I get take-out almost every day, but rarely do I dine outside of my room. I prefer solitude. I tend to eat sloppily, stooped over a magazine or my computer, my focus removed from things of substance and pointed to some mindless amusement. I don't like to chew a lot; sometimes I swallow before I can fully taste what I've plopped into my mouth. Of this slovenliness, I sense, the by-and-large public would not approve. I think it's safe to say that everyone benefits from my staying quarantined.
Besides, to eat in public is to risk being caught by unwanted viewers. I know it's unreasonable, but out in the world, I feel as though I am on display, being evaluated. I get concerned with making sure that I don't finish my meal too soon, so as to avoid looking like an underfed buffoon.
In public there is also the possibility that an acquaintance you have been avoiding sees you. Since you are seated and in no hurry, you have no excuses for leaving. You can't say “Sorry, I'd like to catch up, but I really have to get moving.” This is no way to enjoy your food.
I found myself outside one cold November afternoon, at close to three o'clock, about two hours after waking up. I wasn't all that hungry but knew that eating at this point would be an optimal move. I had ended up out of the house and on the streets, for a change, being not completely useless, and since I was already out I knew that it would be better to act in advance and get some food, some nourishment for the rest of the day that I'd spend alone working in my room. Nothing new.
All I had at home was peanut butter and jelly and some deserted slices of wheat bread. There were also assorted—but likely expired—lunch meats, their packages savagely mutilated. A can of spaghetti O’s. A few nutrition bars. Unappetizing to say the least.
After indecisively wandering in and out of two bodegas and coming out empty-handed (I had stood in line for a sandwich or soup and had an unspoken back and forth with my stomach only to decide that neither would do), I retreated, walked up Amsterdam, back home. Maybe I would go back to sleep or read to get my mind back off of food. I had not yet had any coffee and was not thinking all that fluidly.
But then another possibility presented itself to me. I could eat in at one of Amsterdam's restaurants, one of those lonely venues! Amsterdam is not as trafficked an avenue as Broadway. The odds of someone I knew seeing me there were miniscule. There is not the same movement or hustle and bustle of traffic that you get closer to the school. I could sit close to the street and enjoy the view.
On 121st street I paused in front of an Indian restaurant. Ajanta. I'd been there before, with a friend whom I'd treated to a meal the day he'd helped me move out of a shared room to a room of my own. But not since. It was a pleasant place, I recalled, but seemed to be off-limits because I never had a companion with me. I didn't want to take up one of their booths.
I remembered parts of the meal in detail: his telling me a bit critically, after I finished within probably six minutes, that I had “wolfed it"—something he said (and something I did) back then; his saying that the dishes were “rice-loaded”—a true statement; my pulling the bone out of a piece of chicken after having accidentally bitten into it; his pulling out a magazine and showing me an article he thought I'd be interested in.
Now I was standing outside of the restaurant, looking at the stand displaying the restaurant's lunch specials, debating whether or not I should go through with it. It was $6.95 for a chicken curry dish and soup with tea and coffee to finish. (The word coffee always catches my attention because I am decidedly an addict.) The deal was good from noon to three. I took out my busted cell-phone to check the time:2:42. Then I peeked into the window to check out my fellow clientele, and was pleased to see that, in addition to a couple, there was a lone woman unabashedly eating by herself. She was smiling. Since I am by nature a follower, I took this as validation, a sign that it was okay for me to eat by myself too.
I walked in. One of the two proprietors rose from his seat and met me close to the door, where I stood in anticipation. Greeting me with a smile, he asked me if I was alone. “One,” I told him, smiling down on him. I was taller than him, and since this is something that rarely happens to me, I noted it. Maybe I felt larger than I should have.
He sat me down at the table closest to the window, the same table I sat at with my friend a year ago. I took my puffy blue jacket off and slung it over the back of the open chair, where my friend sat. I sat down and my thigh was warmed by the radiator, and to the left, there was a street view.
I already knew what I was going to order, but I opened the menu, as though to check that the deal were still there and they weren't trying to screw me. I shut the pleasingly heavy menu—a menu that suggested permanence—and sat there, scanning the room, waiting for the waiter to reappear and take my order. The walls were a calming red, and unlike other restaurants that lack the confidence to allow their food to speak for itself, there was no music playing in the background to cover up peripheral sounds. If there was artwork on the walls, I didn't notice. The tables were situated close to each other and it was all condensed in the square room.
But there was something sacred about this space that reduced people's speaking voices to something close to a whisper. Though I can hardly imagine an occasion where the restaurant would be packed—a truth I guiltily take solace in because it has the potential for sanctuary if I so choose—the room doesn't invite voyeurism. The atmosphere asks you to reflect on yourself closely. It places your minutiae in amplitude.
When the waiter returned, I gave him my order with gusto, tasting the words on their way out almost, my voice sounding pleasant in this mostly-silent room. It was almost a murmer. He filled my water glass half-way, a move which at first I regarded dubiously—because why not fill it to the top, dude?—but would make sense as I started to eat my food.
An arm's length away there was a stack of the student-run newspaper. My food arrived before I could get through a freshman's article about the virtues of Thanksgiving—the feast and the company of family and the much needed break from school. (On Thanksgiving, I'd eaten a cold turkey sandwich alone in my room.) The waiter put the utensils down. There was a silver platter for the rice and a round plate and a cup of soup. There was also a small bird-bath-like dish with the chicken and sauce. There was an incredible sense of ceremony—all this for yours truly.
As I was about to eat, the couple, who had been conversing in hushed tones, rose to leave. One of the waiters said to him that he'd see him tomorrow, to which the customer answered, “Maybe. You never know which way my belly turns.”
Perhaps because I hardly ever eat Indian food and I have nothing to compare this to, neither the quantity nor quality mattered to me. I was grateful for the food. The textures were all pleasing. The soup was thick and there were onions in it and it had a peanut aftertaste that I couldn't quite identify. But no matter; sometimes it's better to not know what you're eating. You sign a contract when you step through the doors of a person's dining room. To ask too many questions is to be foolish. Like with a work of art, you shouldn't ask the creator too many questions about the components and the work that goes into it.
I made an effort not to “wolf it”, eating slower than I usually do. When there is no one with you, and no amusements in front of you, you are forced to pay attention to your food. Every movement of the mouth carries a significance. I evenly extended the rice on the dish to create some volume. Then I took some of the curry sauce from the mini-bird bath and ladled it over the heaping white mounds of Basmati. I placed one piece of chicken—which I should say was not very big—onto the heap, and divided it into smaller pieces and distributed it around the rice so as to create the illusion of plenitude. The ratio of rice to chicken was looking good. I did this three times, once for each piece of chicken allotted to me. Since I only had half a glass full of water and was in no mood to make an effort at communication to ask for a water refill, I drank small sips. I think this allowed me to savor it.
In spite of my efforts of trying to not “wolf it,” I finished before the lone lady, who had been there before me, could. They waiter took my dishes and asked if I was through. I said yes. “Nothing else for you?” he asked. No, I told him, expecting him to offer me the coffee or tea. But it was past three and maybe this was the end of the deal, I thought. I didn't want to push it. He brought me the check and I submitted to it, delighted to see that it was still $6.95 (plus tax and tip). I paid and left. I could make my own coffee at home in my room.
As I hope has been made clear, I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a food connoisseur and have no ambitions in that department. Perhaps this whole anecdote is bullshit. But what is certain is that I walked away slightly improved. Knowing that this was something that I, we, should all do more often. After all, there must be a reason people eat out in the company of others. If only everyone could afford to do it more often.