On a rainy Wednesday evening I broke the monotony of my work week. After leaving the office I went to Syracuse University’s Bird Library to edit some nonfiction story manuscripts and write longhand in my journal.
I drank a cup of coffee as I worked and after I finished writing, I perused some large format art books stacked on the shelves nearby. I opened a book containing Raphael’s drawings and then leafed through a heavy volume featuring artwork by Caravaggio. Huge color plates demonstrated Caravaggio’s mastery of light and shadow, and the powerful images depicting Christ’s life, crucifixion and entombment stirred my soul.
After leaving the library I decided I would go to Panda West restaurant on Marshall Street for takeout Chinese.
I hadn’t eaten Chinese food in a long time and decided I would treat myself. While standing near the front counter I looked through the paper menu trying to decide what to order, and when the woman up front finished talking to a customer, who was paying his bill, she turned to me and said, “OK, you know what you want?”
And I decided in the moment to eat in rather than get takeout. “Table for one,” I said to her.
“Sit anywhere,” she said.
I sat down at a table for two in a corner of the restaurant with my back to a window facing Marshall Street. A young, thin Chinese waiter came over with rice chips and a stainless steel kettle of tea. I have always loved the taste of house tea in Chinese restaurants (oolong I think), especially when it’s served piping hot.
The man handed me a menu, but I said, “I’m ready to order. I’ll have steamed chicken with mixed vegetables.” He said, “Sauce on the side?” And I said, “No sauce, just plain.”
“Just plain,” he repeated and nodded his head. He left to put the order in and I took off my coat, opened my duffel bag and pulled out the arts section of the New York Times.
I then listened to a stocky Middle Eastern or Indian man talking to a woman at a table in front of me. I think they both work in the medical field and I heard him mention the practice of anesthesiology. The woman leaned over the table toward the man, straining to comprehend each word emanating from his dark lips.
I relaxed amid the dim surroundings of the restaurant and half-listened to other diners talking in low voices. About ten people were scattered throughout the large dining room at that time—a few older couples, a group of Asian college students and some female students.
I scanned a few articles in the Times and refilled my small white porcelain tea cup several times, and then the food arrived at my table. It seemed like it took about 7 to 10 minutes to cook. The chicken and vegetables were presented in a round bamboo serving dish and the waiter placed a small bowl of white rice on the table. I was hungry and I ate quickly.
When the waiter came around again I asked him to box up the leftovers. I paid my bill and the waiter returned with my leftovers, a fortune cookie and a few pineapple chunks on a small plate with toothpicks sticking out of them. I don’t recall my fortune and the pineapple tasted like the Dole canned variety, but I appreciated the after-dinner offering.
I left my tip at the table, put on my coat, hat and gloves, slung the book bag over my shoulder and darted out into the damp night. I walked along Marshall Street, turned right on South Crouse Avenue and made my way to the bottom of the hill toward Genesee Street.
Dining out midweek was a rarity for me. I think the last time I had sat down to a meal in a restaurant before going to Panda West was when I ordered a short stack of pancakes at Cosmos on Marshall Street on a Sunday morning after mass at the Alibrandi Catholic Center near campus.
And the beauty of this mundane Wednesday night meal at Panda West was made clear to me when I stepped into my one-bedroom apartment. After putting the leftovers in the refrigerator, I realized I would not have to fix anything for dinner or eat another meal at my small card table in the living room, accompanied by fictional guests in the form of movie characters beamed out at me on my laptop via a Netflix streaming video.
I experienced contentment by eating dinner like a normal person, at a restaurant, surrounded by other human beings engaged in conversation. And even if I wasn’t part of the discussions, at least I was there, out in the world, regardless of being alone.