The man nodded after he heard my remark about our same lunch orders. Both our trays were slid cross the slick counter. I turned to him, not expecting to say what I did.
"I'm on my own for lunch today. Do you want to eat together?"
. . .
How would you respond to a stranger's invitation to eat lunch together?
I recalled asking Priscilla about her name. That may have been the first time I spoke to her in particular, more than just a customer placing a lunch order.
"I like your name. I had a friend named Priscilla in grade school and junior high. She had long brown braids."
"I guess my mother just liked the name. I'm after no one in my family," she said softly. I loved how her eyes crinkled when she smiled.
I fiddled with my wallet to hand her exact change, $5.35 to the penny. Maybe I enjoyed the regularity, the predictability of this lunch routine, right down to the set price for lunch. And this KFC played 60's music, my kind of music. I often began humming melodies the minute I entered the doors.
So not seeing Priscilla today disrupted my routine, unsettled me. I ordered my usual, paid my usual and then stepped to the side of the counter to await my tray.
A man entered through the side doors of KFC and walked up to the counter to order his lunch. I overheard his request. It was exactly the same as mine. And he seemed to know exactly how much it cost.
I looked over at him when he moved near me to wait on his tray.
"We ordered the same lunch," I said.
. . .
Am I too out-going?
I craned my neck to see if Priscilla was in the kitchen filling buffet containers or wiping trays since she was not at the counter to take my order.
"Is Priscilla here today?" I heard the worry in my voice as I asked the young woman who stood behind the register.
"No, she has the day off. She had errands to run."
"Is she okay, she's always here on Wednesdays."
"Yeah, she had to take her daughter to the doctor."
I knew her daughter had been quite ill; hospitalized for some sort of surgery. Priscilla was taking care of her along with working her shifts at KFC. One day I had noticed Priscilla's usual sparkly blue eyes, one narrowed to a near-wink, appeared more gray and bloodshot. Her shoulders were more hunched. I mentioned to her that she looked tired.
That's when Priscilla opened up to me, began sharing her story in tiny, quiet snippets.
. . .
What do you think made Priscilla open up to me?
I remembered the last time I talked to Priscilla she told me she had worked the KFC counter for twenty-five years, pointing to the small gold pin on her black uniform; a token she had received for her service.
"Did they give you a raise or a gift?" I said.
"Naw. Nothing like that," she said softly, her cheeks dimpling with a smile. There was no anger in her voice.
Priscilla was an aging, black doughy grandmother. I imagined her grandkids loved to hug her. Maybe someday I would hug her. She lumbered when she walked as she replenished the KFC buffet table after the waves of construction workers, senior citizens, young highway workers piled their plastic plates high with fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, limp green beans, jello, gooey cake. She favored her right leg as she delivered more food for customers' second and third trips through the buffet line. I wondered if she had a painful hip.
Hour after hour, she either shuffled back and forth from the kitchen to the buffet table or stood at the counter taking orders and ringing up sales. At any rate, she was on her feet all day.
But it was unusual that she was not at work today.
. . .
How does Priscilla's reception of a 25 year pin with no monetary reward affect you?
Excerpt #1 from Open for Lunch
I really stopped by Kentucky Fried Chicken to see Priscilla. Over the last couple years she had begun to recognize me when I ordered the same meal each time I stepped to the counter in south Asheville on occasional Wednesdays. Crispy fried chicken breast, coleslaw, biscuit, cookie and a drink. A total carbohydrate bomb. And all for $5.35.
To alleviate my guilt, I usually wrapped up the biscuit and cookie in the skimpy brown paper napkins I pulled from the plastic dispenser at the condiments table, and took the leftovers home for my husband, Gordon.
Neither of us usually ate this way but his eyebrows always popped up and his eyes opened wide when he saw the KFC treats on the kitchen counter.
Today, Priscilla was not there behind the counter.
. . .
OK. Be honest. How many trips do you make to KFC?
"Something" has led me to ask perfect strangers, especially persons who don't appear to be like me, to have lunch with me when I'm out alone and grabbing a bite to eat. This "something" has driven me to seek lunch mates for over 12 years and continues to this day.
Just last week an invited diner, a man named *Andrew, and I found heart-felt connection over fried chicken and coleslaw at KFC. We ended up talking for three hours.
You may ask what that "something" is that drives me to turn to a stranger and say "Would you like to eat together?" Why do I do this? How do these impromptu meals turn out? The honest, amazing personal stories I have heard over a sub sandwich or a hamburger and fries have moved me, informed me about who I am and what drives my behavior. My risky outreach has filled my plate with a deeper love and understanding of humanity, and of myself.
OPEN FOR LUNCH, my second book, is nearing completion and weaves my collected lunch encounters with my own story into an unusual memoir.
Andrew, my new friend, has given me permission to tell his/our story in weekly excerpts starting in May so that you can get a taste of OPEN FOR LUNCH, due out from Pisgah Press in fall of 2018.
Hungry? Let's do lunch!
*Andrew is a pseudonym
If you believe that there is value in reaching out to strangers, what might your gift be for doing so?
Most tell me that I can do this because I'm me. Probably so.
But you're you........what can you do? A smile? Eye contact? Pay it forward? Listen? It only takes seconds to reach out.
• • •
What ideas do you have about engaging in this kind of behavior with a stranger?
I have come to see that my simple gesture of asking a stranger to eat lunch with me opens up opportunities for us both that we might never have had. In other words there is value in this practice.
• • •
What value do you see in asking a stranger to eat lunch with you?
The events that comprise the chapters in OPEN FOR LUNCH have occurred over fourteen years and continue to happen.
Here's the gist: when I'm by myself and out for lunch at a restaurant---fast food, sit down, take out---I have been asking other diners who are alone, to eat lunch with me.
You won't believe what happens!
• • •
Any idea what occurs during these lunches?
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Open For Lunch
Award Finalist in the "Health: Alternative Medicine" category of the 2017 Best Book Awards