So I’m sat in an American Diner that just opened in Southampton. I had nothing to do today and was craving a burger so decided that I would embrace my day off and go out for lunch. I have brought my notebook and pens, the recent New Yorker and my camera. I am determined to do something today, to make something. But first I need food.
The idea of eating alone used to be kind of strange to me. In the lexicon of cultural imagery, the solitary person sat eating or drinking in public is tied up with the connotations of a lonely, weird outsider and the idea that they are merely waiting for someone or something to come along and save them. Growing up a lonely, weird, outsider who figured out his identity through film and TV, naturally I endeavoured to avoid looking like exactly what I was at all times. This, coupled with my unhealthy relationship with food as an adolescent and overbearing anxiety that still dictates most of my life, the idea of eating alone in public would never have crossed my mind. But, last year I briefly wrangled my anxiety into a slightly more controllable form and I went to New York, alone, and while I was planning where to stay, what trains to take and where to visit, I never once considered the fact that I would have to also eat somewhere, alone.
My first night I arrived in Brooklyn, took the subway to Williamsburg and wandered the lanes looking for something to eat. I had foolishly stayed up all night the night before, afraid I would miss my 4am bus to my 10am flight so by the time I landed I had been up for almost two days and was seriously hungry. I had no idea what I wanted but I knew that I didn’t want anything that I could easily get at home. What’s the point of going all that way to just eat at McDonald’s? No, I wanted something authentic, something classically New York from somewhere the locals would rave about to their friends. I walked around looking at menus, googling their reviews to make sure I wasn’t going to make a horrendous mistake and get food poisoning and waste my entire holiday. After a while I found this meatball restaurant that looked really cosy so I went inside and sat at the bar and looked through the menu. I ordered something simple: regular meatballs in marinara sauce, bread a pint of Brooklyn lager. The bar person brought it over to me and when I thanked her she asked me where I was from. I told her England and she told me she’d always wanted to go. She asked me about brexit, what it really meant, and asked how I felt about the upcoming election.
Now, this is the moment that everything changed.
While she was talking about how her friend had been to England and told her about these amazing places, I realised what was actually happening; I was in a different country, thousands of miles away from everything and everyone I know, eating food in public while talking to a complete stranger. If I could do that, I could do anything. I was staring into the face of all my biggest issues and coming away smiling. Throughout the rest of my trip I ate out alone every day and I didn’t even have to try not to scroll through my social media apps to avoid feeling anxious. I would sit there, observing, listening, cultivating thoughts into creative ideas and just embraced where I was. After a couple of days I felt completely different, I was writing again, having anxiety attacks less and started to feel “normal.” This first dinner, and indeed the whole New York trip, became the linchpin of my better self, the self I had been striving to become for so long but failing from fear of failing.
Since coming home I have backslid a little, with the usual responsibilities of work and bills etc, my anxiety has returned to regular levels and my creative productivity dwindled but thanks to my ‘awakening’ if you will, the creative block I was suffering from last year has broken; the proverbial dam has burst and now my mind is flooded with ideas and projects, but i am drowning just trying to grab a hold of any one of them for a long enough amount of time to get out alive. Even as I’m writing this my inner voice is telling me to bail, ‘no one cares about this, try something different.’ But I can’t bail on this for it will undermine the whole point of it; the wonderful revelation I had while on a date with myself that first night in New York will become void and worthless. I can do anything. I can be the person I want to be.
So as I said, I’m sat by myself in the diner in Southampton, allowing myself an hour or so away from everything, reading a short story by Elif Batuman in The New Yorker about the college experience I am thinking about how college is always looked back on as a transformative experience and how potentially the most transformative moment of my life was eating meatballs in Williamsburg. It hits me that If I hadn’t come out to get lunch I’d probably still be in bed and would definitely miss the photo I’m going to take in about half an hour. Once again I am realising how much I have grown and where I am. I have gone from someone who couldn’t even eat in front of people I had known for years in the comfort of my own house, to eating alone in public surrounded by strangers. I used to think I would never leave the suburb where I grew up but moved to London, went on holiday to New York by myself. I used to keep all my thoughts inside my head and now I read my art out loud to strangers, write subpar blog posts about my life and put myself out there. I am doing alright, everything is pretty great and I just need to just relax a little. I should put that sentence in bold so when future me is scrolling through this blog that will no doubt be left abandoned and un-updated, his eye will catch on it and remember.