Monday, November 14, 2005

Beatitude of the Boulevard

Taking hallucinogenic drugs is a popular weekend activity in San Francisco. While many cities would discourage this, here the local authorities have provided trip toys. I am referring, of course, to the kaleidoscopes on Octavia Boulevard. I’m ashamed to say I only realized that’s what they were on Saturday night, when a friend ran up to one and put her eye to it. There are twelve in all, slender silver poles with cylinders on top. I’d taken them for speed cameras. But when I looked through one, it transformed the world. The Haight-Noriega bus opened into a silver lotus with a hundred petals. My friend Chris stuck his tongue out; it became a sunset. Octavia Boulevard metamorphosed into an ever-changing stained glass window. And I wasn't even stoned.

When this former “Street” became a busy “Boulevard,” I fretted because this meant I had to wait longer to cross the road. Now when I see the kaleidoscopes, I remember not to be in so much of a hurry. I inwardly thank Gavin Newsom for rewarding trippers and flaneurs, those who look twice at the obvious instead of racing past it. For even though driving gets you where you’re going faster, walking lets you see what speeding go-getters do not get: the heavenly pattern beneath the urban ugliness, the mandala behind the mundane.

But perhaps I'm being naive. It’s hardly safe to tempt people under the influence of drugs to wander around near heavy traffic. Perhaps the authorities see these people not as visionaries but as unproductive idlers, and the kaleidoscopes are a cunning plan to eliminate them.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Dread of Dining Solo

There are two sorts of people: those who are afraid of dining alone and those who relish it. I’m not talking about fixing dinner at home. I’m talking about taking yourself out for dinner at a wonderful restaurant. Most people think that this is sad. As Epicurus said, “We should look for someone to eat and drink with before looking for something to eat and drink, for dining alone is leading the life of a lion or wolf.” Or, as an Arab proverb puts it, “He who eats alone chokes alone.” (Why do I have so many dining-alone quotations at my fingertips? I have been researching the topic for an article.)

Although I love nothing more than eating alone (toast in bed, pizza in front of the TV), the thought of dining alone makes my skin crawl. But is it possible that I am missing out on one of life’s great pleasures? I asked around my friends and a few lone wolves claimed to love going to restaurants by themselves. “It’s a chance to people-watch,” said one. “It gives me a chance to truly savor the food,” said another. In An Alphabet for Gourmets, no less an authority than MFK Fisher proclaims: “I think human beings are happiest at table when they are very young, very much in love, or very alone [italics mine].” I decided it was time to overcome my fear.

Happily, there is a website for people like me,, “dedicated to supplying you with all the information and tools you need to take charge of this all-important slice of life.” Apparently there is a name for my condition too: “D.D.S,” or “Dread of Dining Solo.” The inventor of this term, Marya Charles Alexander, calls herself a “solo dining maven”, and she has more than earned the right to do so. This prolific woman is the author of a newsletter, “Solo Dining Savvy” (sadly now defunct), two restaurant industry handbooks (150-Plus Tips on How to Attract & Keep Solo Diners and Solo Diners: The Untapped Mega-Market), as well as a handy guide, "75+ Top Solo Dining Tips", which I immediately ordered.

But as I perused the site, my DDS, rather than diminishing, grew. I’d thought that four or maybe five tips would have been enough to get me through lunch. But if the successful solo diner needed seventy-five of them, maybe solo dining was more challenging than I’d thought. In fact, the very word “solo,” so suggestive of a piano recital, filled me with performance anxiety.

I phoned Ms. Alexander to ask for her advice. “I suffer from DDS,” I explained. “It’s quite severe.”
The voice on the other end of the line was sympathetic.
“Can you share with me some of those feelings of nervousness?” she asked.
“I’m worried that people are staring at me and thinking I’m being stood up or I have no friends,” I confessed.
“Next time you’re out with family or friends,” Ms. Alexander said breezily, “take a look around and see if there are people dining alone and whether they’re enjoying themselves.”
I thought of the last two times I’d been out to dinner. One time, no one was eating by themselves. The other time, I’d had dinner with my husband in a small French bistro. A middle-aged man had sat at the table next to ours. He did not look as if he was enjoying himself.

What were her other top tips? “Take baby steps,” Ms. Alexander advised. She told me how she had become a solo-dining savant. Many years ago, newly divorced, she found herself with a shortage of suitable dining companions. Yet she loved to eat in restaurants. She decided that, rather than suffer through a tedious date, she would take herself out. “I started with lunch and took a magazine or a notebook,” she recalled. “Gradually I worked up to dinner. The whole process could take a few weeks.”
A few weeks? Solo dining was even trickier than I’d thought.

And it got worse. I’d imagined that I would simply show up at whichever restaurant caught my eye. Wrong!
“You should do some reconnaissance first,” Ms. Alexander advised.
Wasn’t she making too much of a meal out of solo dining? But I was determined to take charge of this all-important slice of life. I listened closely as she continued.
“You should telephone to make a reservation. This will set you apart as a discerning solo diner. At that time, you can ask important questions such as ‘Do you attract many solo diners?’ ‘Where do solo diners sit?’ And ‘Are there certain hours that solo diners tend to appear?’”

I was a little worried that this might make me seem like an escort looking for business, but Ms. Alexander was after all, the expert. As we said goodbye, she warmly wished me luck.

As I brooded on it, it struck me that solo dining is a noble thing. We spend much of our time alone, but mostly in private. What could be braver than taking this aloneness out in public, even flaunting it? To dine alone, it seems to me, is to embrace the fundamental solitude of the human condition. To dine alone is to face the fact that we die alone. No wonder I was so afraid of it.

Now I am finally ready to overcome my DDS. I see myself seated at a corner table and sipping a glass of white wine with serene poise. I see myself nibbling on a nice piece of halibut while contemplating the rich human pageant offered by the other restaurant-goers.

First, of course, I must reconnoiter. I have learned from the website that the most solo diner-friendly restaurants in San Francisco are Boulevard, Farallon, Zuni, and the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, where “the staff is ever at the ready with an array of reading materials”. I intend to phone all of them and find out through intensive questioning if they truly welcome solo diners.

Once I have selected my restaurant, I feel confident that my solo-dining experience will be a positive one. For now I have the right information and tools at my fingertips (and perhaps an additional seventy-odd tips if the pamphlet arrives soon). And of course, who knows, I may even solo-dine with someone else. According to Ms. Alexander, if I wish, I can tell the restaurant: “I would welcome sharing my table with another solo diner.” But doesn’t this undermine the whole concept of solo dining? Doesn’t it expose the “discerning solo diner” as a desperate singleton? No, Ms. Alexander assures me, it does not.