The Epistolary Knucklehead

About three years ago, I wrote wrote a post about writing my Knucklehead weekly letters at university; you can read it here. I’m still at it. At some point last spring I passed the hundred-letter mark in his college career, and now that I’m on the other side of the continent from him, those dispatches have gained relevance. The venue has changed – instead of composing his letter Tuesday nights in a central Pennsylvania brewpub, I’ve settled into a Sunday brunch rotation at Olympia dives and eateries. I’ve picked up quite a collection of stationery and note cards, but unfortunately The Knucklehead sees none of them; they don’t hold enough writing. Those are for quick notes of thanks or sympathy. Knucks get news, and for that I need space. The Knucklehead gets pages torn from a 10″ x 7 1/2″ moleskine notebook, finely spaced. He gets two sheets, both sides, and that (I recently estimated) amounts to about 1,600 words per letter. To keep that up over eight semesters requires two things: time and subject matter.

The time I spend – two hours, give or take – turns out not to be something I’m giving up to my kid as much as something I’m giving back to myself. Sure, it’s an act of love for a father to write his son week after week, but the writing has become something I’ve come to look forward to. For two hours, I remove myself from everyday surroundings, treat myself with a long leisurely meal out (possibly paired with a grapefruit IPA or blackberry cider if it’s before noon), and turn myself outward and onto paper. It’s generous, yes, but it’s also immensely therapeutic. I feel connected for a time with someone I love who’s physically far away, and when I’m done I have something tangible to show for my labor. To be honest, sometimes I think my Knucklehead is getting the raw end of the deal.

The other requirement for that much correspondence is subject matter, and it’s something I always wrestle with. Some weeks the letters flow, some weeks I’m scratching my head more than I’m writing. The letters needn’t drip pearls of wisdom. One week I gave The Knucklehead a tour of the diner, describing the staff and the clientele. Another week I gave him my thoughts on the two movies I’d seen the day before, Kubo and the Two Strings and Hell or High Water (an odd double feature, but both excellent for their own reasons). But sometimes a letter is wanted with more meat on its bones. For that, it occurred to me that there’s something I want to teach my adult son that every parent wants to teach their grown pups: how to be a mensch.

* * *

Now, pipe down, all of you. You may think that it’s heresy for a recovering Lutheran goy atheist to appropriate the term “mensch,” but I’ve been given permission, by no less than Marjorie Ingall. Not personally, but through her excellent book, Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children. It’s simply one of the best books on parenting I’ve come across, and the fact that it comes from a Jewish mother just shows you how promiscuous I am when it comes to solid ideas. In it, Ingall defines mensch as “Literally ‘man,’ but in general usage, a good human being.” A mensch is someone who is morally good, but not necessarily in the passive, obedient sense we sometimes wish for our kids. Ingall’s menschen have more backbone. They’re standup people, who will come forward to defend the abused and aggrieved, who give solace to those who need it. Who don’t “act like dicks” (I’m telling you, you’ve got to read this book). Being a mensch transcends gender, religion, culture, and age. By Ingall’s accounting, even a twelve-year-old Hindu girl can be a mensch. And should.

So, for his senior year of undergrad, I’m going to occasionally throw into The Knucklehead’s letters mensch lessons. Not necessarily on the grander themes of ethics, though that may come up. But in the smaller, more pedestrian ways we ought to conduct ourselves in grown-up life. The little things that often are the ones that people notice best. The things that count. The stuff you and I handle every day in the real world. And remember what I wrote in “The Lettered Knucklehead.” One of the advantages to putting this in a letter is we can’t see their reactions when they read it. For all we know, they’re not even rolling their eyes.

So my mensch lesson in last week’s letter was this: how to dine out alone.

* * *

Every adult should feel comfortable in her own skin and her own company. I’m going through a period in my life right now in which I live alone, and don’t have a much of a social network at hand. If you think that sounds sad, it isn’t. It’s a fact of my life in 2016, just as it is a fact of all of our lives at some point. To be honest, I’m kind of enjoying the solitude right now. I like my independence, I like the quiet when I want quiet, I like my new-found self-sufficiency. It suits me. It’s comfortable. I sometimes miss having the people I love within reach, but even that missing is like an old blanket that feels good to throw over my shoulders on cold nights.

I’m not worried about The Knucklehead hermitting himself up if he’s on his own. He’s always shown himself more than willing to head out solo when there’s something that interests him (see this old post for an example). Knucks is plenty social, but isn’t afraid to ditch the crowd when something catches his attention – it’s something I always admired in him. So he won’t be afraid to dine out alone if he wants to. But I’ve learned a few tricks that I passed onto him in his last letter:

First of all, decide whether or not you’re open to conversation. If you’re not, if you just want to get out of the house or are hankering for a burger or a pasta dish that some place you know makes just right, then ask for a table (booth is better, they’re off to the side), and bring a book. Or a journal. Or something to occupy your attention, and more importantly, make it look to other people like your attention is occupied.

But if not…

If it’s a bar or pub, sit at the bar. If you’re in a diner, sit at the counter. This is by far the best place to eat at those establishments, whether you’re by yourself, or with a friend. But especially if you’re by yourself.

For one thing, you’re going to get better service. Your server is trapped with you; they’re rarely going to be more than ten feet away from you unless someone relieves them to go outside for a smoke break. So they’re going to make damn sure you have no complaints. They can’t do a “dump and run” where they drop off your entrée and then you’re lucky if you can find them with a Geiger counter for the next thirty minutes. But at the bar, or the counter, your server knows she’s hanging out with you while you eat your dinner, so she’s going to make sure she’s not giving you a reason to be in a bad mood. There are exceptions of course, but in general the server’s increased visibility (and accountability) is going to work in your favor.

Also, it’s generally the more outgoing servers that work the counter or the bar, and that can be a lot of fun. If you’re in the mood for a little conversation, ask your server how his day is going (and then establish eye contact so he knows you’re really interested). Let her know if you thought the kitchen did a good job on your patty melt. This is how you become a regular, and regulars get looked after. As in any human interaction, listen a little more than you talk. And don’t bitch, or at least do it rarely. Complaining is one of the most tedious things to listen to, and it makes you come off as tedious. Tell a funny story instead.

But pay attention, as well. Watch your server’s body language to make sure they’re up for some chitchat. See if they’re leaning in or edging away. See if they’re establishing eye contact. And remember that they’re there to work. Allow your story to be interrupted by the attention of a fellow customer. Never monopolize your server.

And don’t hit on them. It’s a general rule of thumb never to hit on someone who doesn’t have an avenue of escape. If they’re interested, trust me, they’ll find a clear way to make that known.

Even if you don’t feel outgoing, there are still advantages to sitting at the bar. If you look at a book or a newspaper, or stare at your phone, they’ll forget about you for minutes at a time. And as the bar or the counter are usually a centralized place in any eating establishment, you’re likely to hear all the good gossip going around. Trust me. Bar gossip is better than Netflix.

But the best reason is that the counter is where all the characters hang out. The old guys with hair in their ears. The barflys, the know-it-alls, the raconteurs. Sometimes it’s the people who are the most full of shit that are the most fun to listen to. The last time I read Moby Dick I pictured Ishmael as loudly holding forth with an ale on his fist. Again, this is a generalization, but the bar is the most social place in the restaurant. Generally, this is the place where it’s OK to engage a stranger in conversation. That goes double if there’s a television with a game on. People more or less expect a little socialization. Some are there to just get their drink on or wait for a table, and you need to be sensitive to that. But sitting at the bar for a meal most often means you’re there for some comradery as well.

And the counter at a diner is essential if you’re a stranger in town. If you’re smart, be polite, ask a few questions and then shut up, and you’ll most likely hear from the staff and customers what’s worth hitting in town and what’s not.

The only drawback to sitting at a bar or counter is that just as the server can’t get away from you, you can’t get away from your server’s attention, either, and that means you’ll feel extra pressure to tip well. Now that’s not really a drawback, more of an opportunity. I would tell The Knucklehead that as a proper mensch, I would expect him to tip (Mr. Pink notwithstanding) at a base rate of 20%. That’s for normal, unremarkable service. I believe it’s permissible to lower that rate to 15% when you’re a student or you’re broke, but you need to make it up later in life.  If you can afford to eat out, you can afford to tip, and you should just figure that in as an essential. Even if you can’t make 20%, it’s a good habit to get into.

If it helps you to think of your server or bartender as a single mom that needs the cash, or a struggling legal student destined to be the next Notorious RBG, hey, fine. But the fact of the matter is that no one should be required to produce a sob story to make a living wage. Pay the people.

But the 20% is a base rate. If you think you’re going to be a regular, go to at least 25%. That’s not the big deal you think it might be. On a $25 check, 20% is $5. on the same amount, 25% is $6.25. So for an extra buck twenty-five (that’s not that much) you’re establishing yourself as an elite tipper. It’s never a bad idea to be known as an elite tipper at a place you like, especially when it comes so cheap. Be the guy that the servers are fighting over when you walk in.

That kind of cred is quickest earned at the counter or at the bar. It’s where they’ll remember you because your server has been around you longer than the servers at the tables, and maybe because you told a good story or listened to your server talk about her day, or her kid, or her brother in jail. They’ll remember you, then remember if you tipped them right.

You’ll establish yourself as if you a mensch. Or a noodge. You choose.

* * *

See? It’s not rocket science. We parents all have ideas about what it means to be a good person, a good citizen, a good neighbor, a stand-up human being. It’s the little stuff in life where our humanity (or lack of) shines through. Share that kind of stuff with your knucklehead. Whether it takes or not is almost secondary. It’s the kind of thing that in the midst of exams and practices and college romances your kid probably won’t absorb. At least not that they’ll notice. But a few letters with this stuff in it, and your knucklehead gets a sense of what matters to you. That may or may not be important to them now, but it sure will be at some point. And when it is, there it will be on a piece of paper, something tangible and non-virtual.

We want our kids to mull over the niceties and ethics of everyday life. Best to let them see us doing that.

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One Response to The Epistolary Knucklehead

  1. Sounds like a super book and I think Knuck is lucky to have a dad like you. Great post.

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