So a couple of weeks ago, Goldstar had tickets for the Washington National Opera’s production of Moby Dick at the Kennedy Center, and we decided to go. That is one of the side benefits of Frugal February – the savings from not eating meat or drinking alcohol combined with the tedium of abstinence impel us to seek new diversions (twice we indulged in some rather nice massages). We could only get tickets for a performance during the week, which meant we had to deal with the dreaded KenCen logistical clusterfuck, i.e., figuring out where and when to eat and how to get across town for the performance. While dining options are convenient and plentiful in Penn Quarter, there are no good choices (in winter) for how to get to the Kennedy Center from there. Cabs are expensive, driving is a pain in the ass, the subway isn’t that close and the bus runs inconveniently and takes forever. This time we decided to endure the bus and eat at the Kennedy Center itself, which was to be a novel experience for the both of us.

Befitting its status as the Cultural Palace on the Potomac, the Kennedy Center has a formal (expensive) restaurant with (I think) quite a lovely view across the river. As an egalitarian gesture, there is also something called the KC Cafe, which we found at the end of a makeshift corridor that screened us from preparations for some private gala. Once obtained, the expansive cafeteria revealed itself as the feeding ground for the sensibly cultured NPR set. A middlebrow hush calmed the clatter of self-serve dining, and I was caught between two memories, one from long ago and one quite new. The common thread was communal dining, and in each case, the recollection concerned being on the outside of a group that I felt I would either soon join or might eventually become part of.

In the arc of our lives, we are periodically subject to institutionalized dining with strangers, some of whom may become acquaintances or even friends. Beginning with compulsory education, there is – for many of us – the military, college or even prison to follow. But then (except for some less common experiences such as homeless shelters, monasteries or asylums) we are more or less set free – free to choose when and where we want to eat and with whom. It is not until confinement in an assisted-living facility that the specter of place-based dining returns.

My two memories were of the freshman dining hall at college and the dining experience at the retirement community where we recently helped my parents move. Freshman year was a long time ago, and the dining hall was one of the reasons I moved off campus once the obligatory first-year residence came to an end. Having dinner with my parents at the old folks home was simply Dickensian in its view of the future yet to come.

Standing on the threshold of the KC Cafe, I had the odd realization of being half a demographic cohort out of step with my fellow patrons. In college, I had been among people of my own age, and at the retirement community, I was among my parents’ generation. But at the cafeteria, I was in a novel setting of loosely affiliated institutional diners composed of the newly or soon-to-be retired. Unlike a residence-based dining community, this group was a transient association that was united by their shared older-middle-aged sensibleness in solving the problem of where to dine before a performance at the Kennedy Center.

The choice to eat at the conveniently located cafeteria rather than off site or at the more expensive similarly situated restaurant suggested (to me at least) a set of commonalities sufficient enough to think of the diners as a kind of group. These characteristics include (beyond age cohort) shared aesthetic taste, similar level of disposable income, a certain frequency of attendance (more of a long shot), a common subordination of the pleasures of dining to those of the evening’s artistic event and a basic preference for ease not unlike the choice of sensible rather than stylish shoes.

As Rachael and I intend to start going to the opera and the symphony more frequently (i.e., not never), I beheld this group with an unsettling frisson of projected possible identification – would this be part of what our future would hold? Is this how the inevitable but not-yet-undeniable slide into sedate geezerdom gathers force? Stay young; stay away from the Kennedy Center? More safely inoculated by her age, Rachael satisfied herself with a bowl of soup while I ruminated over a plate of peas and carrots (frugal february remember) with nary a need for a knife and only a cup of water for refreshment.

[Next Up – the Actual Opera Itself]