A stranger's generosity sweetens family dinner

This Just In ...

August 30, 1999|By Dan Rodricks

THURSDAY NIGHT, the night of what seemed like the thunderstorm of the century, Donna Shapiro took her parents out for an anniversary dinner. Paul and Marion Schenker have been married for 66 years -- a fact you should contemplate for a moment, before I finish the rest of this sentence -- and, for having reached such an impressive milestone, it was decided that the celebration should take place on the high end of restaurants. They chose Linwood's in Owings Mills.

Linwood's has been getting good reviews for years. It's very popular, with a handsome dining room, perfect table settings, a sophisticated menu that runs from New American grill to Old American comfort food. You can spend $50 per person easily there.

So the four of them -- Donna Shapiro and her husband, Leroy, and the Schenkers -- landed at Linwood's on Thursday night.

Stepping out of the storm, on her way into the restaurant, Donna Shapiro spotted the owner, Linwood Dame, and made a discreet request for "something with a candle in it" at the end of dinner.

The restaurant was crowded. The Shapiros and Schenkers took their seats and ordered their meals.

Paul Schenker, who is 96 years old and long retired from his career as a physician, sat on a bench seat, against a wall.

At the next table sat a man alone. He had ordered a glass of wine and quietly sipped it while waiting for his meal. He was middle-aged, of medium build, dressed in a suit and tie and a shirt with French cuffs. The silence at his table contrasted starkly with the happy conversation of the Shapiro-Schenker party.

"I see you're by yourself," Dr. Schenker said to the man. "Feel free to join our conversation."

It did not surprise Donna Shapiro to hear her father say those words to a stranger. She regards her father as a gentleman, always gracious and friendly.

"Thank you," the man said, but declined the invitation. Sometimes it's nice to be alone, he said -- or words to that effect. Sometimes people are alone because they want to be. The man smiled broadly and laughed. So did the Schenkers and Shapiros.

Dr. Schenker introduced himself to the man and spoke with him briefly.

"Are you married?" he asked.

"Yes," the man said. "I've been married for 30 years."

For the remainder of the evening, the man looked straight ahead, sipped his wine and ate his meal. He had little more to say.

Dinner for the Shapiros and Schenkers was good, as usual. Linwood's chocolate bread pudding arrived for dessert -- with a candle in it. There was a small celebration of the Schenkers' 66 years of marriage.

When the pudding had been devoured, Leroy Shapiro asked for the check.

"It's on the house," the waitress said.

The Shapiros were surprised. They knew Linwood Dame. Donna Shapiro had had parties at the restaurant. But this gesture was unduly generous.

"Tell Linwood to come over to the table," she said. "We have to discuss this. He can't be doing this. It's not fair."

But there was no further discussion. The waitress had her orders.

The Shapiros left a tip and stepped out of the dining room.

Before she left the restaurant, Donna Shapiro approached the waitress one last time.

"Is Linwood still here?" she asked.

"It wasn't Linwood," the waitress said quietly, taking Shapiro aside. "It was the gentleman sitting next to you, and he wishes to remain anonymous."

The quiet man sipping wine, eating alone? The stranger who'd only chatted with Dr. Schenker briefly? He'd paid for their dinner? The check could have been $150, probably more.

Everyone was mystified by the gesture.

I was.

And I wasn't.

Having told similar stories in this space over the years -- acts of kindness out of nowhere, shocking examples of human generosity and grace -- it no longer surprises me to hear such things. People are quirky, more honest and sensitive and grateful than we think.

What's mysterious -- the fun part for human-behavior detectives -- is the motivation. What prompted the man at the next table to pick up the tab? Why such generosity toward people who could pay their own way? Was he taken with Dr. Schenker? His wife? Their long years together? Did he appreciate the simple invitation to join conversation and avoid an evening sole mio? Was he impressed that strangers could be so inviting and warm? Did Dr. Schenker's gesture touch him at a particularly sensitive time in his life? Was he just coming off a good run in the stock market and feeling large? Had he had a little too much wine?

The study of human behavior is such an up-and-down endeavor. Every time you think you've reached a grim conclusion -- that we're all doomed, for instance -- someone comes along and brings you to your senses.

Pub Date: 08/30/99

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