Here I am on a glorious summer evening in Ontario during a theater festival, walking solo into an outdoor café. The streets are dripping hanging baskets of pink and purple flowers. I am in my regulation summer white jeans and black top, feeling pretty hot for a babe in her seventh decade and thinking about that first sip of cold white wine, when the hostess leads me to a sad little table by the side. It’s a small table near the hostess station, pressed up against the picket fence that surrounds the cafe. It reminds me of the way people who commit suicide are planted in some cemeteries: up against the fence, as far away from everybody else as you can get them. All the table lacks is a small, neatly lettered sign, reading “If We Must.”
There are reasons one might accept such a table: Exhaustion, hunger, extreme self-loathing. I’ve experienced all those feelings at one time or another, but I’m not feeling them now. In fact, having driven 200 miles that day in a hot, red sports car, in driving gloves if you please, I am feeling pretty confident. And I have had a shower and put on eyeliner. Do not diss me when I have gone to the trouble of putting on eyeliner.
There is a teaching moment to be had when offered a sad little table, but I have a 7:00 curtain and I am not in the mood. I raise my right hand—the hand that earlier in the day was downshifting through hairpin turns in a manner I felt did honor to A.J. Foyt—and point to a table in the center of the action.
“I’m thinking that one,” I say.
Are single men offered sad little tables by the side as often as single women? I don’t think so. Age may be a factor, but as a woman who often traveled for work and had the audacity to think I should be able to eat even while away from home, I have had to deal with sad little tables for most of my life: The sad little table near the bathroom. The sad little table near the server station. The sad little table that marginalizes and depress you even if you walk through the door in the best of moods.
I sometimes avoided the problem by having dinner at the bar, which is a sociable and democratic space and is great for schmoozing. But there are restaurants and cafes that don’t have a bar, and sometimes I feel like sitting at a table. Then I’m at the mercy of the greeter, who is most often a woman. Which brings up the questions that we babes of a certain age often find ourselves asking:
What the hell happened to Sisterhood?
As a person dining on my own, shouldn’t you be offering a table in the middle of the room so I feel included and could interact with others?
Are you offering me this table because you misplaced the Cloak of Invisibility?
I am not self-conscious about eating alone in a fancy place because I am old enough to have had an excellent role model: Helen Gurley Brown. Make fun of Cosmopolitan’s “How to Drive a Man Mad With Lust” tips if you must (my feeling is you can always pick up a little something), Helen Gurley Brown was great on solitary dining. I’m going from memory, but her advice was something along the lines of, get dolled up, stick out your chin, and carry yourself like you’re fabulous so that people don’t think, “That poor, pathetic woman, eating alone.” Instead, they think, “Look at that fascinating, mysterious, independent woman—I’d love to know what her story is.”
I am, however, sensitive to my surroundings. A run-down, dirty motel depresses me; a gloomy table on the margins of a bustling dining room makes me feel marginalized. Especially if there are four tables in the middle of the room that are empty.
I seem to have forgotten the teaching moment.
It goes like this. When the hostess—or the host—offers you a sad little table on the side, you ask “Do you offer that table to single men?”
I do this in my friendly, joking voice, wearing my amiable, playful face, because I don’t want to alienate, I want to convert. And then, regardless of the answer, I lift my right hand—capable of signing contracts, capable of catching a falling friend, capable of feeding and clothing and housing myself for 50 years—and point to the table I want.
“I’m thinking that one,” I say.
And I get it.
Joyce Wadler is a New York City humorist and journalist who wrote the award-winning “I Was Misinformed” column for The New York Times and was for 15 years a Times staff reporter. Before joining the Times, Wadler was a feature writer, crime reporter and author. She was the first woman to be the New York correspondent for The Washington Post, a contributing editor for New York Magazine and Rolling Stone, a staff writer at People Magazine and The Daily News Magazine and a reporter at Dorothy Schiff’s New York Post. Her books include “My Breast,” her memoir about breast cancer, which she later adapted as a CBS television movie and “Liaison,” the true story of the French civil servant and the Chinese opera singer which inspired the play “M. Butterfly.”