It was very possible that Big Al was a blowhard, but because I'm a coward, I'll never know for sure.
It was just as likely that he was an interesting, colorful, lonely old man who would have enriched the meal we might have shared with him.
He blew into the restaurant like a gust of hot wind, greeting all of the parties seated. After announcing that he was stood up by his "companion," he sat by himself at a table for two with an empty chair.
I realized that this is my own bias, but his choice of head gear was off putting. I don't much care for Santa hats (except of course when worn by Santa). And not only was Big Al sporting a Santa hat, but it had his name on it - 'Big Al' in huge letters.
We were sitting in a restaurant, the night before Christmas, in a small ranching town in the San Luis Valley. From the outside, the place looked like an old-timey western hotel. Inside, it was surprisingly restored and fancy. Everyone in the place, customers, waitress, chef, Big Al, seemed to know each other.
There was no menu, all the food was grown or raised nearby. Your choices were fish, beef or chicken with the chef deciding on how it would be prepared. I am not a fussy eater, so my only concern was the price; when they brought me my Jack Daniels in a mason jar, I assumed the food would be affordable.
After we told the waitress that I'd have beef and Ellie chicken, she asked if there was anything we were allergic to. When I told her that my mate didn't like vacuum cleaners, she didn't crack a smile and actually wrote it down.
I was a few sips into my Jack and Ellie halfway through her wine - served in a bucket - when Big Al entered the room. Ellie and I watched as he made the rounds; it seemed he was happier to see them than they were to see him. After a few cursory hugs and handshakes they got back to their meals and drinks and Big Al sat down alone.
"That is so sad," Ellie said, "It is Christmas Eve and he is all alone."
I looked over at Al and noticed after the bravado and bluster he seemed to melt down into his chair only to swell up when the waitress approached to take his drink order; he did in fact look lonely.
"Let's ask him to join us," so said my mate.
There was no reason not to. After a quarter of a century together Ellen had heard all my jokes and witty table banter; having someone to dilute my attention would be a welcome relief for her. We had the rest of our lives together. Even if Al was in fact a blowhard we would get a good story out of it as well as doing a good deed.
As usual, my first instinct was to rain on Ellie's philanthropic parade.
"He probably wants to be alone." I said without believing.
What followed was Ellie, "Go ask him." Me, "You ask him. He'll think I'm some dude hitting on him." Ellie, "You're the man, ask him." Me, "He is probably happy there by himself without having to make conversation with strangers." Her, "For God's sakes, it is Christmas Eve, no one wants to be alone. You heard him say his companion stood him up. Go ask him to join us."
The long and short of it is we did not ask Al to join us and all those reasons I stated were simply excuses. The real reason I didn't ask him was because I was embarrassed - embarrassed to be nice. I was uncomfortable walking over and asking if he wanted to join us - would he think me odd, would he resent the fact that we thought he wanted company, would he say "no?"
It is odd, all this insecurity coming from someone who has made a living, more or less, embarrassing himself. But if the truth be told, I don't think I'm alone. It is easier to reach out to victims of devastation, disasters and diseases than those suffering from the low-grade infections of loneliness.
It was a wonderful evening. Ellen said the dim lighting made me look younger and she acted like my jokes and witty table banter was Pulitzer Prize worthy. The food was excellent and not too expensive. On the way out, we passed by Al's table and I greeted him with a "Merry Christmas, Big Al." He hailed me back like we were old friends. I asked if he enjoyed his meal. He said he did, but added, "The food was good, but my companion stood me up and it's a hell of a thing to eat alone on Christmas Eve." I told him I was very sorry and I meant it.
My Mother used to say, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." My resolution for 2013 is to not be embarrassed to be nice.
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be seen on TV-8-Summit and read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.