The best place to be lonely is in a bagel shop

In the loneliest time of my life, I spent a lot of time at my local bagel shop. I was living in Baltimore, a new town, and I had just gone through an explosive breakup. As a college professor living with two others, I was often surrounded by people. And yet, I was alone in my class full of students and alone in my apartment full of roommates. I was alone in my room at night, where Netflix approached me with the aggressive bottom line, “Are you still watching?”

Sunday morning at the bagel shop, being alone never felt so bad. I had my Sundays for a science. Grabbing my latest book, I drove eight minutes to the waterfront bagel shop, one of the few routes I had memorized. There, I waited in line waiting for a stand to empty.

A bagel shop on a Sunday morning is like a display of dioramas, perfect human moments displayed in miniature all around you. College kids in sweatpants, clutching chocolate milk in their fists like hangover talismans. Parents wiped the smudges from their children’s cheeks while the little ones babbled and screamed. Every person who approached the counter seemed to deserve attention, appreciation. (Except for the blueberry bagel types. You know them.)

There is a poem by Mary Oliver, “Why do I wake up early”, in which she wrote: “Hello, you who do the morning”. In the context of the poem, Oliver is addressing the sun, but it seems obvious to me that this line was actually written about bagels. Bagels, those who prepare them and those who eat them, all agree to do in the morning.

On my favorite Sundays, it was raining and I stood in a shorter line. These people, with raincoats thrown over pajamas, were the warriors who volunteered to brave the wilderness so their families could stay warm and dry. As I ate, I felt a tinge of pleasure imagining their children and partners at home. Their emissary returning to them with a heavy brown paper bag.

Even though I was eating alone, however, my craving was not bitter. I always took my time, working slowly through a bag of chips and filling the hours with people watching. From my stand, I saw a million mornings, and I felt part of them all. Snuggled up there with my extra toasted bagel with lettuce and tomato, it was enough to testify. The scene I was watching was also the scene that, just by eating my bagel, I was co-creating. Once, I even spotted my roommate there, having lunch with a friend. Without thinking, I slumped lower on the vinyl bench and out of his line of sight. I found that I preferred, for once, to be alone.

Now, more isolated than ever, I find myself nostalgic for the pretty solitude of those mornings. This is something I think about a lot, having not eaten in a restaurant in almost two years. My goal is to avoid crowds and public spaces when possible. And when I meet strangers, my first reaction, rather than witnessing or marveling, is often to cross the street. The pleasure of people-watching is tempered by the wariness our times demand.

It may seem silly to want to isolate yourself from another, but the past few years have given me an added appreciation for the unique beauty that comes with feeling alone in a crowd. There are times now when I wish I could have dinner again, for a candlelight date or a birthday party or a normal night where I want to meet a friend for dinner. However, none of these cravings can resist this one.

I could never have predicted, in those lonely years, that I was going through something I would yearn for later. Whether that says more about the sweetness of that moment or the sadness of it, I’m not sure. But I still think of those Sundays. The shop that smells of toast, the coffee vendors and the gossip, the cream cheese-covered bagels stuffed into greedy hands. I haven’t eaten at a bagel shop in years, but I look forward to the day I do, the strangers that come with me, and the morning that we do.