December 1999
s m u g
by Todd Levin


My Dinner with Me

When you mail your 12 closest friends identical holiday care packages, each containing a loose pile of beef fat, a lice comb, and a ceramic mug bearing the legend, "World's Greatest Fuckface", simply because you didn't want anyone to think you deigned to favoritism, you will quickly find yourself eating most of your meals alone. 1994 seems like a long time ago but until one of my phone calls or e-mails or yearly follow-up care packages is acknowledged, I will continue to eat alone. I say it just means more Frito pie for me.

Over the years, I have mastered the art of solitary dining. It's mostly a matter of ordering the appropriate meal (nothing you can't swallow whole in an emergency) and bringing the correct equipment to deflect unnecessary attention from you. I recommend the following: cloth bib, clipboard, pen, flashlight, white linen gloves, magnifying glass, specimen jar, etymology textbook, Clean Billy Health Inspector ™ brand deluxe false mustache and beard set. (This is essential. Do not purchase the Colonel McCleanbill Health Inspector™ mustache/beard set. The cilia are poorly adhered to their mesh backings and, as a result, are easily inhaled. It's one thing to have someone posing as a health inspector on all fours, crawling through your restaurant, pretending to investigate a silverfish problem. It's another thing entirely to have that same person convulsing in fits induced by false mustache hair scraping against his brain. All the great restaurateurs agree: seizures are terrible for business.)

By blending into the restaurant environment seamlessly, thereby avoiding the unwanted attention of other diners, you will have plenty of freedom to eavesdrop on their personal lives. And, if it appears that you are simply making notations about a black rat nest in the kitchen or some botulized Caesar salad dressing, you might even permit yourself the luxury of transcribing their intimate conversations to print in an article that will possibly read by a world of strange eyes quick to rush to judgment. Couples constantly choose restaurants for a first date and I have had the pleasure, while furiously pushing starches into my face, to witness some of their awkward table talk. Here are a few of the positively priceless blind date gems I've unearthed during my adventures in solo dining:

"...and that's why I can't listen to the Big Bopper without thinking about the labor camps."

"This tastes just like my Mom used to make it - before her stroke."

"I think unemployable was an unnecessarily strong word to describe me."

"Do you always talk this much? Not that I mind."

"No. A hacksaw works, but it's time-consuming. You need the acid to accelerate decomposition."

"Um, my ad specifically stated, 'no queens, no fatties'. What happened here?"

"cold sore"

"HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA I hate you HA HA HA HA HA. What? Nothing; I was just laughing at your joke. What?"

I eat my meals undisturbed while human drama or comedy (or, on that rare occasion, thrill-omedy) unfolds around me, waiting to be plucked and immortalized by my generous pen. Cataloguing of the lives of others while I spend mine alone does not always go unnoticed. Occasionally, the curious onlooker, bored by his or her present company, will inquire about my fussing. Someone may ask, "Hey, are you a writer?" or "Did you just write down every word I said? Did you hear me, faggot?" But experience and an almost feline-perfect social agility have taught me how to handle these unexpected moments. I find that stabbing myself in the hand with my salad fork and screaming for an ambulance removes me from an uncomfortable situation in an instant.

Dining alone used to bother me. Just as drinking, sleeping, and playing Connect Four alone once bothered me. But one comes around to realize solitude in public is a writer's gift to himself. It allows one to experience life without actually experiencing it; something every writer dreams of, holed up in his parents' garage apartment with a plate of Fig Newtons and glass of milk provided by his doting mother. If I had the time or social skills to experience life for myself, I might. Honestly. But the world is a big place, stuffed to its edges with people who do possess the skills to experience life in human company. And as long as they're here, thinly veiling their weaknesses or sharing their vulnerabilities and fundamentally drinking the essence of life, I'll be right behind them - probably peering up over a laptop screen or hiding behind a telephone pole - taking notes. Or masturbating. It really depends.


What's the most revealing sound byte you've overheard from someone else's conversation?



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