The acid test is this: Enter a room — or a minivan, say, or a lake — in which a few people are located. Not a lot but a few. Exactly what they are doing there does not really matter. The issue is, rather, that they are there. And so are you. Gauge your happiness.
Over the ensuing hour, one of three things is going to happen. The number of people in this picture is going to increase, decrease, or stay the same. Envision each of these scenarios in turn. All is revealed by where and when you flinch: the quiver of your viscera as the scene fills, or as it depopulates. But which?
For some, the concepts “other people” and “fun” don’t occupy the same lexicon. By contrast, the vast majority can’t stand the idea of empty rooms — much less entire empty towns, or desert isles in the sense of being deserted, not of being sandy. For most people, solitude seems the birthplace of nightmares, pleasant only for hermit monks chiseling poems into boulders or, like Saint Simeon the Stylite, living out their lives on platforms atop sixty-foot poles. For party people — your typical Tamika Sociable or Jared Join-the-Frat — fun means making life into an ongoing game of Sardines, the more the merrier. To them, being alone just means being lonely. Or lost. Or a murderer.
The mob has to frown on loners, right? For the sake of its own future, because too many hermits reduce the size of the gene pool. A lot more chiseled haiku, maybe, and less arguing, but no raves and hockey teams.
The mob doesn’t want to believe that the more crowded your imagined room, minivan, or lake becomes, the less fun you are having. It’s automatic, and it’s arithmetic: With every new arrival, you feel worse. Yet your fun quotient rises with every goodbye.
In a crowded world, if you’re this type, almost anything you can manage to do alone is fun. So enough with the negatives. Enough with what you don’t like and are not (for instance: a serial killer, because killing, especially serial killing, is a people thing, which entails being around people and concerning yourself with them, which — and this is the whole point — loners don’t).
Society expects certain activities to be done in company, so to do them alone, no matter how much fun this invokes, means attracting undue attention. Try dining solo in chichi restaurants, for instance. You might love the pancetta-wrapped figs, but from all the other tables eyes peer at you with pity or fear. Did her date stand her up? Did his wife who used to cook dinner for him die? What does she have concealed in that bulky purse?
Other pursuits, on the other hand, can, in full view of the mob, be enjoyed alone. Sociable types do these things solo only by accident, or by default, yet you do so by choice and thank your lucky stars. Fishing, for instance, at Oakland’s Lake Chabot or Livermore’s Lake Del Valle. Shopping — anywhere, but hangar-sized thrift stores such as Berkeley’s Goodwill and Salvation Army are especially accommodating. Their employees never needle customers with questions such as Can I help you? and because no two items in a thrift store’s inventory are alike, sifting through a single department can easily take hours. From Alameda’s Naval Air Museum to Oakland’s African American Museum to Richmond’s Golden State Model Railroad Museum, the unattached museum visitor goes unnoticed or, at worst, might be mistaken for a scholar or a researcher. Ditto attractions of historical interest, from San Pablo’s Alvarado Adobe to the USS Potomac on Oakland’s waterfront. They say drinking alone leads to alcoholism. But watching movies alone means not having to compromise on seating or snacks. And buying single tickets to live performances, especially at the last minute, often means scoring the best seat in the house.
Walking alone is fun and attracts no undue attention unless you are circling a playground full of children. The East Bay is blessed with neighborhoods whose streets, studded with hospitals or historic car dealerships or cute eye-candy houses, promise bracing urban and suburban hikes. Albany Hill is brisk if windy; Berkeley’s Thousand Oaks has a fairy-castle feel; and the ramrod College Avenue-Broadway span from the Elmwood to Chinatown could take all day.
Now that you know what’s fun, having it — even arranging to have it — means setting up smokescreens. In a crowded world that is incessantly inviting you to its pub quizzes and bridal showers, you’d best have a set of excuses at your fingertips, as a dentist has drills. These should not all sound too similar, as they will likely be used against the same person or clique again and again. You cannot always, for instance, say “I’m busy” or “I’m ill.” Assemble instead a range of feints, from “I’ve been invited elsewhere that night” to “I promised to work on the house” to “I’ve got guests arriving from out of town.” It helps to personalize your little white lies. Nuances enhance the illusion of truth. As in, My friends Alex and Trish are arriving from Cape Town. Or, I promised to work on the curtain rods.
Now off to Goodwill with you. A little secret never hurt anyone.