Summer was a beautiful time to be back in Boston. Being alone meant I had to learn how to spend time with myself. I was able to hear myself, my inner thoughts, and desires. I wanted to become a stronger person. If I was stronger, I could do more. I thought of that in two ways; through reading and running, I could get both mentally and physically stronger. I started running and going to the gym for the first time in my life. It took me some trying but in the middle of the summer, I was able to run the three-mile loop along the Charles River between Longfellow Bridge and Harvard Bridge. I felt great!
Besides running and reading, which were solo nature activities to me, I had to learn to do more on my own.
One day I saw an advertisement for a movie I wanted to watch. I thought, Why not just go?! The closest theater was in the Copley Mall when there was still a theater there. I walked from home to the theater and felt adventurous. I bought one ticket and went into the designated room in the theater. As I was standing at the entryway, anxiety rose inside me. I didn’t know where I should sit. The place was pretty empty. It felt huge, and I felt small. I picked a corner to the side and sat down. I fussed with my hands not sure where to put them. I was all of a sudden very conscious that I was alone. This was before the time of smartphones. I didn’t know what to do with myself and the silence in public. But guess what? I figured it out. I calmed myself. I found a place for my hands. I settled down into the seat. I made myself comfortable. I waited for the movie to start. My brain relaxed and went blank. I was mindful of that quiet moment. Then the movie started, and from there I was okay. That was when I learned how to go to the movies by myself and took a small step in learning to be comfortable with myself alone. It was enormously empowering that I could just go ahead and do what I wanted to do.
After a summer of free time, I found my second job with the help of my friend Rachel. She was working at a small retail product company in Kendall Square. She forwarded my resume to her hiring manager and kept checking in with the manager until I was called in for interviews. During one of the interviews, I was asked if I knew how to do a “select” statement to query data from a database. I didn’t, but I answered, “I don’t remember it by heart, but I can look it up if you give me the database book,” which was true. A few days later, I got my second job offer as a product configuration engineer.
As a teenager growing up in New Jersey, I knew my family was tight on money while Dad worked double shifts at a food processing company as a mechanical engineer. I was different from most of the teenagers in my high school. We didn’t have a big house; we lived on the border of Millburn township. I wasn’t given a car when I got my license like most seniors at Millburn High School. Instead, I continued to walk to school on foot and depended on my best friend Rose to take me places. I learned a hardworking ethic from my Dad by watching how hard and much he worked for me. I spent my free time babysitting. When summer came, I worked as an office assistant for my fencing coach’s printing company. While I was in Cornell, I worked as a computer consultant at various computer labs on campus. I picked up as many shifts as I could during my free time. I hadn’t asked my Dad for money since being a teenager and during college, knowing he was already paying for my expensive Ivy League tuition while we both took out additional loans to cover the difference that he couldn’t pay each semester. I wanted to lighten his load as much as I could even if it was just a tiny drop in a bucket.
Working was a fundamental part of my life. I found working challenging and interesting. I felt productive and useful. Work has always been an important stabilizing force in my life.
At the new company, a new software product was created, and I was tasked to configure the new product for specific retail clients. “I want to show you something,” I said to my team leader. “I made a map of all the data inputs and outputs from the backend to the frontend that were available in the product.” He took a look and grabbed a product architect to look at my spreadsheet.
“This is great. Just keep doing what you are doing.” The architect who was responsible for the backend solution saw the benefit of my spreadsheet immediately. I was able to leverage the knowledge I had from my first job and apply it to this. I felt like I made an important small contribution.
I was also able to identify new information that was needed for my client. “Here is a list of new data fields that the client wants that I don’t see in the product list.” I showed him my list.
“Great. We can add those. No problem!” The architect proceeded to define an interface the configuration engineers like me could use to add new calculations based on client requirements and all of this that could be displayed on the computer screen.
Another client wanted a custom field that switches on and off depending on another data field. We had not configured a switch before. But I was able to use HTML code to enable this functionality.
Another solution architect came to me and said, “Can you show me how you did that?” After seeing how that was done, the architect then expanded the product calculations to leverage this new way of configuring the product.
After being the configuration engineer for a few different retail clients, I was looking to do something else. I talked to my manager at the time. “I can see that the work is getting repetitive for you. Let me know if I can get your transferred to a different group,” she said during one of our one-on-ones. “Thank you!” I was relieved. A few weeks later, I was transferred to the project management group. Because I had coding and configuration experience, I was able to work with my technical teams effectively. Plus, I was not only very comfortable with techies but also with retail business consultants in our professional services department.
Being able to work full-time gave me financial security early on in my adult life. Working consistently meant I was able to take care of myself, pay for housing, eat out sometimes, and buy things I needed or wanted.
Like going to movies on my own, eating out was another solo adventure. I liked eating out and trying different cuisines. Since I didn’t have someone to go with me readily I decided to start having solo dates with myself.
The first time I was eating alone was at Trident Booksellers and Cafe on Newbury Street in the Back Bay, on a morning during one weekend when I craved some brunch food. At the cafe, I saw an empty bar seat and asked about it. The bar seats were first come first serve. No waiting list. I sat down and saw single eaters around me. That was when I started loving bar seats. Most people in groups didn’t go for bar seats. But for singles like me, they were great. I got the same menu as at the table. The bartender understood single customers. They were welcoming but at the same time respectful of personal space. If I wanted to chat, they would chat. If I wanted to be quiet, they let me be. As a bonus, I was also able to skip many long waits.
I started spending more time at Trident on weekends. I would order waffles or french toast and coffee while reading on my Kindle or writing on my laptop. I became very comfortable and felt peaceful among all the food diners and book shoppers. This was my routine for years. I liked it there. I recognized many waiters and waitresses and visa versa. Sometimes I even struck up a conversation with strangers, something Chris and I together would have never done. One waitress at Trident, Jane, knew my standard order well and often made fun of me for asking for the menu every single time.
Dinners were trickier because I didn’t think it was appropriate to read or write while eating. I remember walking into a restaurant and asking for a table for one. That in itself was awkward to me at first. Similar to my first time at a movie theater, I didn’t know what to do with my body. I fidgeted the whole time while reading the menu. I skipped a few lines as I looked through what was in front of me. I hurried myself even though the waiter was completely fine with me taking my time. I had to limit my selection to one or two dishes since there was no one to share the meal with. It would be a few more tries before I realized that ordering more just meant I got to take home leftovers for the next day, when I swore away the personal rule of no leftovers.
Eating solo also meant that there was no talking during the meal. My focus was completely on the food, looking, cutting, picking, and chewing it. I learned to enjoy my food this way. I told myself to slow down and stop swallowing big bites quickly as if I had somewhere urgent to run to. Eating became a hobby. Sometimes, I made reservations at high-ranking restaurants, and other times I just wandered into a hole in the wall serendipitously. Boston was a great place to be a solo foodie. There were endless possibilities.