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Alone Together: The Return of Communal Restaurant Tables
Alone Together: The Return of Communal Restaurant Tables

A few times a year, my parents took me to a restaurant in NYC when I was very young, indeed under school age. For the occasion, my parents asked me to dress-up – to put on best fancy clothes and shoes, my patent leather ones — all black, shiny and perfect to go out on the town. I complied.

So we landed in the family station wagon to where they intended to take me. It was a location that had gourmet food, white linen tablecloths and perfectly folded, starched linen napkins shaped into stunning presentations, as well as beautiful china service at each setting and gorgeous, heavy silverware.

The tables were set up to be communal style so that you would interact with other individuals, who lived alone and came to the restaurant to interact with strangers. It also had couples and families there looking for the same sense to extend their sense of community and the food serving dishes were equally pretty, which were set in the center upon our tables by grinning waitresses.

It was run in the back by Philippine chefs, whom I adored and knew well since the restaurant would close in two summer months and my parents would take the chefs for their international children’s camp for  that period.

I strongly loved them and would, uncontrollable by any adult who might resist my impulse, run up to them with a broad smile upon my face to hug them one by one in the kitchen where they worked once I saw them across the long space of the room as they bent over huge pots and pans of food. Such uncontainable joy upon reunion! … Oh, my people, so happy to see you again was my thinking as a young child as I rushed as fast as my little legs could move me to hug their huge (compared to mine) bodies once again in a happy reunion … and I watched their faces of joy, which showed that they cherished and found me greatly important, too. … Their dirty white food aprons splashed with food did not impede me from holding them as closely as I could manage.

My own parents didn’t seem to mind my dirtying of my own prim and proper clothes as I crushed these beloved people into myself. … They knew that I was forming myself, my state of being, my identity as I rushed with intense fervor at people and things that I cherished. So they left me to my own devices rather than be curtailed and be someone stopped growing in my natural impulses. They had no desire to see me stymied by authoritarian directives in limits of my showing or receiving love.

Miss Prince, the restaurant’s owner when the restaurant would close for the night at around 9:00, would then have a meal for her staff, including these beloved cooks, afterwards with leftover food, concerning which they would have made much extra amounts of food beyond their own needs. However, they, worn from the day’s work, would first lay out more, fresh linen tablecloths, silverware, plates and napkins across all of the tables in the restaurant. … I’d help in the set up after having washed my hands.

Huh? Why? Who are they honoring by such a lavish display – just for themselves?

Then, Miss Prince would unlock the restaurant’s front door and let in homeless individuals and families during the Depression years (before my time)  and then later after the Depression formally ended, she continued the practice to serve homeless families and individuals. They joined Miss Prince and the staff for dinner every single night, these compromised others for whom for some this was their only meal of the day, except during the summer when the restaurant was shut. … They were the honored guests – the beloved — who were treated as if they were important people. Indeed they were to all of us, even me as a little girl of aged four or so.

I remember this scene well as these are the events that define you and make you into whom you will become in your sense of self. So during one of these occasions, I deliberately sat next to an old skinny man during the homeless person meal. I nestled up to him and patted his scrawny infirm hand, and felt afraid for him since he seemed so weak. So I helped him scoop food into his plate with my one hand and urged him to eat up while I stroked his other hand with my own other free hand.

He needed the love. I knew it even as a little girl that this was a lonely broken forlorn person. Yet we all need to be cherished and need to feel important … to at least one other person. So I owned this old fragile man. He was mine for a brief moment and he took in my sincere caring to become one with him. …

Across the room, Miss Prince saw my actions towards this sad individual and smiled at me. She saw our sameness and saw my continuation of her pattern. She saw our oneness and knew that her ways were carrying forward through a younger version of herself – me!

When I was so young, Miss Prince was elderly – thin, unsteady on her feet, lithe, prim, proper, exacting and very disciplined. Yet if she were alive today, she would be doing now the same action as she did in the 1930’s to early 60’s by donating excess food, extra food that she would have deliberately made, to soup kitchens serving the poor or in a restaurant since she never gave up on the poor, nor humanity in general.

She was my kind despite that our temperaments and other facets of our personalities were very different since I am so much looser than was she! So I always formally curtailed myself when interacting with her to be respectful of her tight formal ways.

Nonetheless, she strove to serve the same principles and standards as mine. She was a great teacher in this regard! … and now with her long dead, it is up to me to continue her from within myself – the version of her that I hold as part of myself.

It is a privilege to expose her through myself. It is so since this is all that is left of her these days – this awareness to pass life forward that she created so that it can continue forward and pass along to others.

Yes, she represents vision past me as her patterns in caring continue past my own small place in time and space on this planet. She has that kind of universality!

So please take her as part of yourself. Own her for yourself!

She was so strong and unswerving  in her mission to kindly serve life forward and she relished every moment of doing so. So please do take her forward!

Miss Prince’s neighborhood:

nyc1931

28th Street Looking east from Second Avenue, on April 4, 1931. Google map streetview today here. (Courtesy NYC Municipal Archives) #


With their abundance of food, restaurants should be doing this Miss Prince action across all nations in my opinion. If you, as a restaurant owner, have some excess money – why not use it to buy and prepare a little extra food to help others in less fortunate circumstances through no fault of their own? … Even if they are at fault, why not do it, anyway?

In a similar vein, why not have a community picnic on your commons wherein each family brings a picnic blanket on which to sit and food to share with others? What a great way to get to know your neighbors as was Miss Prince’s restaurant! …The event can be advertised in flyers put up in stores and on streets, as well as in local newspapers.

How about children’s programs on the commons or in a neighborhood park? … Advertise such events and then dump crayons and paper out for children to pair up and draw their sights together. (Keep them safe by telling them the number of meters that they are allowed to stray away from adult supervision.) … Bring a battery-run CD player, play music and have the children do a wiggle, waggle exercise class. Maybe even teach some modern dance or jazz dance moves.

Act like Martha Graham or Alvin Ailey. Have the children copy movements that you choose to make. … Ask them to act like various items, such as a small crouched seed growing into a big plant, a washing machine, a bird in flight, a worm crawling underground, etc. … I once asked a four year old to become a washing machine and it was perfect. (You should have seen him whirling around in a circle and jiggling his arms until he slowly wound down and came to a stop in the way that a load of laundry does. Why, it was a perfect rendition, one very credible!)

There can be family concert in the commons to which families can be invited. There can be book readings for children in the park. There can be children’s group walks through the neighborhood in which someone points out items of interest, such as certain stores, plants and architectural features or even patterns of cracks in pavement.

Yes, how about concerts on the common or in a park? One can invite one or two performers or a troupe and invite people to watch through a donation with a basket passed through the audience.

Here’s a photo of one of the concerts on the common in my town:

coomons-concert

Here’s another event at our commons during a cold winter month:

commons-event

How about the above mentioned walking tour of the neighborhood? The children can hold a place on a line of rope to keep them safe on the walk and then come back to the park to write in journals about their experiences. Then any child, who wishes to do so, can share about his experience, by reading portions of his journal.

I know the extreme value of that action. I attended the Quaker Ira Prokoff’s workshop on journal writing with my mother at Harvard University. Why, my mother ended up apologizing to her dead mother for wrongs that my mother had done and it was alleviating psychologically for my mother. I wrote of my need for wholeness based on imagery of wrongs across the world that I saw and my inability to adequately address them.

We both wrote of our observations of the world around us. It is very powerful as a way to more deeply connect to ourselves and each other. It is a way to deepen the self and, indirectly, the world. … You should see the way that my daughter’s journal writing empowered her to be a fuller human. She started at age seven to expand herself by such a method since I taught her the value, especially when accompanied by her illustrations, to give a coordinated mode of dealing with coming to terms with experiences.

Ira Progoff – Wikipedia

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ira_Progoff

Ira Progoff (August 2, 1921 – January 1, 1998) was an American psychotherapist, best known for his development of the Intensive Journal Method while at Drew …

Events · ‎Selected works

If money is an issue for such events to be held, why not ask people to provide a donation? It should cover basic costs and each person can donate according to his capability and desire.

Put another way, we can all become part of our best inclinations or we can just ignore them and go about our private business.

When I think of Miss Prince and the little boy, who can perfectly capture the essence of a washing machine, when I think of Martha Graham or Alvin Ailey, as well as a huge slew of others, I am reminded of the degree that that our species is replete and brings about goodness for all of us without taking away anything from ourselves.

So maybe it comes down to this:

Feed The Right Wolf
Pema Chödrön describes the process of looking compassionately and honestly at our own minds. In the end, she says, freeing ourselves from anger and hostility comes down to choosing which wolf we want to feed.

A Native American grandfather was speaking to his grandson about violence and cruelty in the world and how it comes about. He said it was as if two wolves were fighting in his heart. One wolf was vengeful and angry, and the other wolf was understanding and kind. The young man asked his grandfather which wolf would win the fight in his heart. And the grandfather answered, “The one that wins will be the one I choose to feed.”

So this is our challenge, the challenge for our spiritual practice and the challenge for the world — how can we train right now, not later, in feeding the right wolf? How can we call on our innate intelligence to see what helps and what hurts, what escalates aggression and what uncovers our good-heartedness? With the global economy in chaos and the environment of the planet at risk, with war raging and suffering escalating, it is time for each of us in our own lives to take the leap and do whatever we can to help turn things around. Even the slightest gesture toward feeding the right wolf will help. Now more than ever, we are all in this together. […]

Sally Dugman is a writer from MA, USA.

3 Comments

  1. Farooque Chowdhury says:

    Excellent writing, SD. Thanks.

  2. K SHESHU BABU says:

    If the people have something extra and try to distribute it to the others who are less privileged and less fortunate, be it love or food or clothing , the world would have been much happier place to live

  3. Pingback: Abundance: Gifting It Forward – Journal of People