ON LONESOMENESS

Some years ago, Frank Mullin and Pat Downey found themselves in the lobby of a plush hotel in Kuwait City on a Thursday evening. Frank Mullin was an old hand in dealing with Arab nations. This was Pat Downey’s first trip with Frank as his assistant. Those who travel in the Middle East know that Friday is the Muslim holy day. Generally speaking, workers spend some time in the office on Thursday morning but by noon they are gone. The restaurants seem to follow that same practice. Of course, none of them come to work on Friday, the holy day.

At this time, there were no English language newspapers in Kuwait City. The only papers and magazines were in Arabic and the sellers of those publications quit work at noon on Thursday as well. Television was new at that time but on holy days, which included Thursday and Friday, the fare on television was religious in nature and totally in Arabic. The owners of the hotels would provide meals for their travelers but they were served at a specific time and if one dawdled a little bit, one would miss a meal. That was a tragedy because there were no restaurants open other than those in the hotel.

And so it was that Frank Mullin and Pat found themselves on a Thursday night in a situation that I am sure they regretted. It was a case of botched airline schedules rather than planning to be in that Arabic city on that particular occasion. At about nine or ten that evening, Pat and Frank were sitting on a plush couch in the lobby of the plush hotel. Pat turned to Frank and asked him, “What is there to do in this town?”

Frank gave Pat a succinct answer. He said, “You are doing it.” That answer told Pat Downey that he was in for another full day of lonesomeness and boredom.

It seems to me that lonesomeness is a close relative of boredom. Perhaps the psychoanalyst will dispute that conclusion, but I suggest that lonesome people may also be afflicted with boredom.

I am certain that lonesomeness afflicts men as well as women. However men have more outlets, apparently, than women do. They can go to a bar or to a ball game by themselves. To go to a bar or a ball game, the lonesome female would ordinarily have to recruit another lonesome person to go with her. This is not always easy to do.

AT&T was a large organization which provided an opportunity for determining who was a lonesome person. For a time when I worked at the headquarters in Manhattan, there was a secretary who sat directly outside my office. She was the secretary for a good friend of mine named Charlie Miller. Her name was Audrey W. and when addressed, Audrey would reply in tones that suggested that she might be thinking of something else. She was an attractive woman but her friendships with other women on the floor seemed non-existent. Audrey for all intents and purposes was a lone wolf. At the going-away party for her boss, Charlie Miller, I was the master of ceremonies. The going-away party had a little drinking and a lot of fun. For better or for worse, Audrey did not join in either the drinking or the fun-making. I am sure that she was fond of Charlie Miller, but she hung around the edges of the crowd. I had no thought of ever inviting Audrey to speak on that occasion because it could have embarrassed her. As far as I knew, Audrey was married, but as an amateur psychiatrist she always struck me as a lonesome person. Perhaps she was bored as well.

A related case, again at AT&T, is a woman named Marie Datre. When there were office celebrations, such as the Christmas party or a going-away party, Marie would always be on the fringes of the crowd. For the three years we shared the same office, I tried to be pleasant to Marie and occasionally draw her out. No luck.

Marie was single as far as I could tell, and I suspect that if there were a wedding or funeral, she might make her presence known but then would grab a seat against a wall. After a time, I confined my remarks to Marie to “Good morning” or “Good afternoon” and let it go at that. Marie was a lonesome person and there was not much that I could do about it. I concluded that if Marie ever wanted to be married, she would have to show a little more animation. Marie died last year and I suggest that she was lonely to the end.

In this town, there is a woman named Jill whom I suspect is now in her early fifties. For many years I have seen Jill and her mother shopping at one of our big markets. She seemed exceptionally close to her mother and in recent years, it appears that her mother has died. Jill seems to be on her own. Her lonesomeness takes a different path from that of Audrey W. or Marie Datre. In Jill’s case, clerks at the grocery store, the post office, and the tax collectors’ must dislike to see Jill coming. Jill is capable of talking the arm off of one of these clerks. Again, as an amateur psychiatrist, I conclude that Jill misses her mother. But I am here to tell you that if Jill ever seeks to acquire a husband, which I am sure she has done, her constant chatter would drive him off in an instant. I almost forgot that Jill also spends a considerable amount of time jawing with the tax collector. Jerry, the tax collector, is a pleasant person and I suspect that he might welcome these conversations with Jill because not many people have nice things to say to old Jerry. But Jerry is married and is the father of two or three children so if Jill has him on her prospects list, she must cross him off.

The final woman I have to offer as an exhibit of lonesomeness is Ida. I suspect that Ida is a woman well into her seventies or early eighties. She shops at the food market, apparently every day. The clerks in the produce department at the Whole Foods Market tell me that Ida makes an appearance every day and if she does not show up, they become concerned about her. From all appearances, Ida is a widow or a spinster. There is no man in sight. But again, as in the case of Jill, Ida’s lonesomeness takes the form of endless conversations with the clerks at the market. Apparently the clerks there do not always understand what Ida has had to say. They nod and say “Yes.” When they wish to break off a conversation with Ida, they typically say, “I have to go to the back room.” But that ploy does not always work. Ida keeps on talking.

Gregorio Russo is the first produce clerk one sees when entering the Whole Foods Market. Gregorio has had his many conversations over the years with Ida. Far from being turned off by her verbosity, Gregorio once told me that “She is a lonesome woman.” I reached the same conclusion as Professor Russo. She is a lonesome woman and perhaps it is the clerks at the grocery store that provide her with the means to express her outlook on life. The clerks listen to what Ida has to say and nod. In doing so, I am convinced that they are providing a decent and honorable response in keeping Ida alive.

Well there you have my views on several lonesome women. My wife relates that she knew a lonesome man who married a lonesome woman. The marriage did not result in their becoming more gregarious; they were just two lonesome people living together. I have no idea what will cure lonesomeness and I am certain that there are people who would not be interested in any cure that might be available. They seem to be happy as they are, I suppose. But as I leave you, I hope that you will always listen gently to the words of lonesome people such as Jill and Ida. They need to talk to overcome their lonesomeness and by your listening, you are providing a welcome therapeutic service.

When I took over the International Correspondence job, it occurred to me in looking at the records that Frank Mullin had been responsible for the Arab countries for perhaps three or four years. One day I went to Frank’s office and offered him the thought that there was an opening in Europe or in the Pacific, and asked him if he would like to look at green grass rather than sand. Frank said, “I’ll think about that,” and he pondered it perhaps for two or three days. In the end, Frank came back to me and said that for the future he would prefer to stick with the Arab countries. He also said that for the future he would learn not to spend Thursday and Friday evening in an Arab capital. That would save him answering the question, “What is there to do in this town?” by saying, “You are doing it.”

Some people are lonesome and some are bored. I am at a loss to tell you where to draw the line.

E. E. CARR
June 3, 2007
Essay 259
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Kevin’s commentary: I consider myself rather lucky to be born in an age where basically the sum total of human knowledge can be carried around in one’s pocket on a daily basis. Makes it a lot harder to be bored. Nominally the internet can help you be less lonely too, I guess. At least can give you people to talk to!

Also, is it bad to admit that I had no idea that a “tax collector” was still a thing that existed? When I think of a tax collector, I think of feudal England, and some guy coming to harass the serfs for their silver. My “tax collector” is Turbotax, an online program. Is Jerry like a repo man? Is he there to make you pay after you’re delinquent? Are there enough tax dodgers in Short Hills, NJ to make this a full-time job?

One Response to 'ON LONESOMENESS'

  1. Ezra says:

    Jerry is a really nice guy, so everybody takes a check to Jerry four times a year.

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