Meals on Wheels: Thoughts on Dining Out

Parking-lot feasting gets me out of the house and allows for stress-free digestion.

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There is peanut butter on the steering wheel of my car. Although the actual goop is gone, if you look closely, you can still detect the stain of saturated fat.

I should explain. You see, most days, I eat lunch in my front seat. I don’t partake of this unusual pleasure out of necessity; since my retirement last month, I’m in no particular hurry at midday. It’s not like I must zoom through a drive-thru and scarf down a sandwich at stoplights, like I did many years ago. At my first magazine job, I had only 30 minutes for lunch, which allowed 15 minutes to drive back and forth to a nearby Arby’s (Horsey Sauce, every blessed day) and 15 minutes to eat. Getting out of the car was not an option.

But not anymore. So, why, you might ask, would I consume a peanut butter–and-jelly bagel from Einstein Bros. in my car, when both the restaurant and my house have perfectly acceptable tables? Because I like it. Parking-lot feasting gets me out of the house and allows for stress-free digestion. I don’t have to make small talk, pass around pictures of my grandkids, or get a girly salad when I really want fries. If the weather complies, I open my window to the breeze and listen to Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air. I am by myself, but not really.

Dining solo inside a restaurant makes me uncomfortable. I have felt this way ever since my husband and I observed a recently widowed acquaintance seated at a table for two at our favorite Italian restaurant. We didn’t know if inviting her to join us would be viewed as a sign of pity, whether she wanted to relive a sweet memory or just craved a good spaghetti Bolognese. In any case, we left her be, and I can still picture her there, looking vacantly across the table at nobody. I’m fortunate to have my spouse, but when I’m alone, I don’t want anyone staring at me—and wondering.

Restaurant management hasn’t made dining unaccompanied easy. Why does the host greet us with “Just one?” when he should say, “Lucky you! On your own today!” And why don’t they prepare cute little tables for one, rather than subjecting single diners to the server’s show of removing the extra place setting? And why do we feel compelled to bring a book or tap away on our mobile device just to prove we aren’t pathetic?

Lest you feel sorry for me and my in-car gustation, you should know that before retirement, I ate lunch at my desk. Every day. (There is a common theme unfolding here, one that doesn’t reflect well on my social skills.) The truth is threefold: I didn’t enjoy going with a bunch of way-taller men yammering on about sports and Don Draper’s sexy wife on Mad Men; those guys didn’t invite me, anyway; and I enjoyed having a sub sandwich and the largest Diet Coke I could carry without a valet while reading my Entertainment Weekly and not talking to anybody.

A mode of transport can provide more uses than the manufacturer intended—and not all of them are risque.

Now that the desk belongs to someone else (who might be trying to identify the crumbs in the pencil drawer this very moment), and I have rejected both preparing my lunch at home and dining alone in a restaurant, I see the car as a sort of halfway house. My vehicle is bridging the gap between decades of communal work life and abject solitude. I have the aforementioned Ms. Gross for company, I am out in the world, and I am learning to appreciate time for introspection. I can be seen talking to myself, which may appear curious to onlookers, but at least I haven’t been found asleep, like the guy parked next to me in my office garage who, for a panicked moment, I thought might be dead. (Turned out he was in a post–red-eye stupor.) In a friendlier interlude, I once spotted a colleague at McDonald’s eating two fish sandwiches and hollering hello from a few spaces away. At least I’m not alone in my predilection.

And I can say with pride that I have mastered the craft of auto-dining. The peanut-butter blob notwithstanding, I know what is portable (burgers, burritos, and chicken strips) and what is not (pizza, burrito bowls, and egg salad). I know where to stand up my fries (in the cup holder; if the carton doesn’t fit, shame on you), and I keep a stack of napkins in the console for ketchup malfunctions. I know not to park facing the restaurant windows, where patrons can look at me funny, and I always dispose of my trash in the appropriate receptacle. A few stray sandwich toppings are wedged in the neverland between the seat and the console, where they will remain long after I have traded in the car, but hey, nobody’s perfect.

I now understand why a production guy who used to work at the company would retrieve his lunchbox from the office fridge and tromp out to the parking lot—rain, snow, sleet, or hail—and sit silently in his car, eating what he brought. At the time, I thought he was a little crazy. But now I get it. Likewise, I have newfound respect for the vaunted publisher who, in the heat of a professional debate or work disappointment, would run to his truck and turn on his Texas swing, full-blast. A mode of transport can provide more uses than the manufacturer intended—and not all of them are risque.

There’s more to my noontime habit than sustenance. Perhaps this pastime masks a yearning for our teen years, when we pulled up to a designated space and waited for the carhop to affix a tray to the window. In those days, we had a pack of friends with us, but now I just like being in the car, where alone doesn’t have to mean lonely, especially if you’ve got yourself—and a bag of chips—for company.

Illustration by Andrea Eberbach

This column appeared in the May 2013 issue.

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