Breakfast with a stranger

Zell's Cafe; a favorite breakfast spot

Zell’s Cafe; a favorite breakfast spot

Friday I had a rare weekday off. I did a neighborhood run, showered and headed to the credit union to cash that $20 partial refund of a parking ticket I wrote about the day before (“Wheels of justice”).

I headed to Zell’s in Southeast Portland to treat myself to breakfast with the proceeds. It was just after 11 am and the place was packed as if it were a weekend brunch. Every seat taken at the counter and a couple of women waiting with a baby. Not what I envisioned.

Just inside the entrance, a man about my age was sitting alone at a table for four.

“You’re welcome to sit here if you like,” he said. “I can move over.”

“Is that OK with you?” the waitress asked me. “It’s going to be a wait otherwise.”

My mind clicked to another item I’d shared on Facebook that same morning — a co-worker’s essay about the kindness of a stranger who, with no prompting whatsoever, paid for his groceries when he maxed out his credit card (“A simple kindness, or perhaps something more”).

Here was another stranger, offering to share his table in a similar gesture of kindness. This could be awkward. Or … who knows what might come of this?

“Sure,” I said. “Why not?”

“I hope you don’t mind,” I told the man. “I brought a magazine and thought I’d do a little reading.”

“No, no, that’s fine,” he said. “Go ahead. I’m good.”

I sat down and the waitress went to fetch coffee and a menu.

“I’m texting with my son,” the man said. “He’s in Paris. Traveling alone and he’s a little worked up.”

“Paris? That’s cool.”

“Yeah. He just got there a day earlier. He’s a little nervous.”

I put aside the magazine. Never opened it. For the next half hour, I found myself drawn into an impromptu conversation about foreign travel, parenting, education, the Vietnam-era draft and more.

The guy described himself as semi-retired from a major U.S. airline. As an employee, he and his family were entitled to free or discounted travel and so his son had used the benefit to fly to Europe. Both his son and daughter had attended an alternative school through 8th grade but neither had finished high school, he told me.

Interestingly, both had attended the same high school as our two youngest kids. And, ironically, both fell short of a standard diploma despite their mother, his wife, being a school teacher. Yet, both had continued their education, beginning at a community college then transferring to a four-year school, he told me with fatherly pride.

Now the older sister was living in California and pursuing a masters degree. His son, at 21 and with two years of college-level French, was taking a break to travel. The guy planned to meet his boy in Amsterdam and fly home together.

“What about you?” he asked.

I told him about our three munchkins, now living very different lives with their partners. We agreed that parenting adult children brings a different set of worries and rewards. My mention of Jordan’s stint in the Army, including his one-year tour in Afghanistan, took us down the track of military service. Back in 1971, he drew a low number in the draft lottery and wound up in the Army, stationed for much of the time in Germany. I drew a high number and never served. We brought up our dads and learned that both were Navy guys.

He talked of traveling to Spain and Austria. I told him of my one trip to Italy and Slovenia.

The guy took a break at one point to step outside and take a call from his son. As I looked out the window, I could see him on the sidewalk, a concerned father trying to settle his son’s anxieties an ocean and several time zones away.


My breakfast partner: Mark

I marveled at how life’s little threads sometimes come together in the most unpredictable ways. The refund check. The decision to eat at Zell’s. The essay about a stranger’s kindness in the checkout line at Costco. And now this, a different stranger’s kindness at a Portland restaurant.

We finished our meals and, at last, shook hands and introduced ourselves. His name was Mark. Our breakfast plates were cleared away and I needed to go to the grocery store. Mark said he was heading to his mom’s house to mow her lawn.

At dinner, I shared the story of my random encounter. Lori wasn’t surprised at all. She said she could imagine that happening easily all over in Portland. Even said she could see many of her friends accepting an invitation to sit down with a stranger.

I don’t know about that. Given the choice, I would have opted for a seat at the counter and some solo reading time. I’m glad things turned out differently, though.

Mark’s simple gesture — sharing a table in a crowded restaurant — led to an enjoyable conversation and gave me pause. What can I do to pay it forward? What can I do to surprise a stranger with a simple kindness?

4 thoughts on “Breakfast with a stranger

  1. Hey George, another great blog that I can certainly relate to and have had similar experiences. It really makes you think about the randomness of life choices and the path they lead you down..good or bad you just never know. Glad you are thinking about paying it forward, if only everyone just thought about it and made even just a small gesture think how different life in this world would be. Be well my friend.

    Sent from my iPad Brian Wartell


  2. I love reading about this encounter George. I am a long time patron and fan of Zell’s and have found people eating in there to be very friendly. They may not speak, but they do smile and seem to be aware of people around them. The original owners were very nice people and had a lot to do with the friendly vibe. I believe some emplyees purchased it when the owners wanted to sell. I was concerned, but It’s continued to be a wam and comfortable place to go and still delicious! For me, it’s one of the few places I’ve felt comfortable dining solo.
    So glad you had this experience, very inspiring!

    • Thanks for your comment, Alexandra. I think you make an important point when you cite the original owners’ success in creating a friendly vibe. I spent a couple hours at a S.E. Portland coffee shop on Monday and was struck by the opposite — a decidedly unfriendly vibe where it would have felt intrusive to even say hello to certain people hunkered down over their laptops. Of course, maybe that’s the difference. You go to a restaurant expecting a social occasion. At this coffee shop, I ran into a bunch of worker bees, all seated one to a table in three rows running parallel to each other.

      But that brings me back to the question I posed on Facebook: Would you have breakfast with a stranger? It’s nice to know you feel comfortable dining solo. But would you have accepted this guy’s invitation to join you at his table?

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