Breakfast with Tony

I sit alone in the crowded diner, but happily. Several others are alone too: a sad looking woman in her thirties, overweight; a gruff looking man in his sixties, engrossed in his newspaper.

The woman looks so lonely. I’m not lonely, but this morning I’m feeling unusually compassionate. Should I offer her my company?

I imagine walking over to her table and asking. No. I can’t do that. Nobody does that. What if she misunderstood the gesture as a come-on? Too bad. The world must be full of lonely people who go to restaurants hoping for more than a hollow transaction with the wait staff.

What about the man with the paper? Should I ask him if he wants some company? No, I can already picture him peering warily at me over the top of his paper with an expression that says, “What are you some kind of sicko?”

If only it were customary for people eating alone to offer to eat together. No pressure, easy to decline. Just a nice custom.

Then another man comes in to eat alone. Early thirties, blind.

Everyone in the restaurant is marveling at how adeptly he follows the waiter with his probing stick, finds a chair, and sits down. I imagine walking into the restaurant with my eyes closed and crashing into things.

He’s seated in the middle of the restaurant, near the gruff man who’s looking uneasy about this new neighbor and the attention he draws. My attention is there too. My head is swimming with thoughts like how will he pick the syrup he wants out of the four-flavor assortment? How will he tell the white sugar packets from the pink ones?

He looks lonely too but, unlike the other solitary diners, seems expectant and inviting. Or maybe that’s just how blind people look because their eyes are unfocused?

I’m overcome now by how silly it is that there are four of us eating alone — especially this blind fellow who must have gone through all sorts of trouble to get there — all because there is no custom that says you should go see if other people eating alone really want to be.

I get up and walk toward his table. The whole restaurant is watching me. I introduce myself and explain to him how silly it is for the two of us to go our entire breakfasts eating alone if we don’t want to, and did he want some company?

He’s surprised but, somewhat cautiously, agrees. “Thank God,” I think to myself as I go back to retrieve my food. What if he’d said no? That would have been embarrassing what with the whole place watching.

I carry my breakfast over and sit down. His name is Tony and I’m wondering if he thinks this is at all strange and want to reassure myself that it isn’t. So I reiterate to Tony just how sensible it is for two people eating alone to enjoy each other’s company. “Sure,” he replies ambiguously.

“The man sitting next to us is alone too,” he says matter-of-factly referring to the gruff man. I can’t believe he’s just said that because the man can hear him, he’s hardly four feet away. The gruff man stiffens his grip on the paper and pretends to not hear. Tony can’t see that the man’s whole demeanor says, “Leave me alone.”

Tony ends up being quite friendly, so instead of small talk I ask things I really want to know.

“When you’re standing on a street corner and the lights change and they have those signs that make a beeping sound meaning it’s safe to cross, how do you know which direction is safe?”

“I listen for cars,” he says. I laugh. All this time I’d thought there was something more going on, like a subtle difference in the sounds; some sort of aural Braille that you had to be trained to hear.

I ask how he got to the diner and how he gets anywhere. He tells me about unscrupulous cab drivers who take advantage of blind people and say they haven’t handed over the right amount of money when they have.

Eventually I notice that people at other tables are whispering, smiling, and nodding in our direction. Almost the entire restaurant is.

At first I don’t understand, then I do: People have been moved by me and Tony eating together. Some have been so touched I can almost hear their hearts melting. Parents are telling children that I’m a nice man who did a good thing. I can even tell that some are ashamed because they would have let Tony spend all of breakfast alone while they chatted merrily with friends.

We’re done eating now, so I say goodbye to Tony and go to the counter to pay. “No need,” says the man at the register. “A family that left earlier paid for you.”

I walk home high on that peculiar type of pleasure that can be issued only by a conscience that has been followed. I feel so good that I pledge to devote the rest of my life to unveiling shining glimpses of goodness in our dim world; to unleashing through simple and beautiful acts this holy, heart-melting, and transformative power. But in such a life I fail spectacularly to enlist.

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