Intersections – Alone with Alfred
By Nicki Salcedo, Contributor
When I got my first car, my dad made sure I knew how change a flat tire by myself. He taught me how to check and change the oil. The only time I ever saw my dad change the oil was the day he taught me. Maybe I never paid attention before I could drive or maybe he usually took it to the shop, but he knew how to do it. He showed me where to put the coolant and anti-freeze and water and gasoline.
I knew a lot about the gas. From the time I was 12 until I left my parents’ house, I mowed the lawn. I regularly syphoned gas from the tank of the car into the mower. I knew how to take care of a car and clean the blades of lawn mower better than I knew how to take care of myself.
The first time I went to the movies alone, it was an Alfred Hitchcock double feature at the Stanford Theatre. I’d heard about the importance of solitude. Between the ages zero and 19, I’d had none. My family was close-knit. When I didn’t have my mom and dad, I had my sisters. When I didn’t have my sisters, I had friends. If you see a picture of me from high school, Susie was always at my side. I’ve had a life of great friends. I never knew loneliness.
After a difficult day my sophomore year of college, I wanted to get away from campus. I wanted to be alone. No one had taught me how to be by myself. Being alone had been incidental up until that day. I wanted to go out alone on purpose. When I started walking to the theater, it occurred to me that everything I knew about myself was in relationship to other people. Was I truly an introvert? Was I going to hate the solitude? What would happen if I spent hours with no one talking to me? With nothing to say?
Being alone reminded me of changing the oil in a car. The strange sensation of being underneath the world. Just because you can change the oil doesn’t mean you like changing the oil. That was my first reaction to being out by myself.
I thought the movies would be a great place to test my resilience. “Vertigo” played first and then it was “Rear Window.” After I bought my ticket and I found my seat, I realized I was not alone. I felt comforted by the darkness of the theater. The movies were familiar to me. Jimmy Stewart was my dear friend. My sister had introduced me to Alfred Hitchcock when I was little. If watching “Star Trek” made me one kind of nerd, then knowing how to spot Hitchcock’s cameos in his movies made me another kind.
After that, I made a point of sometimes going to the movies by myself. Watching at home doesn’t count. I mean going to a movie in public alone. I learned to enjoy it, but life changes mean I haven’t done it in years. Now I’m often in strange cities alone. That means travel alone and dinner alone. I’m at an unusual time in my life. It is either me with people swirling around me. Kids, cats, and chaos pecking at me. Or it is me all alone. I’m much better at being alone now. I make an effort to appreciate it even though I don’t like it. It’s like changing the oil, I tell myself.
I’m not allowed to turn to technology during these alone times. I can’t text or use social media. If I’m eating dinner by myself, I put my phone away. I have to look at the other people eating. I have to be conscious of my food and the condensation on my water glass. I have to listen to the sounds of the restaurants and conversations nearby.
If I’m at the grocery store, people talk to me. Not so in a restaurant. Besides the waiter, I have the entire time to myself. Being home alone and being in public alone is very different. You have to be alone and still interacting with the world when you’re in public.
I have not yet mastered the art of being with people. I have yet to master the art of being alone. I’m an outgoing introvert. I get energy from being alone, but I don’t like solitude. I need people in small doses and small doses of just me.
Hitchcock was a great observer of people and fear. Last week, I was dining in a strange city all alone when a man walked through the restaurant where I was eating. He looked just like Alfred Hitchcock. If I’d been on my phone, I would have missed it. For a second I thought it was a ghost or apparition. Then I thought it was my exhaustion. I had no one to tell. I wanted to look around the restaurant to see if anyone else noticed him. He didn’t walk through a second time. I didn’t capture him in a picture.
I looked at my food. Cauliflower and delicately grilled scallops on a bed of spinach. The waiter had added a mint leaf to my sparkling water with lime.
Twenty years since that first solo trip to the movie theater, and this was probably the first time I felt content while being alone. Usually I endure it. I have to change the oil sometimes. I felt really happy that dinner. Nice food and a reminder that it is good to be alone sometimes. Thanks to Alfred.
Intersections,” the book, is a collection of columns from Decaturish.com and beyond. It is now available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Nicki Salcedo is a Decatur resident and Atlanta native. She is a novelist, blogger, and a working mom. Her column, Intersections, runs every Wednesday morning.