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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

To Win A Seat By Guilt

My mom, who owned and ran McBurger in Benavidez Street in Manila (so many, many years ago now), used to hand out wooden number stands to customers who were waiting for their orders. It was almost shaped like a trophy, with a large burger on top, and at the base were the words "Share A Seat, Win A Friend". I have since seen the same words in other restaurants, and it was (and still is) a nudge for customers - especially if they were dining alone - to open up their tables, in an effort to lessen the number of customers waiting in line to enter.

Personally, I'm not a fan of the practice, but I do realize that when I dine in public establishments, I may have to do so, and there really is no use complaining, short of building my own restaurant to dine alone in sheer, utmost privacy. I've learned to live with it, and while I have never made any friends this way, some of them have at least proceeded into a mildly convivial atmosphere - we are eating at the same place, after all.

This childhood memory was elicited after a recent experience I had at a famous Filipino food store.

And I thought I'd have a boring lunch.
(Courtesy of

I had just settled in my seat, eyeing my purchase with much gusto, as I haven't had laing (taro leaves in coconut milk) in quite some time, best paired with steaming, newly cooked rice. I had barely begun my pagnanamnam (savoring) of that first rice-ulam (viand) combination in my mouth when I heard an old(er) woman exclaim loudly "eto, eto...malapit na matapos!" (here, here...he's almost done)

I looked up from my laing-induced reverie to see two women, at least 60 years of age, standing imperiously over my table, trying to will me to hurry up and leaving no doubt as to what they wanted: for me to finish my meal that instant so that they could have the table for themselves.

I instinctively removed by (humongous) bag from the seat opposite where I was and placed it beside me, so that they could have the two seats, side by side. The other woman was nudging the loud one with her, uhm, snout, but the response she got was "gusto ko tayo lang sa mesang to" (I just want it to be just us on this table).

You can bet I ate my darned slowest that day.

Note that this was pre-lunch hour (around 11:30AM), and I had purposely eaten at that time to avoid a deluge of office workers coming in for reasonably-priced but delicious offerings. I already made the gesture of taking my things away so that they could have their seats but since they were under the impression that the particular table I occupied was "theirs", they probably saw me as some kind of "squatter", tresspassing on their "property".

Here's the other odd thing: there were at least four other tables that were completely vacant. Since I am the last person in this country to be ever "guilted" by looks so as to be made to conform to some culturally accepted norm, and they knew that their attempts to stare me into finishing my meal in haste was moot, they decided to wait.

Two tables away from me. Sitting down at a table they can also call their own. (In Facebook lingo, this is where I would be doing a facepalm.)

I am fully aware that some people have preferred spots in their usual haunts. Having worked in large fitness centers, I see this happen all the time, especially in group exercise classes, or in the cardio machines, where a client would prefer to stand in a "favorite spot" in class, or a runner would like to use Treadmill Number 2, because it's the one with a view. But you can't demand someone who was there before you to "get out" just because you've arrived. Again, the idea here is that in a public space, we share and do not impose our wills on a whim or caprice, just to suit us, out of convenience.

So back to my meal: I had eaten so slowly that, as expected, the office crowd had started to descend. By this time, the loud, old hag decided to peruse the food counter to see what viands were available that day. As I was taking my last bite, a well-dressed woman went up beside me to ask if she could share a seat on my table.

I immediately stood up and in a saccharine voice told her "it's all yours, I'm done." I could see the hag's eyes go ablaze and she started running towards the table I occupied - well, given her age, as fast as she could - and shouting "Amin yan! Amin yan! Kasi naman, Choleng, ba't ka natutulog!" (That table is ours! Ours! Why are you sleeping, Choleng!), referring to her companion who had fallen asleep waiting for "their" table.

So much for the potency of guilt.

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