether she still does that “thing” that was always central to her identity, like running marathons, taking photos, fanatically following a particular sports team or whatever. Why would my relationship status, of all things, be the best yardstick to measure my wellbeing?

I wasn’t offended, of course. She meant no harm. I was mostly annoyed with myself because my reflex response was inauthentic; I mugged for my audience, sighing and frowning to imply a sad resignation over not being in a relationship. My life is pretty great at the moment, but unconsciously I felt pressure to present being single as a burden to be borne, and my Meryl Streep-quality acting performance did not disappoint. I’m surprised my friend didn’t offer to set me up on a blind date then and there.

That run-in got me thinking about a woman I knew in my 30s — I’ll call her V — who since puberty had never been single. Not once. Sadly, with each boyfriend she did a complete overhaul of herself, her interests and her value system to match his. Prior to our meeting, she lived with a vegan in a rural cabin, and not only renounced meat eating, but also leather wear of any kind.  Her next boyfriend – and eventual husband — was a quintessential fashion-loving, carnivorous Metrosexual, so she quickly bid adieu to Tofurky and Plether in favor of foie gras and top-grain suede.

I lost touch with the chameleon-like V after she got engaged. Her fiancé was needy and possessive, and felt threatened when she socialized with others. Eventually so much wifely compliance began to chap V’s hide (leather pun!), though, and she began to consider leaving him. She invited me to lunch so that I could give her the skinny on being single – since I am apparently so GOOD at it, and all.

My point of view on the subject hasn’t changed much between then and now. There are some obvious pros to being single. Outside of work, I’m beholden to pretty much no one. I don’t have to pick up after someone else, or worry about the position of the toilet seat when I stumble into the bathroom in the middle of the night. I am in sole possession of my TV remote at all times, so I have never seen an episode of Top Gear, or watched a Fast and Furious film.

That said, there are downsides to singleness — especially if solitude is not your thing. A few of my friends wouldn’t DREAM of going to a movie or eating in a restaurant on their own, let alone travelling solo. Those things don’t intimidate me in the slightest, but there are occasional indignities associated with them. For example, Friday was my last day of vacation, so I caught a movie before my optometrist appointment, then stopped in at Lucky Strike for a snack. I was shown to a seat at the long bar that surrounds the place on three sides — hostesses always prefer to steer parties of one to the bar, rather than a table for two — and from that point forward was completely ignored.  Now, I don’t think the staff deliberately snubbed me for being single. I was just invisible to them, as I sat quietly trying to decipher the menu through dilated pupils. Perhaps they assumed I was waiting for someone to join me, who knows. After about 15 minutes, I did a LeBron and took my talents next door to Umami Burger, where I was seated at a TABLE and served promptly. (I tipped accordingly.)

When you are single, such awkward situations can occur fairly regularly. To maintain our sanity, we solo artists learn to shrug it off.  Sometimes I even manage to LAUGH it off.

Walking hand-in-hand Tom Cruise and wife Katie Holmes are pictured walking through the streets of Reykjavic in what is believed to be the last photograph of the couple together. Holmes filed for divorce two weeks later.
Photo: Splash

Say what you will about the downsides of singledom, it’s far preferable to being in an unsatisfying relationship in which one party (i.e. me) must impersonate someone her partner wants her to be, rather than be her authentic self. My parents generously provided me a great education, so that I would never have to make that tradeoff.

And so, the next time I’m asked if I’m dating anyone – posed with a look that’s part hope, part pity – I will ditch the hangdog expression. I’ll assure my inquisitor that things are great, my life is happy… and if I can think of a funny quip I may throw that in too.