On the not so regular occasion I eat alone at a food court or hawker centre, I would walk to a stall, get what I want and then look for a seat.
Despite always carrying a packet of tissue paper in my pocket – the small, squarish ones, not the pretty, flat, floral, feminine types, unfortunately – I have not, and will never use these to “chope” or reserve a seat. It’s just a personal preference.
I’d scope the area for an empty table, and if there wasn’t any available, I’d walk to one which has very few occupants. (I’d also be careful to avoid seats occupied by tissue paper packets.)
I would ask the occupants if I could join them, even if it was obvious that the seat I was planning to take was not already taken. I am not asking for permission, but doing so more as a courtesy to those already at the table.
Quite often, I would get a polite nod. Sometimes, even a smile.
It gives me an opportunity to engage them in conversation, too, even if this is limited to the topic of what we are eating. Even if they didn’t, most would smile or nod as they leave the table at the end of their meal, and I would thank them again – for their company.
But what would I have done had I approached a table at Toa Payoh Lor 8 Market and Hawker Centre where a woman in office attire insisted the table was reserved – even though it had six seats and she was the only one there?
I would have thanked her and walked to another table, because it would have been extremely clear I was neither welcomed nor wanted there.
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But the more pertinent question, in light of the arrest of a man aged 46 and his female companion, 39, for causing public nuisance is, what would I have done, had I been a witness to that episode?
Well, I might have given each of them a tight slap – if it was my intention to please an audience baying for blood. But that would have been ungracious. And very unkind.
Instead, I would plead with the woman on behalf of the 76-year-old man for him to be allowed to use one seat.
I would ask politely: “Please, miss, can this man have one seat so he can eat his dinner?”
Yes, she would insist the table was reserved. Whereupon, I would say, “I understand it is reserved. (There’s no such thing as a reserved table in a hawker centre, but it wouldn’t hurt to humour her.) But do you need all six seats? Can this uncle take one, please?”
If she still insisted she needs the entire table, I might ask, “Are all the seats taken, or is it just for you? Do you have many others joining you? Or do you just want some privacy?”
I am quite certain the woman would relent at some stage, allowing the man at the table to eat his meal. If not, I would gladly give the man my seat and resume my meal standing beside the woman and her five empty seats.
What if I had noticed the spat only at the point where the woman’s male companion had entered the picture, shoving the old man from behind and causing him to stagger?
I might have beaten the man to within an inch of his life with the purple umbrella on the table – if it was my intention to please an audience of social justice warriors filled with righteous indignation over his reprehensible behaviour.
A video of that would probably garner 2.8 million views, possibly more, and some might consider me a hero. But it would lead to my arrest and subsequent incarceration – which is too much trouble to teach an idiot manners.
It would be very ungracious and horribly unkind, too, though several million people might argue that he deserved it.
Instead, I would point out to the man that what he did to the old man was unnecessarily violent. (He may not have realised it the moment he did it.)
I would urge him to apologise, adding that I accept that he may have misunderstood the situation when he arrived. And then ask if he would let the poor old man have a seat.
In as measured and as calm a tone as I can possibly muster, I might say: “You did not need to shove this poor man. He’s hungry, and he could have spilled his dinner. He really isn’t disturbing your pretty friend. (I don’t care if she was pretty, but it would make it awkward for her to attempt anything ugly after that.) He just wants a place to sit down so he can eat his dinner. You probably did not know that, so maybe you want to apologise to him. He means your friend no harm. He is just hungry, like you, probably.”
I doubt he would break down in tears and go on his knees to beg the old man for forgiveness, but I imagine he would soften a little, perhaps just enough to afford the old man the charity of a seat at his table.
If he remained adamant about not sharing, I would give the old man my seat, buy him dessert when he’s seated, and probably resume my meal when the old man finishes his.
But I won’t take a photo of the couple so I could share it on social media.
And now that the couple has been arrested for causing public nuisance and the online clamour for their identities to be revealed continues, I am quite certain I don’t want to participate in such a campaign.
Because I’m confident the authorities will deal with them justly, without my assistance in a lynch e-mob.
Besides, there will be idiots every day, and every day new idiots are born so you’ll meet at least a few in the course of your (hopefully) very long lives. Meanwhile, I’d refrain from shortening what’s left of mine by getting worked up over the ungracious and unkind behaviour of a couple who really aren’t worth my time.
And even if I did have time to spare, I’d be unable to do what their parents couldn’t do – teach them manners.
So, I’d remind myself to be more gracious instead, and spread a bit of kindness. Because it is a lot less exasperating, and a lot more fun, if you’d care to try it.