After a long day on a solo work trip to Atlanta, Georgia, I checked into my hotel, unpacked my suitcase, grabbed a courtesy copy of The Wall Street Journal from the hotel lobby and headed out to The Cheesecake Factory for dinner. Nothing unusual about any of that; except for the selection of The Cheesecake Factory, that’s how just about every day is when I’m on a work trip.
The hostess seated me at a table for two in the middle of the fairly crowded restaurant and I ordered a beer as I browsed the incredibly lengthy, spiral-bound menu before settling on a Factory Burrito and placing my order. It was now officially “me time”. I sipped my beer and got lost in one of the mundane business articles in the Journal.
There is comfort in this routine for me. I am completely ok with going out to dine alone in a full-service restaurant after spending many years on the road doing it every night. It’s just a relaxing time where I don’t have to really think about much. I don’t have to be customer service guy, sales guy, operations guy or problem solver guy. I’m just Frank. I’m Frank with an empty hole in my abdomen who gets to fill that void with a nice meal on somebody else’s dime. I don’t have to carry a conversation or impress anyone. I’m free to be me and my job is to relax and eat until I hemorrhage if I want – all choices are mine after 5pm local time.
Anyway, back to my story. As I raised my mug to take a drink while reading the paper and waiting on my burrito, I barely noticed that a small drop of condensation fell from the mug to the newspaper. As that happened, a waitress walked by and made what I thought was a remark about that small drip. I nodded my head at her and half-smiled as if to be kind of nice but to non-verbally give her the idea that it was a small droplet of water and it really wasn’t a big deal, hoping she’d see that I really just wanted to be left alone. I noticed she looked a bit panic-stricken and she yelled, “NO! Your paper is on fire!!!”
I moved the paper to take a look and saw that the back page had dipped itself into the candle on the table and half the page was engulfed in flames. I quickly grabbed my napkin and patted-out the flames just before the use of a professional grade fire extinguisher would have been necessary. My white linen table cloth was now full of black ashes and all eyes were on me in the restaurant. (Probably the nightmare scenario of someone who has reservations about dining alone.)
Nobody was hurt and the restaurant sustained no notable damage so I did another one of my smirks and nods in a sweeping look around the restaurant to indicate there’s nothing more to see here and that everyone should go back to minding their own business and I read the rest of that freshly charred paper, finished my burrito and took a slice of cheesecake back to my hotel room.
This was kind of a long story but it’s of great significance to me. It was the time in my life where I truly confirmed that I genuinely no longer care if people stare at me and whisper things about how much of a putz I must be. I had become completely immune to all of that. “Folks, I’m just here to relax, have a beer and eat my burrito. You mind your business, I’ll mind mine, and we’ll all just move along after this and get on with our lives”, is what I should have said. Hopefully, my nod and smirk to all of the bystanders said just that, because that was, and still is, my message when I dine alone on a work trip…even if there’s a fire.