Sep 15, 2023

Quibbles & Bits: Of Solitary Dining and Overdue Books

A two-fer on the first day of Rosh Hashanah

By Ed Goldman

This evening at sundown is the start of the Jewish High Holy Days. I thought I should mention it lest my Jewish readers think I’m heretical, a self-hating Hebrew or an atheist. 

None of the above—but something potentially much worse: a secular columnist. Hence…

Edgy Cartoon


ONE IS THE LOVELIEST NUMBER—If you ask some people what they fear most, I think you’ll find “eating alone in a public place” is right up there with “making a speech” and maybe a notch or two below “dying in a public place while making a speech.”

I was lucky to learn at a fairly young age (16) that I was capable of going into a diner or restaurant by myself, having a meal and not getting arrested for impersonating a mature person. But it backfired.

It was when I had my first job, as a clothing salesclerk for a department store in Southern California. Like the other “floor” employees, I was granted a 30-minute dinner break around 5:45 p.m. 

Now, the way I’d been raised, 30 minutes would be barely enough time to set the table and fill the water glasses while arguing with one of my older brothers, Stuart, an engineer-in-the-making, about social issues, the L.A. Dodgers’ chances at the pennant and calculus . (My position never wavered: I was and remain one hundred percent against calculus.)

But in a workplace full of strangers, I actually thought the allotted time was just about perfect. After all, I didn’t need to set the table, fill the glasses or debate Euclidean philosophy with Stu. I was simply required to order my hot dog in the basement snack bar, dress it, pour myself a Coke from the machine on the counter and scarf it down. 

This always left me with 20 minutes on my hands (as well as mustard from the impish condiment dispenser). So I started taking a book or magazine to work with me and stashing it under the register until my dinner break. It had a reverse effect: other employees, who thought I looked older than my age, would ask me what I was reading or if I was studying for the bar. I’m not sure why my dog-eared paperback of “Catch 22” or rolled-up issue of Time Magazine made me appear to be attorney material but whatever it was, it rocked the solitude I was enjoying.

In adulthood, I learned to affect a look of deep, impenetrable concentration when I found myself alone at a meal. By then I had a black beard and could display an unfriendly look, giving the impression (I hoped) that if you disturbed this scholar it would be the risk of great peril to your person. 

It worked, on and off—but I soon found that my determined darkness drew fellow loners to my table, feeling inaccurately that they’d found a kindred spirit with whom to share their profound thoughts and occasionally, attempts at writing Haiku.

I still take myself out to a solo lunch or dinner but now I bring along my cellphone and just hold or glance at it from time to time. No one dares to interrupt someone on a cellphone. I have no idea why.

OVERDUE AND UNDERDONE—The return of a Massachusetts library book made headlines awhile back because it’d been checked out 119 years earlier. The total overdue fee, calculated at five cents a day, would be more than $2,000, according to CBS News.

That’s all?! When I was late returning a video to the equally late Blockbuster film-rental store, the clerks made me feel as though I’d committed grand larceny, not kept a VHS copy of “Eating Raoul” for an extra week. 

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And when I’m late paying my Comcast, EarthLink or Pumps & Systems Magazine bill by even a few days, the emails and texts I get run the gamut of Emily Kubler-Ross’s five-stage model of death and dying: 

  1. Denial (“Oh, Mr. Goldman, you can’t really be late!”);
  2. Anger (“Your bill is now seriously delinquent”);
  3. Bargaining (“Perhaps you can talk to one of our credit advisors”); 
  4. Depression (“We’re so sad to inform you we’ll be turning this matter over to a collections agency”); and finally, 
  5. Acceptance (“We will miss you as a customer”).

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Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).