Classroom teachers often tell stories of running into their students out in the community – at the grocery store, the car wash, and the bank – and how taken aback the children often are about seeing ‘their’ Mrs. Johnson “out in the wild.” Kids can be shocked, tongue-tied, or entirely delighted to see a teacher wearing jeans or sweatpants, pushing a cart through the cereal aisle at Super Target, looking entirely different than she does at school. Children’s booksellers are not quite as remarkable when spotted outside of our stores, but still worthy of comment, and are usually asked a couple of questions about why we’re away from the shop, and in my case, “who is taking care of the giraffe.”
Recently I snuck out for a few hours in the afternoon between the morning and closing shifts to prepare for an upcoming sales rep appointment, looking for a quiet place with good wifi service to battle the never-ending frontist fall orders. Our local Mexican restaurant, El Rodeo, is just down the block, and entirely suitable for an “office away from the office.” Their lunch rush finished, and the after-work margaritas-and-queso crowd not yet due, I could slip into a cool, air conditioned booth, work uninterrupted, and crunch on tortilla chips while I deliberated over picture book quantities and the marketability of $17.99 hardcover middle grade titles. The televisions overhead were showing some pro golf tournament (which required just an occasional glance at the leaderboard to follow) and I powered up the laptop and settled in.
I looked up to see that 6-year-old Ryan, who had been a regular attendee of weekly story times and events before he started kindergarten last year, had slid into the bench across the table from me, and was digging into the basket of chips.
“Hey, Ryan! How are you? It’s good to see you.”
“What are you doing?” he asked, mouth full of chips. I saw him glance at my iced tea, and pushed the untouched glass of water across the table, as I unwrapped the straw and offered it to him.
“I’m doing some work for the store. This is how I pick out the new books that we have for you to look at. And I’m eating my lunch. Are you here with your family?”
“Nope.” A couple more chips were chewed and swallowed while we both considered this fact. He inspected the bowl of salsa on the table, but thought better of it, and pulled the basket of chips closer to pick out the unbroken ones.
“Are you here with some friends?” I looked around the restaurant for another mom with kids, or perhaps a babysitter, while I tried to remember if Ryan’s mom had mentioned hiring a summer nanny.
“No.” He was making good progress with the chip basket, and I nodded to the waiter who pointed to his tray full of refills.
“Hmmmm. Well, I don’t think you drove the car here yourself, so how did you get to the restaurant today? Who brought you here?”
We waited for a minute or two while he chewed and swallowed, and I pushed the water glass closer again.
“My mom. She’s at the nail polish place. You know, where I can sit in the big chair and it shakes? But it smells bad there. And we were going there and I saw you in the window. So I said I was coming in to see you. Where are the other people?”
“Do you mean my friends who work at the bookstore?”
“Yes. Mrs….. I don’t know…. the nice ones. The one that does the art stuff, and get the cars down. Where are they?”
“They are back at the store, taking care of things. I just came here for a little while to eat and do some work on the computer.”
“So you are ALL ALONE BY YOURSELF?”
“Yes, I was. It’s nice that you stopped by to visit me, though. Would you like me to walk you next door so that your mom knows where you are? You can come back if you want to and sit with me, but I think she might be worried about you.”
“You can call her. I will stay here and be your company.” Ryan repositioned himself to sit up on his knees in the booth, a better position to reach both the straw and the refilled basket of chips. The waiter slid a small bowl of queso onto the table and smiled at Ryan, who happily dug in.
“Do you know her number?”
“Ummmm…… it’s like 456 something.”
“OK, then, that’s a good start. Here’s what we’ll do. I’ll walk over there with you, say hi, and we’ll tell her to pick you up when she’s done. And then, if you want to, you can come back and help me pick out new books.”
“That’s OK. You can go. I will stay here and wait for you. Do you have any games on your computer?”
“Not really.” The queso was mostly gone, and another basket of chips appeared.
Just then, Heather (Ryan’s mom — oh, thank goodness her name popped into my head at just the right moment) appeared in the doorway of the restaurant, looking around with her hands up and fingers outstretched — the classic post-manicure posture assumed before the nail polish is fully dry, but when carpool calls and you simply must leave the salon — and looked instantly relieved when she spotted the back of Ryan’s head at my table. As she hurried over, Ryan grabbed a fistful of chips with each hand, and climbed down from the booth.
“Mom, I was helping Mrs. Cynthia. Do you know what? She is ALL BY HERSELF ALONE. And I helped her with the computer, and she gave me some chips to eat. And the other people are back at the store, and the giraffe is there. And so it’s really good that I came to see her and be her friend.”
Heather smiled and waved, and Ryan followed her out of the restaurant, crunching the last of his stash of chips and chattering on. And I thought about being “all by myself, alone” and how while adults sometimes seek out the privacy of very public places, it’s good to know that friends are plentiful if we want company, just like baskets of chips.