eating with strangers




I was running a bit late this morning, so I managed to make a sandwich for lunch, but neglected to grab something for breakfast. I bought bagels during last week’s grocery trip for just such an occasion. Unfortunately, I did not remember doing so until I opened the bread box and saw they had turned into a science experiment.

In my haste to begin my commute to work, I hadn’t even grabbed a mug of coffee. I’m a firm believer in the “breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” so I ended up eating my turkey sandwich as I drove to work. This left me with a carton of yogurt for lunch. There might be some skinny girls out there who would say, “Oh, I’m so full from eating this non-fat yogurt,” but I’m not one of them.

I didn’t have any particular errands to run during my lunch break, so I grabbed my library book and drove up the street to the hospital. They have a cafeteria that serves decent food at reasonable prices. I figured that I would be able to find something there to satisfy my hunger.

Ordinarily when I go to this cafeteria, I get my food to go. Often I am just grabbing a side dish to supplement what I’ve packed. I order, return to my car and listen to an audio book or read something while munching away.

Before arriving at the hospital today, however, I had decided to eat in. I pictured myself sitting at a table to slowly savor my lunch while reading the book I had with me.

When I arrived at the cafeteria, I learned that this is National Hospital Week. In celebration, the hospital was holding a “picnic.” Food was free for staff and only $6.00 for guests. The picnic included a selection of entrees (pulled pork sliders, catfish nuggets, chicken skewers), side dishes (pierogies, rice and beans, applesauce, cole slaw), fresh-cut fruit, chopped fresh veggies, fountain beverages and assorted fruit pies with whipped cream for dessert.

I made my way to the counter and was asked, “For here or to go?”

I hesitated when I saw how full the seating area was. This didn’t mesh with my earlier vision of dining-in. Then my cheap-skate instinct kicked in and said, “Hey! If you get your meal to go you can’t get a refill on your drink, and you’ll have to cram all of your food in the take-out containers. You might not get your money’s worth!”

So, I sucked it up, told the woman behind the counter “For here,” and grabbed a tray for my meal. I spied an empty corner at the end of a long table and asked the other occupants, “Is this seat taken?” I was told that the chair was vacant, so I put my tray on the table and my butt in the seat.

I didn’t feel comfortable opening up my book to read now that I was seated with other people. Sure, I didn’t know these people, but they had welcomed me to the table. On the other hand, I felt uncomfortable inserting myself into their conversation. I recognized the man seated diagonally across the table from me as a contractor that does work around town. I’ve seen him in the building on campus where I work. He probably does work at the hospital, too, which he why he was easily chatting with the two employees seated closest to me.

I honestly can’t recall who broke the ice, but eventually one of the employees did ask me if I was a relative of someone at the hospital. “No, I replied, “I work over at the college.” The others seat nearby joined in our conversation, asking in which building I worked and remarking over mutual acquaintances. From that point on, I felt like I could talk or not as I wanted.

This post could have been a simple story about how I overcame my social awkwardness and ended up having a nice interaction with strangers. I could have gone as far as to compare this dining experience with ones I had when I studied abroad.

While it is true that I enjoyed the break in routine, and also accurate to say that I was reminded of dining at youth hostels and other restaurants across the United Kingdom, those facts alone would not prompt me to write about it in this blog. No, I’m sharing this story because of what happened at the end.

My lunch hour was drawing to a close, so I stood to leave. I collected my tray and picked up my book. The woman seated across from me asked, “What are you reading?”

I turned the book so that she could see the cover. I had in my hand The Out-of-Sync Child Has Fun by Carol Stock Kranowitz.

I was momentarily stumped on how to continue. It’s not like I was carrying the latest bestseller. This was no titillating romance or nail-biting thriller. I had also just told them where I worked, and this book was obviously not job-related.

“Well, um,” I stammered, “it’s a book about Sensory Processing Disorder.”

“Oh, yes,” replied the woman. She knew what I was talking about.

I took a breath and went on, “My son has autism.”

“I wondered as much,” the stranger replied. “I know those are related.”

The awkwardness was gone. The lady seated beside me told me about two acquaintances she has who have children with autism. Both woman asked pertinent questions: how old was my son, when had he been diagnosed, how were things going, was it autism or asperger’s.

I sat back down and briefly told our story. I told them about the recent diagnosis. I mentioned when we first saw symptoms. I told them about the improvements we’ve seen in the few months of intervention at preschool.

I was ten minutes late returning from my lunch break. But it had been worth it.

My out-of-sync child having fun playing in the backyard

Grabbing a post from the archives to join in the tipsy fun at the Yeah Write Weekend Moonshine Grid.

11 thoughts on “eating with strangers

    1. Good for you! We really don’t get many opportunities to experience this in our culture. Community events (a fish fry or ice cream social) have the kind of seating that lets you try this out. But one big difference is being alone. You don’t worry about sitting with strangers when you are with someone you know. It’s definitely outside most people’s comfort zone, but you can meet some very interesting people this way.


  1. I enjoyed reading this. Food and books are great icebreakers.

    What do you do at the college? I worked at a small private for about four years. I loved working with students.


  2. I usually avoid situations like that, but it’s great when you can make a new connection. And if you were to see them again, they wouldn’t be strangers anymore.


  3. Recently, while waiting for a table at a diner with my girlfriend, a man at the booth nearest to us asked if we’d like to join him. Because we had very little time to spend together (long-distance relationship and all), we politely declined, but when we were seated in the booth next to him, my girlfriend (who is always doing this) struck up a conversation with him. He said that he meets lots of nice, interesting people that way, and proceeded to tell us about his day, the trip to the hospital, an allusion to a treatment. It was a nice moment, a mini-connection. And then, with a mixture of feeling touched but also of relief at having our own table, we went back into our separate worlds, and we didn’t notice when he left. (Jeez, and I only meant to write “nice post” here).


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