Phantom Concerns

Sitting in one of Sag Harbor’s most popular bar and burger joints, I felt conspicuous enough because of my age. At 65 I am unreasonably aware of my post-middle-age status and am not comfortable in popular public spaces. Perhaps that’s why I’m hyper- sensitive when I see anyone that I perceive as feeling out-of-place. And let me emphasize, this is my perception, not necessarily fact.

With it’s tiny square tables, naked except for the ketchup and salt, a background of white subway tiles sprawled with erasable writings of today’s special burger, salad, and dessert, my husband and I sat very close to the next table, waiting to order. We also happened to be seated directly across from the entry and podium with the teenage girl who collected names for the waiting list.

Besides all the customers seeming younger than me, my perception, it was a reality that they, we, were all white. When the black family walked in I immediately felt the way I feel when I have to walk across the entire restaurant to use the bathroom: vulnerable, awkward, and on display. Me again. It was my observation that this lovely looking family of two adults, male and female and one little girl, looked uncomfortable. I tried to catch one of their faces to smile, but they didn’t look my way. Now I was concerned for them. I could have been concerned for the older man next to me who was with the much younger woman, looking like an idiot, but I wasn’t. He seemed sure enough of himself. The boyish gay men standing at the bar, who drank their cocktails with bodies so stiff, could have concerned me, their shyness, but they held hands. I chose to focus on the family. I wanted them to feel safe. I wanted it. My unqualified concern for them ruined my meal.

Once they were finally seated, I told my husband I had to go use the restroom. He asked me if I were sure, because he knew this parade across the floor caused such anxiety for me. I was sure. The little girl was seated on the outside chair of the tiny table. She had already received her oversized vanilla shake and was happy as any girl could be swimming in a thousand calories of sugar. “Oh my!” I said to her as I walked past. “ That is one big beer you have there!”

“That’s not a beer!” She laughed.

“Well it sure does look like you’re gonna have one good time tonight. Enjoy, sweetie.” And I walked on.

Did that make them feel better or weird? Would I have said that to a white girl? Maybe, but probably not. I sat in the rest room and knew I had made them feel worse. I had made them feel as though they were more conspicuous. I heard my watchful son scolding, Boundaries, Mother!

I walked back to my table ignoring them. They’re like any other patron of this joint: human, hungry, invisible. As soon as the kid choked down her French fries and burger, another customer could be rushed in and out. So what was I so concerned about?