Recently, my husband, Paul, and I settled down with our lunch plates at a Whole Foods Market. I’d noticed on a previous visit the seating arrangement, which stretches along the front wall of the store, adjacent to the checkout lanes, had been changed for the better.

The square tables used to have four chairs per table, two on each side. Now all of the tables face a lengthy bench on one side, with two chairs per table on the opposite side.

I approved of this change. The bench made more seating available, and there seemed to be more tables than before. After piling up a plate in the takeaway area on the far side of the checkout lanes and then paying for my food, I wouldn’t want to have to stand up to eat it. That has never happened, but as an anxious person, it is always on my mind when I grab lunch at Whole Foods.

This sort of seating arrangement also fosters a sense of community. I remember when I first traveled abroad after college, I noticed that in Britain, it was perfectly acceptable to sit at a table that had empty seats, if no other tables were available. You’d ask before plopping yourself down, of course, but that was the extent of the protocol.

The new setup is good for people watching. So it was that I noticed when the woman at the next table got up, leaving a half-eaten pastry on the table and her pocketbook on the bench a few inches from me.

I thought perhaps she’d gone for utensils. Then a man came along and asked if there were seats available at this woman’s table. I indicated the pastry, which was on the side of the table farthest from me and said, “Just one person.”

He then swept the pastry over to the side next to me, and sat down. Soon he was joined by two other people. One was a woman I recognized. She had earlier offered to hold my plate as I struggled to put dressing on my salad. I’d thought that was a nice gesture.

She immediately noticed the pocketbook.

“Has she been gone long?” she asked me. “Is she coming back?”

I shrugged. “She didn’t say.”

The absent woman soon returned. She did not express shock at seeing three strangers at her table. I might have uttered a small scream at the sight of my pastry being moved. But the woman, who was elderly, simply seemed perplexed.

She sat down, and the woman opposite her, who had held my plate for me earlier, started talking to her. The younger woman began with some pleasantries, but then she began asking the older woman where she had been. “You are very trusting to leave your purse on the seat,” she said.

As a keen observer of human nature, I was ready to burst. What the heck was going on here? Why was she grilling this woman? I have a pleasant demeanor and don’t come off as a common street criminal. The bag (and the pastry, come to think of it) had been safe, as it sat a few inches from me. If the older woman had not returned by the time we left, I would have brought it to customer service for safekeeping.

But as the conversation continued, I realized the younger woman was concerned. I thought then she might be a social worker, or a nurse, someone used to dealing with people who needed help. I don’t know if the older woman did need help, but the younger woman’s questions were clearly coming from a place of caring.

Americans are taught from an early age to value individualism. We fiercely defend our right to privacy. When the concept of socialism is bandied about, as it has been during this campaign season, there is much rending of garments and gnashing of teeth among certain segments of the population.

Yet, put people together at a lunch table and suddenly we see each other as neighbors. Come to think of it, that’s the kind of thing that’s being promoted in education today. Students who see a classmate eating alone are urged to invite them to join others at their table.

Another recent incident, however, demonstrated to me that Americans probably need more practice in sharing. I frequent another café with a communal seating arrangement. One day I watched as a woman set her things down at one table, then walked over to a man at another table. He was reading the Sunday New York Times, which was spread out in front of him.

“Is this the store’s copy?” she asked.

Much confusion ensued. It was the man’s copy, but she took a section of it anyway, promising to return it before he left.

I’m all for sharing, I really am. But don’t try to take my newspaper. That is where I draw the line.

 

Liz Soares welcomes email at [email protected].


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