Dining with strangers — a weird and inspiring spin on social networking

Anthony Lacey is a 35-year-old Brit with a charming accent, a jolly disposition and an odd hobby. By day, he writes about environmental policy for a trade newsletter in Northern Virginia. By night, he takes people he doesn’t know out to dinner, interviews them about their lives, then profiles them for his blog, Dining With Strangers.

The gimmick of inviting someone unknown to dinner, especially these days, when most people barely look up from their smartphones to acknowledge others, sometimes prompts his bemused dining companions to jokingly wonder whether he’s a serial killer.

“If I’m not back by midnight,” one invitee told his Facebook friends, “send the Canadian Mounties.”

Lacey is not a serial killer. In the age of social media, which encourages virtual connections and sometimes keeps even close friends at a distance, he is a rebel — a millennial with little interest in himself who is totally captivated by ordinariness and the wonder of the unfamiliar. His site makes no money. He ­frequently picks up the tab for the dinners. He will eat anything but ­sushi.

“The point of the site is to meet people with a story to tell, a kooky career they’re happy to talk about,” he writes on his site. “I’ll bring along a notepad, camera and tape recorder, and we’ll take it from there.”

A waiter at Jyoti takes a picture of Anthony Lacey and Meredith Denbow following their meal. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

His companions often find that the most interesting person at the table is Lacey.

“I was fascinated by his fascination in other people,” said Andrea Bonior, a Bethesda, Md., psychologist and advice columnist whom Lacey interviewed over Peruvian food. “He was genuinely interested in what it’s really like to be a psychologist. I think he reminded me what it’s like to connect with other people and ideas.”

Lacey’s dining companions have included an English tutor, a pastor, artists, a couple who dress and perform as Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, not-so-famous authors, an anesthesiologist, an adult-products saleswoman, a Santa Claus, a retired tightrope walker, and somewhat-forgotten character actors, including Burt Young, who played Paulie in “Rocky” and is now (really) a painter in New York.

He finds ideas in classifieds sections, on blogs, in old movies he watches on Netflix and, more recently, in requests he gets through his Web site.

Lacey recently published profile No. 77, a dinner at Marrakech in Northwest Washington with Jenny Wang, a cog in the District’s vast public relations apparatus. She contacted him because she was fascinated by his blog — an unknown publicity person yearning not for publicity, but to be known.

About Wang, Lacey wrote: “Jenny was born in China but her father, a professor, left soon after her birth to take up a teaching job in the United States. Her mother [then] went to join Jenny’s dad one year later, so instead she grew up initially with a nanny and her grandparents back in China.”

About Marrakech’s harira soup, Lacey wrote, “It was so good that I demolished two freshly baked bread buns to mop up the leftovers.”

Anthony Lacey takes a picture of his food while he interviews Meredith Denbow at Jyoti. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

The tables were recently turned on Lacey. “I’m not used to people asking me questions,” he said, sitting down for dinner at The Pig, a 14th Street restaurant suggested by this reporter, a porky fan of pork.

He ordered an Old Fashioned. There was chatter about dining trends, including small plates. “Sometimes you get one meatball for, like, $100,” he groused. “It’s an expensive meatball. I yearn for the days of a starter, an entree and a dessert.”

He mused that none of his companions have had a gluten sensitivity: “No restrictions or allergies. They’ve been a pretty regular bunch.”

He ordered an appetizer: wild antelope pappardelle.

So how did he wind up here, answering questions from a stranger about posing questions to strangers?

The answer starts in northern England, where Lacey grew up in a series of cold, rainy industrial towns. He went to college in London’s East End, studying law, which bored him. He wrote about movies for the school newspaper, then after graduation became an apprentice reporter at a daily newspaper in his home town. He fell for journalism.

Like famous English explorers before him — Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh — Lacey longed for the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. He arrived in suburban Crystal City 11 years ago not to establish a colony but to work at Inside Washington Publishers, which produces newsletters read by lobbyists, bureaucrats and industry wonks.

The work is stimulating but — how to put this sympathetically? — dry.

But Lacey likes to eat. He likes talking to people on airplanes. He had been longing to write more creatively. So, about eight years ago, he got this idea: Take strangers to dinner, then write about them.

Most meals are in the District, but he travels a lot. He has found profile subjects in New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans and elsewhere. He offers to pay, but about half of his subjects split the bill. Told that The Washington Post, owned by Amazon billionaire Jeffrey P. Bezos, would be paying for the meal at The Pig, Lacey said: “Thank you, Jeff. I feel like I can call him Jeff.”

Then he ordered an entree called the Turtle Bites Back, snapping turtle in a spicy tomato curry. His companion ordered ­bacon-wrapped tenderloin, subbing out the greens for mac and cheese.

Are all the dinners platonic? Yes, he said. (He’s single and lives in Columbia Heights in Northwest Washington with two roommates.)

How long do the dinners typically last? Hours.

Does he have an editor? No, usually a lawyer buddy who proofreads.

Does he have a lot of readers? Not exactly.

“Sometimes, the stories gain traction,” Lacey said. “Sometimes they don’t.”

He has 337 followers on Twitter and 162 on Facebook.

Most of his stories circulate within the networks of his subjects, whose family members, friends and co-workers find the pieces on social media. Gary Krist, a Bethesda writer, posted his profile earlier this year on his Facebook page.

“The blog post about my dinner with a stranger (who fortunately turned out not to be a serial killer) is up,” Krist wrote. “Thank you, Anthony Lacey, for the write up, and for the dinner, and for not being a serial killer.”

The revelations stretch from the mundane — Krist writes his drafts longhand — to the profound.

Michael Krebs and Debra Ann Miller, who dress as the Lincolns, revealed over dinner at Phillips Seafood that they had found happiness in impersonating them in educational shows throughout the country.

“Debra recalled a time when they were performing the play in front of schoolchildren,” Lacey wrote. “During a moment in the play Mary Todd reflects on the death of her son, and apologizes to the audience for getting emotional. Apparently one of the fourth grade boys told her it was all right to be upset.”

For Miller, the moment was an epiphany.

“That’s when I realized we reached somebody,” she told Lacey. “He said it was okay that I was crying. Moments like that are so gratifying. That’s when you know what we did was true.”

Kay Cameron, then a D.C. literacy tutor, didn’t want to reveal anything to Lacey. Initially, she didn’t even want to go. Lacey had sent an e-mail to her employer, the Washington Literacy Center, after seeing an ad for their services in City Paper.

“I’d like to learn more about what inspires people to sign up to help out the Washington Literacy Center,” Lacey said in the e-mail, “ideally by interviewing one of your tutors about why they started, what they get out of it, and more.”

The e-mail was forwarded to Cameron.

“I thought, ‘Oh, God, that just sounds horrible,’ ” Cameron told Lacey. But the idea was so bizarre that she decided she couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

They met at Kramerbooks in Dupont Circle and talked for hours.

She told him about a student she was working with, a Jamaican immigrant who, Lacey wrote, “had been able to get away with holding down a steady manual labor job and hiding his lack of reading ability by observing what other people were doing in the workplace and following their lead.”

For him, the United States represented more than just the proverbial better life. It represented a chance to finally learn to read.

“I remember being really, really shocked by what a struggle it was for him and thinking, ‘I can’t do this,’ ” she told Lacey. “It will take reserves of patience that I don’t think I have.’ ”

She persevered. “It’s been fantastic for me,” she said, “and there’s no dread anymore.”

There are no comments on the piece. Exactly one person on Facebook clicked “like.” But none of that seems to matter to Lacey, who is getting ready to publish interview 78, just thankful to have met so many interesting people.

“I would have missed out on good experiences in life,” he said, having finished his turtle stew. “It would be just a lot of eating pizza at home and watching Netflix.”

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Article source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/dining-with-strangers--a-form-of-social-networking-thats-weird-and-inspiring/2015/08/13/0d9ea1b0-3c84-11e5-8e98-115a3cf7d7ae_story.html

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