12/19/12

This Restaurant Serves Grouse

Readers may remember how often I have expounded on the social benefits of living in this crowded, vibrant, melting (and mingling) pot of a city—where the possibility of conversations with strangers is always right at the tip of your ears, and even if you are too shy to talk to strangers, you can overhear the most interesting things and later serve them up as conversational tidbits to your friends and acquaintances.

But there is, of course, always the other side of the urban “proximity” coin; there are often interactions you really wish you didn’t have to witness, ones you wish you could block out. Loud, boring conversations between salesmen about numbers or statistics. Ugly relationship arguments. Parents being mean to their toddlers. People spouting racist or sexist opinions.

Or, as I experienced recently: rude customers abusing the people who are waiting on them.

In New York restaurants, it’s extremely difficult to ignore your fellow diners. Tables are often so close together you may as well be eating at the same table. It was for this reason that, one night last month, it became extremely hard to ignore the demanding, absolutely pissy diners sitting immediately to my left.
The irony was that, as my friend and I were settling into our seats, we were talking about how wonderful this particular restaurant was, and at almost that exact moment we became aware of a man at the next table berating the waitress.

“Miss, I have to tell you,” said the man, who had a pointy nose and wispy hair that pouffed out on top, “this is not medium-rare, this is medium. Take it away and bring me one that is prepared correctly.” And a little while later: “Waitress, please bring me another set of silverware; these are not clean. Also, I need some more bread, and another drink. And can you tell the bartender to use Tanqueray this time, like I asked? Whatever this was, it wasn’t Tanqueray. Don’t think I can’t tell the difference!”

The other man at this table was also fairly demanding, though at least he was polite. “Sorry, but can I have some more parmesan?” “Excuse me, I seemed to have dropped my napkin, can I have another?” “May I have some extra dressing?” It was something every few minutes.

The poor waitress was running back and forth to their table as if she were running a relay race and she was the whole team. We tried to ignore the unpleasantness. With all my powers of concentration, I looked over at my dinner companion, trying to block out the petty drama beside us, so we could enjoy our dinner (and each other) instead of focusing on the complainers beside us. But once we had become aware of them, it was hard not to listen. (How about a little negative energy with that roast duck?) Our attempts at tuning them out were to no avail.

Gradually, in order to try to compensate for the rude neighbors, we began to over-compliment our waitress. “Thank you so much,” I found myself gushing to her. “This risotto is the best I’ve ever had.”

“I’m going to come back to this wonderful place all the time,” my friend chirped in.

Of course, we were aware that the rude people next to us could overhear us as easily as we could overhear them. And I believe it made them meaner!

Hence the battle between praise and complaints began, much akin to the proverbial battle of good and evil. We could tell the waitress was grateful to us; we were the heavenly balm to the hellish job she had to endure three feet away from us.

In truth, at a certain point during the meal I really wanted my water glass refilled, but I felt so bad for the waitress that I could not bear to ask for this. Nevertheless we—quietly, subtly—began to get better service than the complainers, only because we were so comparatively nice. And so, this friendly, unspoken relationship with the waitress eventually began to substitute for the communion my friend and I weren’t having with each other. It became a different kind of social night, one where we had adopted a put-upon waitress. We felt that part of the reason we had come to this restaurant was to help her get through the night.

I’ve heard stories about what chefs do in the kitchen to the food of “problem” customers. One thing is for sure: I would not have wanted to eat from the plates of the two persnickety gentlemen sitting beside us.

9/20/12

Book Giveaway!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Etiquette for the End of the World by Jeanne  Martinet

Etiquette for the End of the World

by Jeanne Martinet

Giveaway ends October 05, 2012.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win

9/19/12

Pet Peeves

I was on my way out of St. John the Divine, on 112th Street, after a Saturday night concert when I heard a woman behind me say in a loud, distinctly annoyed tone of voice, “But I don’t understand; why don’t they allow dogs in here?”

At first I was taken aback. For heaven’s sake, how ridiculous, I thought. Dogs in a cathedral? With the barking, the peeing, the panting—maybe even the biting? What kind of an animal fanatic was this woman, anyway? The concert we were coming from had featured solo harp music, during which even bodies shifting in their seats made too much noise; I could only imagine what a dog whimpering away would have been like.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a cat owner. Cat owners and dog owners are a bit like the Jets and the Sharks: In general, dog owners think cats are cold, finicky, standoffish animals; conversely, cat owners are enormously bewildered that anyone would intentionally structure his life so he would be regularly picking up his pet’s poop in the rain at 6 a.m.

However, on my way home, I started thinking about Paris and the way people there are allowed to take their beloved pooches to restaurants and cafes. Who can argue with the super-civilized behavior of the French? After all, dogs are loyal companions, and it would make a big difference to a lot of people if their owners could take them with them more often. Under New York City’s health code, pets are not allowed inside restaurants unless they are service animals, even though some restaurants allow it anyway. But why not? Is the toting of small dogs in carriers really that much different than bringing babies in strollers? Is my health really endangered by the close proximity of a lap dog?

By the time I got to my apartment, I was feeling some solidarity with the complaining stranger. After all, this kind of “uppity” behavior is one of the things I love about New York City. Where else could anyone be totally incensed that her Cairn terrier was not allowed to enjoy Bach’s Fugue in D Minor at a famous Episcopal cathedral? The brashness, the feeling of freedom and entitlement and desire for progress that Americans are traditionally known for is intensified in New York.

In D.C., Boston, London—indeed, in most other Western cities—people will line up in an orderly fashion at the train station. In New York, they tend to rush the gate. It’s not a myth; we really are pushier here. I may have been brought up by mild-mannered parents, but after 20-plus years of living in New York I find myself challenging the rules, testing the boundaries, pushing the envelope much more than if I had lived somewhere else—though I always try to smile when I find myself saying something like, “That doesn’t work for me; is there any way you can make an exception?”

New Yorkers are the best in the world at moving the line just a little farther than where it started. If a rule does not make sense, we challenge it. This keeps things stirred up, but also engenders progress. We are always demanding our rights (or what we see as our rights), always wanting more, never satisfied with the status quo—Why can’t I use my mobile device everywhere I want? Why can’t I eat my dinner on the subway? Why can’t I bring my kid to this adults-only thing? Why can’t I take flash photos of this museum exhibit? Why can’t I buy exotic fruits from Japan all year round? Why can’t I go topless in public? Why can’t I bring my dog to the harp concert?

Dogs might not be able to get into St. John the Divine, but what they can do in New York is get married. What was reportedly the most expensive dog wedding in history was held just a few weeks ago at the Jumeirah Essex House Hotel on Central Park South. It cost $158,187.26—though, alas, it was not a church wedding.

Keep on pushing, New Yorkers. If you don’t, who will?

9/16/12

Beach Blanket Bingo

Recently my friend Elizabeth told me about a guy she had started seeing. “How did you meet him?” I wanted to know. “From work? Match.com?” When she told me she had met this man while she was on the beach at Far Rockaway I confess I nearly dropped my drink. “I noticed he was burning and so I offered to share my sunscreen,” she said.

“Who are you, Gidget?” I asked in amazement. “Who finds romance at the beach in real life?”

But then I thought about it. The truth is, if you can get past the whole “I look horrible in a bathing suit” feeling—and can bring yourself to unplug from your iPhone for long enough—the beach is a perfect place to mingle. People at the beach are already relaxed and in pleasure-seeking mode. (Not to mention everyone is semi-clothed.)

And so, inspired by my friend Elizabeth (and with a nod to Gidget) here are some of Miss Mingle’s “hottest” tips, for those who want to lend Cupid a helping hand next summer:

Location, location: Choose a beach where there are likely to be other single people. Also, place your towels and chairs in a crowded section of the beach—near the surf line—rather than in a more secluded spot. This is like positioning yourself near the food table at a party, where the action is, rather than against an out-of-the-way wall.

Hunt the Stray: People who are by themselves are easier to approach than a group (especially straight men; something dreadful happens to straight men when they are male-bonding). And if you should notice that great guy before you have committed to a spot, try to arrange your towel or chair so that he is between you and the ocean. That way you can not only check him out thoroughly, but also you can pass him on your way to and from frequent dips. After a while you will seem like old friends; your neighborly smile can extend to comments like “The water is so cold!” and “It’s heaven in there.”

Eavesdropping: This the most common beach pick-up technique, also known as the “Fade-in”: Listen carefully to what’s being said by two or more strangers, and—at an appropriate moment—make a pertinent remark, as if you had been there all along. Often it is the lone man who will insinuate himself into women’s conversation; so girls, if you think he’s listening, be sure to allow him an opening.

The Art of Observation: This is the perfect tactic if you are alone and so is she. Making a non-personal comment is safe and unobtrusive. Dogs, kids, things in the sky and things in the water make perfect subjects for casual conversation. “Excuse me, but does that look like a shark out there?” is always certain to get her attention.

Surf or Turf?: When asked whether they are more likely to strike up a conversation with a stranger in the water or out, most women will choose dry land and men water. Women say they feel they looked better on their towels or in their chairs, with their hair and suits dry. (I find this surprising, since I myself feel much more confident with the lower half of my body submerged. But hey, that’s just me.) I find water conversation preferable because the common activity of swimming creates a sense of camaraderie. After all, you’re in there together. More important, it is much easier to abort the conversation when you are in the water (you just ride a wave or quietly sink).

If you are feeling adventuresome (Remember, Gidget wasn’t above a few tricks, and she always got her man), try:

--The Exhibitionist: Build a large sand castle or a sand sculpture and see who comes to watch. Don’t worry if you attract the children; there are plenty of divorcees out there.

--Old-fashioned Girl: Ask him to help you with your beach umbrella or a bottle that won’t open.

--The Flatterer: Approach her with “Okay, I know I’ve seen you on TV.” Or tap him gently on the shoulder and say, “Excuse me, would you mind keeping half an eye on me while I am in the water? You look like a strong swimmer.”

--Risqué Business: Ask him or her to apply sunscreen to your back.

--The Accidental Tourist: If you should be lucky enough to be knocked by a boogie board into an attractive person’s waiting arms, or tumbled together in a crashing wave, quip: “We’ve simply got to stop meeting like this!” or “I think I just fell for you.” Or even, “In some countries we’d have to get married now.”

Okay I’ll see you out there next year. (I’ll be the one packing the extra Coppertone.)

9/13/12

The Third Rail

Like most single people, I socialize a lot with couples. Most of my friends are in couples. Sometimes we go to the theater or a movie, but often it’s just good conversation over dinner. What I have learned is that the potential problem inherent in single-to-couple socializing is not the uneven number of people, nor is it being the only single person there; it’s being the single person in a threesome. Almost every single person you talk to will tell you that being a fifth wheel (or better yet, a seventh or ninth wheel) is infinitely better than being a third wheel. Three is a tricky number.

The terms “fifth wheel” and “third wheel” come from the fact that four-wheeled carriages used to carry an extra wheel (or that two-wheeled carts might carry a third). Obviously the spare wheel was not necessary to make the conveyance go. Ergo, it connotes something that serves no useful purpose.

However, the truth is that being a third wheel is not as much about being unnecessary or unwanted as it is about causing instability. A shopping cart with only three wheels can be wonky or lopsided, just as threesomes in social life are potentially unwieldy. Three friends together is always more complicated than two or four. With three people, the psychological balance is always shifting—however slightly—between one pair and another.

Unfortunately, the older I get, the more I seem to be going out with only one couple at a time. These can make for lovely, intimate evenings, except when something like this happens:

Let’s say I am in the middle of dinner with Jennifer and Rick. We are talking about modern technology and its effect on the human brain. Everything is going along quite nicely, until Jennifer suddenly says, “Hey, listen. You can help Rick and me solve a dispute we are having.” (Right here is where, if there were alarms hooked up to our social lives, the flashing lights and bells would go off.)

Jennifer continues: “I feel our daughter should not have a cell phone until she is 14, but many of her friends have them now, at age 11, and Rick thinks she needs one, especially being in New York City. What do you think? Will you please tell Rick he’s out of his mind?” Uh-oh. Trouble. Trouble in the shape of a big, fat triangle.

Triangulation is the process whereby a person who has an issue with someone else uses a third person to validate her feelings. This is more commonly known as Getting Sucked Into a Fight. In extreme situations, triangulation can make you feel as if you are trapped in a scene from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

But it doesn’t always manifest as an actual argument; it can be more passive than that, such as when a husband flirts with you in front of his wife or a wife makes cutting remarks about her husband in front of you. Sometimes it’s the third wheel herself who is responsible for pushing the evening onto the third rail. She can inadvertently reveal a secret one person has told her to “put in the vault.” Or she can bring up sore subjects or show markedly more interest in one person’s anecdotes than the other’s.

But one thing is certain: When you are asked point blank to side with one person against the other, no good can come of it. At the first sign of this kind of triangulation, you should proceed with extreme caution. Change the subject or, if you can, leave the table to go to the restroom, feed the meter or make a call.

If you are not able to sidestep the landmine, pretend to mediate. Listen carefully to both sides, then claim you are unable to decide on the matter. Other triangulation diffusers? Try “Don’t ask me—I’m the proverbial disinterested third party” or “I refuse to answer on the grounds that it may incriminate me.” Or even “Look they have marriage counselors for this!”

To the Jennifer/Rick debate above, I might smile and say, “I make enough bad decisions about my own life. Please don’t ask me to make bad decisions for yours.”

7/22/12

Beware the Chair

I had already been out to dinner and a play that evening, so by the time I got to the party, it was past 11 and I was tired. After greeting the host, I wandered out to a small terrace. I spotted an inviting empty chair and, without thinking, I sat down in it. It was one of those super slouchy chairs that seem to envelop you. I’ll just sit for a few minutes, I thought.

Almost instantly, I realized my mistake. The only other chair on the terrace was occupied by a blowsy woman who immediately began talking nonstop about her Lhasa apso puppies. Where she got them, where she walked them, what she fed them, how much she loved them. Even how she dressed them. All attempts at subject changing—or at a back-and-forth conversation—failed. With a sinking heart, I realized I had fallen right into the clutches of a human Venus flytrap. I was stuck. Now that I was already seated and the woman was talking to me so intently, it was going to be nearly impossible to get back up.

There are several good reasons for sitting down at a party where most people are standing up. You may simply be physically too tired to stand; you may be having trouble managing a plate of food while standing; or you and a friend may be eager to have a tête-à-tête without being interrupted. But be aware there is always a danger to sitting. Even if it’s next to someone you feel you’d love to talk to, once you are sitting down, you may lose your mingling momentum. You may find yourself thinking, “This is such a comfortable chair; maybe I’ll just observe from here for the rest of the night. What’s so great about talking to a lot of people I don’t know anyway?” Don’t give in to this feeling! You can sit when you get home.

Mainly, sitting is to be avoided because it’s extremely hard to get free of someone who is really talking at you and not to you. At most cocktail parties, it’s fairly easy to move away from someone you don’t want to talk to—and toward someone you do—without being rude. You simply say you need to get a drink or use the restroom or you just fade away into the general melee. But when you are sitting down, escape becomes much more problematic; you are committed. You have, in fact, made a statement of non-movement by the very act of sitting.

There are a couple techniques that I have found work pretty well in this situation. The first is Follow the Leader. Ask Ms. Flytrap if she would like to come inside with you to get a drink or something to eat. If she says no thank you, you’re scot-free; if she says yes, then once you have her on her feet and amidst a crowd of people, you can use any number of other cocktail party escape tactics to gently extricate yourself.

One of my most popular and controversial mingling maneuvers is something I call the Human Sacrifice, wherein you basically palm the person off on someone else. (This sounds cruel, but is an extremely common ploy.) This is easier if you are on your feet but it can also be done from a sitting down position, in the following way: Locate someone nearby and get his attention. (Wave him over if you must.) Lure him into the conversation by tossing a comments up at him—for example, you can ask him if he has any preconceptions about Lhasa apsos, as if you are playfully taking a poll.

The minute the new person even smiles at you or at the flytrap, get up, indicating your place, and say, “Would you care for a seat?” Or even, more aggressively, “Would you save my seat for a second?” This latter gambit is a bit wicked, because it’s almost impossible for the new person to refuse. But after all, all’s fair in love and mingling. (Of course, you won’t come back. You will be unavoidably waylaid.)

So what did I do to escape from being totally Lhasa apsoed? I employed the blunt but effective “note from my doctor” excuse. I interrupted the woman right in the middle of her recitation of possible names for her puppies with: “I’m so sorry, but this chair is terrible for my back, I realize. I’m going find some other place to sit inside. But it’s been so lovely meeting you.”

7/16/12

Ain't Nobody Hair But Me

He came out of nowhere.

There I was getting my hair cut, absorbed in the blissful experience of being pampered and beautified, when suddenly I noticed a tall, chiseled man in the mirror right over my head. Hello? But he wasn’t looking at me, he was scrutinizing himself, and he was talking to my stylist.

“So, Brigitta…” The stranger smoothed his almost nonexistent hair (which looked like a crew cut that could hardly be cut further) back above his right ear. With his head cocked, he continued to study himself in the mirror. “Do you think I’ll be ready to come back next week?” he said. “I do want the top to be—I want to have enough for you to work with.” Who the hell is this guy? Do salons need bouncers now?

“Ah, sure,” Brigitta replied in her elegant Latvian accent, “You will probably be ready, I think.” She paused in mid-air over my head while she gave him an obligatory scan. One of her hands held the scissors and the other the comb.

I gaped at the man. “Hey! I’m sitting right here!” I wanted to yell. He was still gazing at himself in my mirror, his face about two feet above mine, and he was turning his head this way and that, touching his hair. Brigitta started snipping away at me again, trying to ignore him. He was obviously a regular customer, so she could not very easily tell him to leave.

“But you see this here…” he said, and he brushed his hand over the top of his bristly head and smiled devilishly at himself. I looked pointedly up at him, my eyebrows raised as far as they would go, in what I hoped was questioning disdain. At last his eyes met mine, and I detected a faint hint of embarrassment. “I’ll come back,” he said quickly.

After he left, Brigitte apologized and said the front desk should have waylaid the man. But I couldn’t help wondering: What was it that made me invisible? Until I finally got his attention, I was just an object, like the chair. I do not believe he was acting primarily out of a sense of entitlement, like someone who butts in front of you because they believe their business is more urgent than yours. It was simply that he was oblivious.

Obliviousness is not uncommon in urban life. We’ve all had the experience of waiting for a cab when someone steps right in front of us and grabs it. But the truth is, most of these taxi thieves are not thinking, “If I move quickly, I can get that cab first.” They really do not notice the other people waiting. As New Yorkers we constantly need to cut out noise and stimuli or go crazy, so we develop tunnel vision, and everything nonessential tends to recede into the background—including, sometimes, other people.

Sometimes we can’t see others even when we really want to. Recently I heard about a friend and his wife who were both trying to meet up on 42nd Street. They were walking in opposite directions toward each other, on the same side of the street, yet they walked right past each other without realizing it. The crowded city itself affects awareness.

But certainly there are situations in which we are more prone to becoming invisible. When we hand our bodies over to be worked on—primped, trimmed, massaged, whatever—there is a sort of disappearing that happens, since we become almost entirely passive. We become a thing upon which something is being done. Isn’t this why manicurists talk to each other while they are doing your nails? And (ever more increasingly, it seems) why checkout clerks talk to each other while they are checking you out? You, the customer, are not real. You are a shadow, a blur going by.

Of course, I could (as is my wont) blame the salon incident on the insensitivity of our technology-saturated society—on the theory that everyone is so insular that others seem just a part of each person’s own reflection in the mirror. But I suspect it might be simpler: The guy was a classic narcissist.

Certainly, while my Narcissus was obsessing over his hair, his reflection and mine merged in at least one way. Whether it was because Brigitta was distracted by his interruption or she was influenced by looking at his cropped head, she ended up clipping away much longer on me than necessary.

So now, thanks to this short-haired interloper, I have much shorter hair than I wanted. And, funnily enough, invisibility no longer seems such a bad idea.
Teaser # 1 for my soon-to-be-published novel! Stay tuned....


6/5/12

Is Too Much Truth Uncouth?

The headlines have been full of the story of Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels hitting Washington Nationals rookie Bryce Harper in the back with the baseball a few Sundays ago, and afterward admitting publicly that he had done it on purpose. Most commentators seem to agree that the real transgression was not the “drilling” but the ill-advised confession. In other words, Hamels was not suspended for the act itself; what he was guilty of was too much honesty. Everyone accepts the reality that pitchers will sometimes aim for the batter, but no one is supposed to talk about it.

I’m not at all sure how I feel about the seemingly unsportsmanlike practice of pitchers intentionally throwing the ball at a batter’s body, but the recent incident gives me a good excuse for my semiannual rant about the importance of little white lying. I’ve said it before and I will say it again: The truth (and nothing but the truth) is often just as unnecessary as it is unwise—especially as far as our social lives go. All human adults need to lie sometimes, just to make life workable. I, for one, do not want to live in a world that does not allow for the comfort and beauty of the occasional friendly fib.

Let’s consider a day of complete honesty:

You wake up to find that your 6-year-old daughter has lovingly made you a breakfast of Pop Tarts and Frosted Flakes that looks like a bad science experiment—and tastes like one, too. She asks you if it is “yummy delicious.” You smile back and say, “Honey, it’s icky horrible.” In the elevator on your way out of your building, your neighbor inquires about your sneezing, wanting to know if you have allergies; you explain you are sneezing because her perfume is so strong.

When you get to the office, your boss stops by your desk to ask what you think of the new office procedure report he wrote up and sent you yesterday. You confess you think it is not really much of an improvement on the last one—and that even though you did not bother to give it a particularly close read, you can see it’s filled with flaws. Your boss raises an eyebrow and remarks that maybe you’d better work on some of your own flaws, and by the way the budget is tight and you won’t be getting that raise after all. Next, a client phones and asks you to lunch. You tell him you are, in fact free, but that you are not really in the mood to see him, having just had rather a bad run-in with your boss, and you would really rather eat alone. An hour later you get an email from the client; he is canceling his account.

When you get home, your wife has had her hair done at a new salon. You can’t remember ever seeing human hair that color before. She asks you if it looks good. You tell her that it looks weird, like Day-Glo paint. She starts crying and goes off to repair her makeup and look in the mirror again, leaving you to finish the preparations for the dinner party you are having.

One of your friends brings his new girlfriend to the dinner. She talks incessantly about her cats throughout the meal and knocks over a large glass of red wine, ruining the new tablecloth and another guest’s dress. Upon her departure, the new girlfriend thanks you and says she had a lovely time, to which you respond, “I’m not at all happy you could come.” She and her date (your now ex-friend) storm out.

Finally the horrible day is over, and you get ready for bed. As you are pulling down the covers, your wife says to you, “Well, everything went pretty well tonight, don’t you think?”

Some people may prefer the unvarnished truth but, if you please, I’ll take mine with a nice thick shellac of kindness, along with dashes of prevarication and evasion, as needed. And yes, I do think I may have lost some weight—thank you so much for asking!

5/20/12

Don't Show Me Yours, I Won't Show You Mine

“Hey, you have a really great apartment!” would ordinarily be a very nice thing to hear. But when this particular sentence is uttered by a shirtless stranger leaning out of a window directly across the airshaft from your apartment, that is a whole other thing.

This is what happened to me one day when I was washing my kitchen window; I had the window pane swiveled all the way inward and the screen all the way up, and consequently I was very visible. “You sure work late,” the man added, calling out across the 20 feet that separated our buildings and smiling in a discomfiting manner. “You must be the hardest-working woman in the city.”  It took me a second to realize the implication—that he had been watching me.  A lot. (I do tend to write rather late, but ew.) However, besides the obvious Peeping Tom “ick” factor, there was another basic transgression involved here. This man had broken the unwritten law most New Yorkers live by; he had destroyed the illusion of privacy that is necessary for our peace of mind.

Since we are almost always surrounded by people, we erect make-believe walls and pretend we are not seeing and hearing all that we do. This is a social contract we have all more or less agreed to. For instance, it is certainly easy to see what the person sitting next to you on the subway is reading, but for the most part you do not comment on it, lest you break into the little “transit cocoon” he has created. People all around us are having personal conversations we pretend not to hear (and which they pretend not to know we can hear)—in lines, on buses, in restaurants, in stores. We have to play the game or the walls will come tumbling down. If every person chimed in to our conversations every time we were on the phone walking down the street, we would lose our minds.

Of course,  often we feel drawn into strangers’ conversations when we see commonality—such as when we see someone carrying a program to a play we have just come from. I approve of engaging with strangers; but when it’s fairly obvious the person is trying to be private (for instance, if she is in her own home, thank you very much!) that is something that needs to be respected.  When we are in public, it’s often more acceptable. There is a certain amount of “mingling” we expect when we are in a situation together with strangers. It’s when you are not anonymous—and when you are trapped, as you are in the workplace—that this crossing of boundaries can be especially problematic.

People really need their boundaries at the office. I have a friend who works in a newly redesigned office space, where the emphasis of the layout is on openness.  There are cubicles with low partitions in the center and glass offices along the walls.  Not only can people sometimes see and hear what is going on inside the glass offices, but also voices throughout the floor seem to carry. So much so that one woman who works in a cubicle—who talks somewhat loudly on the phone—complained of co-workers stationed way over on the other side of the room repeatedly coming up to comment on, or offer help regarding, phone calls she had made. These co-workers did not say, “Sorry, but I could not help overhearing you needed this report”; they just said, “Here’s the info you need.” Now the woman feels that everyone is listening to every word she says, and it is affecting her work.

Cubicles have been the corporate norm for years. But many companies are now configuring their workspaces to be even more “open”—to offer better “flow” and more light. This seems to be the trend. In fact, most new designs—whether they are office innovations or website revamps—seem to reflect the increased connectivity of our modern world, and the decrease in privacy. This means we need our “fake” boundaries more than ever.

I almost always put my blinds down when it gets dark, but I certainly don’t want to be aware of hiding from a specific neighbor. I don’t want to know who is living across the airshaft.  I don’t want to know about his life, I don’t want him to know about mine.

Togetherness is wonderful.  But a feeling of privacy is essential.  So you close your eyes and ears, and I’ll close mine.

4/30/12

I'm Terribly Sorry I'm so Bad at Being Sorry

I was having a drink at one of my favorite Midtown eateries, one of those upscale places where the bar is secondary to the restaurant and is therefore extremely low-key. My friend and I were happily tête-à-tête when I suddenly felt someone pushing me, and I almost fell off my stool.

I turned around and saw that two tall women had squeezed their way into a space next to me, endeavoring to share the one available seat. They were hanging over the bar like it was a piece of wreckage from the Titanic, and one of the women was more or less plastered against me. Annoyed, I pressed back into her a little bit and gave her what I hoped was a polite but indignant questioning look. She appeared slightly taken aback and then a bit sheepish, but only for a brief moment. “Oh, sorry,” she said. Then she smiled and turned back to her companion, not moving her position an inch. She remained smashed up against the back of my chair as though we were in the subway at rush hour and there was nothing else she could do.

Now, I am not unreasonably jealous of my personal space. I’m not new to New York. It’s a crowded place. I wasn’t angry about being caused a little discomfort. The thing that really piqued me was that the woman’s “Oh, sorry” was completely fake. Where was my actual apology?  Has real apology gone down the drain, along with thank-you notes and butter knives?

A real apology is so much more than the words “I’m sorry.” A real apology is an admission that you have done something wrong, an explanation of why you did it and a sincere plea for forgiveness and/or offer of reparation. In other words, if you step on someone’s foot, it’s not “Oops,” it’s “Oh no, I stepped on your foot! I was dodging that waiter carrying the tray. I’m so sorry! Are you okay?”

There must be acceptance of responsibility for it to qualify as a bona fide apology. Unfortunately, admissions of guilt are out of fashion these days. Most of us are afraid that if we admit we are wrong, we will lose ground. We are taught it is a weakness to say we are sorry. Certainly world leaders can never do it. They are always saying things like, “We are so sorry you feel bad about this.” That is not an apology. “I’m sorry, I really shouldn’t have said that” is. Many people believe that if they avoid apologizing, no one will notice they have done anything wrong. This impulse to try to get off scot-free is exacerbated in a big city, where you know you are never going to see the people you’ve wronged again. You are anonymous, unaccountable, untraceable. But acknowledging culpability is still the right thing to do.

The second essential element of apology is to offer an explanation for what you have done. (There’s an old saying: “Never apologize, never explain.” Actually, you should do both.) People in New York tend to be in a rush, and explanation takes time they don’t have. But what most people seem to forget is that explanation is often the key to being forgiven. “Oh my god, I didn’t see you there!” is so much better than a cool “Sorry I bumped you.”

Finally, an apology has to include a sincere request for forgiveness—whether you failed to hold a door open for a stranger or you missed your friend’s birthday party. So many people toss off a casual “sorry” in a way that translates to “I don’t really care.” It’s almost as if we only have the trappings of regret left—like having a picture of a flower instead of the flower and we no longer even know the difference.  But we can’t keep skating over top of our “sorry”s if we want to remain civilized. Apologies have to be felt, gone through, experienced—not to mention that there needs to be an attempt to correct the bad behavior.

After about 15 minutes, the woman at the bar, still pressing against me and threatening to push me off my stool, laid a hand on my arm as though we were best friends. “Sarah and I are drinking cosmos!” she said, holding up her glass with a gay smile. (Apparently she thought that if she could make friends with me, there would be nothing wrong with our close physical contact.)

“How nice,” I replied, “I thought I was drinking a martini, but maybe I ordered a sidecar by mistake.”

She did not get the joke. And I did not get my real apology.

4/5/12

Front Row Phobia

I arrived at the Jefferson Market Library event late and out of breath.  As quietly as I could, I slipped out of my coat and turned off my phone, scanning the packed reading room from where I stood in the doorway.  There were no seats left that I could see; in fact there were several people standing at the back.  Just then a library employee whispered commandingly in my ear: “Take a seat up front.”  I looked and there they were: the ubiquitous, empty front row seats.

The author had already started reading and I was loath to disturb the proceedings by walking in front of everyone. “Why didn’t the early-comers fill up the first row?” I thought, annoyed. “Why are these seats always the last ones to go? 

Obviously, there are many events for which first row seats are scarfed up instantly—such as a fashion show, or a celebrity concert.  But at smaller venues—church events, school events, readings, lectures and other casual presentations—no one ever seems to want to sit in the front.  And just as there are reasons for certain traffic patterns on highways, there are deep-seated (pun intended) psychological causes for this behavior.

For one thing there is a general sense that the front row seats are reserved for special guests—the mother of the bride, the publisher of the book, close family members or other honored guests.  People often feel presumptuous or “grabby” about taking the “best seats” in the house.

The front row is also conspicuous.  To get there, unless you are early, you have to pass in front of everyone else in the audience.  Then there is the worry that once you get all the way up there—with all eyes on you—you will discover that the seat’s already taken; you had not been able to see the head of the small child sitting there, or the coat that someone has put down, indicating it is “saved.”  Now you have to turn around, rejected, and make your way to the back again.

If you are seated in the front row, you're more exposed to everyone else in the room.  The rest of the audience can see you, but you can not see them.  You have nothing to look at but the stage or the podium, while people further back can amuse themselves before the show by surveying the other audience members.

Worse than that, you are also potentially vulnerable, or noticeable, to the person who is speaking or performing.  One of the biggest audience phobias of all is the fear of being engaged by the presenter.  (This might stem from memories of being in the classroom as a child, and being afraid to be called upon.)  While usually this is a groundless fear, if you are attending a performance of a stand-up comic, sitting in the front row is akin to being on the front lines in a war--you are open to attack, with no protective barrier between you and whatever jibes may be lobbed your way.

But perhaps the most common reason for front row phobia is the fear of getting stuck.  New Yorkers attend more performances and presentations per capita than anywhere else in the country; as a result we are jaded enough to know that many of them are going to be things we are going to want to get out of before they are over.  It’s not easy to escape from the front row (though it is actually not that different from being in the second or third row), both because of it’s geographical location in the room as well as its higher level of visibility (you can’t exactly sneak out without being seen). 

Even if we love the event, as public transit users we are used to situating ourselves near the exit in the subway or bus, or anywhere we are in a crowd.  We don’t want to be trapped one minute longer than necessary; we are always impatient to be able to get on to our next thing.  This strategic positioning practice is not restricted to people who don’t like to sit in the front row.  There are also people who insist on sitting on the aisles, making it necessary for latecomers to climb over them to get to the vacant middle seats.  I call these people “Edge-Hogs” and find their behavior even more annoying than the front row avoiders.  There should always be some seats left empty at the back and on the aisles, for people who come in late.

“Of course,” I thought, as I blushingly made my way up the center aisle to the front row, “none of this behavior is nearly as bad as people who come in late!”

3/28/12

The Last-Minute Invite

It can be a wonderful thing, that phone call that comes like a wish fulfilled, when you don’t have plans, you don’t feel like working and you are deep in the doldrums.  Suddenly there is a friend’s voice saying, “I have tickets to a show tonight, are you by any chance free?”  And voila! Your evening is transformed into something enjoyable and unforeseen.

Last minute invites--especially when they involve theatrical performances--are often things to be greatly appreciated.  However, if you have a friend who only calls you at the last minute, you may not appreciate it so much.  (“In about 45 minutes I’m going to see this movie I’ve been wanting to see, want to go with me?” Or “I’m sitting at this bar not far from you, why don’t you come out and join me?”)  The people who are guilty of this kind of invite may call themselves free spirits, but is it really devil-may-care behavior or just devil-ish?  Sometimes, the last minute invite is really what it sounds like, someone to whom you are a last minute consideration.

Now, I want to be clear; I know many people who live and die by the relaxed, never-know-what-I-am-going-to-be-doing-tomorrow social credo. There are also those rather enviable people I meet who are members of a small but solid “crew” of friends, so that they don’t have to bother to make plans; their social life, while it may be a bit predictable, just happens automatically--albeit with the same six or eight people.

However, I think most New Yorkers over a certain age (30) and under a certain age (75) are busy enough that keeping a calendar is essential; indeed most people I know are booked up at least several weeks in advance.  They are juggling social lives with work commitments and family commitments, so if you really want to see them, you usually have to make plans with them way beforehand.

But there can be good reasons for a last minute invitation. It can mean you simply did not anticipate you were going to have this particular hour or two of leisure time.  It can mean you just got tickets to something unexpectedly.  It can mean that someone else cancelled you at the last minute.

Obviously there is a difference between a last minute invite to a movie and one to the opera.  If a friend is going to take me to the Met because someone just dropped tenth row center orchestra tickets into his lap, he can call me as late as he wants and I’m delighted.  But it doesn’t really matter what the last minute invite is for, as long as it is not this friend’s standard MO and as long as it is proffered the right way.

Always preface the last minute invite with “I’m sorry, I know it’s last minute.”  If you have an extra ticket to something, it is always gratis for the other person.  If the person is not available, you must say something like: “Oh, I figured you might not be free at the last minute.  Let’s make another plan right now for when you are available.”  This says to the person, I’m not just trying to fill my evening, I do really care about seeing you.”

Once in a while you’ll come across a person who feels somehow “entitled” and expects everyone to be at their beck and call.  This person will call at the last minute to get together and, if you are NOT free, is often extremely annoyed.  This attitude obviously adds injury to insult.  There are also rare instances when someone may invite you at the last minute because they feel obligated for some reason; they want to get credit for inviting you, but they really don’t want you to come and they are actually hoping you won’t be free.  (Beware of the party invitation that arrives in the morning on the day of the party.)

Of course, habitual last minute social planning can be a corollary of intimacy.  With your best friends, there is never any problem with a spur of the moment plan, because if you are NOT free at the last minute, it’s no big deal, you will see the person again soon enough.

I know I tend to be a “martinet” about matters of social protocol; I do insist that we need to behave with as much courtesy to each other as we can.   But when all is said and done, I would not want a life without the possibility of a last minute invite.  It’s nice to know that your day can change in the blink of an iPhone.

3/14/12

Sappy Birthday: The Reliable, Artificial Heart of Facebook

I am certainly not the first person to write about the relatively new social phenomenon of the Facebook birthday. On the other hand I may be the last person to actually share my date of birth on Facebook (at least it feels that way to me).

For years I have eschewed what I felt was the insipid practice of posting birthday wishes on people’s Facebook walls. “It’s fake, it’s forced, it’s formulaic,” I would complain. After all, does it not nullify the entire idea of wishing someone “Happy Birthday” if a machine is reminding you to say it, and that machine is only reminding you because the person having the birthday has, in essence, programmed it to remind you? If you are out with someone who demands, “Ask me how I am!” and you respond by saying, “So how are you?” is that really satisfying to the other person?

But this year I was too busy to nudge my friends about my approaching birthday (which, as a person who loves birthday attention, I have become accustomed to doing), so I caved. And anyway, I am at my core an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” type of gal. So I succumbed to the all-powerful God of Facebook.

There seem to be three types of Facebook birthday well-wishers: The Good, the Bad and the Boring. The Good ones give you a little something personal but not too intimate (“Happy Birthday, good luck with your writing!” or “Have fun in Hawaii!”). The Boring ones just write “Happy Birthday!!”--with the prerequisite double exclamation points. Boring in this situation is perfectly fine, in my opinion; if you think of Facebook as a big party, these are the people who are raising their glasses to you when the host (in this case the host is Facebook Notification) offers up a birthday toast.

And the Bad? The Bad are the ones acting like 7th graders, and typify everything I dislike about Facebook and the social networking universe in general. (I myself was fortunate enough not to get any of the Bad, but I have seen them around). The Bad tend to post things like: “Happy Birthday!! Hope you don’t get drunk like last year, when I had to drive you home, and then you sang really loud even though you were already in bed, remember?” Or “Happy Birthday, maybe this year I will actually get to see your face, stranger! R U mad at me? Why don’t you call a person up some time?”

In a perfect world, we might use Facebook as a tool for remembering people’s birthdays, but then do something more personal to commemorate them—a phone call, or a card. But in the real world we seem to lack the time and wherewithal to do that for more than a very few close friends. Of course, that is what made birthday greetings so special in the old days. Now, who wishes you a happy birthday has more to do with how much your friends are keeping up with Facebook than it does with how much they are keeping up with you.

However, as much fun as it is to diss Facebook—and I admit it’s one of my favorite pastimes—I have to say that Facebook’s birthday reminder mechanism is on the whole a great boon. A Facebook acknowledgement is better than missing the birthday entirely. When I was a child, I was sure that by the time we got to 21012, computers would be able to interact with us the way a servant would, like the overly-maternal robot in The Jetsons. I imagined them as perfectly efficient, perfectly discreet personal assistants who would automatically remind us what we have to do, where we have to be. I have always kept a birthday reminder book next to my desk--a calendar of family and friends birthdays--but of course the system doesn’t work unless I remember to write people’s birthdays down and remember to look in the book on a regular basis. How different, really, is the Facebook notification system from my old-fashioned birthday book, except that it does all the work for me—better than I can? Is it so bad, having an electronic birthday secretary? Isn’t that what computers are for?

So now I have completely embraced the Facebook birthday ritual. Does this mean I have become a social zombie? Perhaps. But as we all know from watching zombie movies, once you are a zombie, you are unlikely to care whether you are one or not. You just join the horde of flesh-eaters and have a good time.

3/8/12

Doubles' Advantage: A Singular Lament

Okay, I confess: I envy married people.

But not for the reasons you may think. I envy married people because they have a built-in excuse to get out of absolutely anything.

The other day, I was caught unawares by someone asking me to do something I did not particularly want to do. I hemmed and I hawed, I prevaricated and stalled, but in the end I ended up just doing it because I could not figure out how to get out of it. That very same week, I called up a married neighbor who had borrowed my best ice bucket weeks before but had never returned it.

“F-ing Jim,” she swore. “I told him you needed that back! Without asking me, he took it to the office for a party they were having. I’ll bug him about it again this weekend.” That’s when it hit me what was missing from my life: a built-in, ready-made scapegoat.

Over the years, I’ve come to believe that one of the main duties of a spouse is to be a scapegoat. (I believe promising to serve in this capacity is in the marriage contract). For example: “Sorry I’m late—my wife had a horrible sinus infection and I had to take her to the doctor.” Or “Oh dear! I would have so loved to come but Joe forced me to stay home to help him with this work thing.”  Or “Darn, it turns out Sue made another date for us Saturday and neglected to tell me, as usual.” Or “My better half says I have to be home by 6 p.m.—or else.” Or “I can’t be on your fundraising committee because my spouse has me signed up for so many other things.” And the most common one of all: “He/she never gave me your message.”  When your spouse is the scapegoat, the only blame that can be leveled at you is that you married the wrong person.

Couples have a decided advantage when it comes to the social arena. Let’s face it: When you are single and you feel like staying home alone rather than accept an invitation to a social event, you really can’t use that as your excuse. After all, “I have to wash my hair tonight,” does not really fly, while “I have to wash my wife’s hair”—well, that’s a whole different story.

Often, we’re not even sure we want to get out of whatever it is. We merely want to hedge our bets, to delay committing to whatever it is. Couples can easily make use of the handiest of all staving-off techniques, commonly known as the Spousal Consult, or the I-Have-To-Check-With-My-Wife ploy. Perfect for pop invitations, this dodge was ingrained in most of us as children (“I have to ask my mother.”) The beauty of the Spousal Consult is that it allows for the possibility that you may eventually accept the invitation—or that you will “forget” to check with your spouse at all, thereby letting the whole thing dissipate.

Last but not least, there’s the good old good cop/bad cop. A great ruse for married couples, but also quite doable with roommates or siblings, this dodge was custom-built for two. Let’s say you have guests who won’t leave your house. Dinner and coffee are long over. When you can’t stand it anymore and you are beginning to fear these people will never leave, the person cast as the bad cop yawns, stands up and excuses himself with, “I’m afraid I’ve got to hit the hay—I’m dead on my feet. Good night, Mr. and Ms. Guest. Don’t forget to let in the cat, sweetheart.”  After the bad cop has disappeared, the good cop apologizes for her partner while emphasizing how much it really is past his customary bedtime. Even a braindead guest gets the message at this point and packs it in. Good cop/bad cop also works like a charm for quick exits: “I would love to stay at your wonderful party, but Charlie is falling asleep on his feet.” Or “I have to hang up now—my wife is standing over me with a rolling pin in her hand and the children are screaming.”

I don’t even want to get into how handy kids can be as excuses. Suffice it to say, once you are a parent, you have a get-out-of-it-free card for, like, the rest of your life.


*Originally published in the West Side Spirit, February 22, 2012

2/12/12

The After-Party Party

As most savvy New York hosts know, when you throw a large cocktail party, you can expect approximately 60 percent of the invitees to attend. Of the 40 percent who don’t come, most have a scheduling conflict or illness and are truly sorry to be missing the affair.  So, what if you immediately offered these people an alternative—a kind of make-up party?

That’s exactly what my friends Ned and Donna did. They held a big cocktail party one Saturday night and invited the people who sent “regrets” to a smaller party the very next Saturday.

Ned and Donna are people who do not entertain very much, so at first it sounded crazy to me that they would decide to have two parties in a row. But this nonhosting tendency on the part of this couple is in fact why the double party idea was perfect for them. Once they had managed to find the impetus to entertain, whipped their house into guest-ready shape (cleaning it from top to bottom, even rearranging the furniture) and stocked the larder with staples like soda, snacks and booze, the second, smaller party was a veritable snap for them. They even had leftover wine and supplies that the guests from the first party had brought them.

Having two parties in a row may sound exhausting, but it can be much more efficient than spreading them out. You can pay back everyone you owe an invitation in a spectacular one-two punch. Really, it’s like getting out all the painting equipment to paint a room and then deciding that, while you’re at it, you may as well paint another small room at the same time.

Also, having a second gathering is a great way for the hosts to soak up every bit of fun they can; after working hard to make a party happen, hosts can feel it is over too quickly. Most people I talk to who, for one reason or another, had dreaded hosting a party, are so energized afterward they wonder why they don’t host more often. Might as well have another party while you are in the mood!

You can also employ a similar version of this kind of party clustering when you find you have more than one dinner party you need to give. Instead of hosting one dinner one month and another one the next month, why not have a dinner party weekend?  Make one big pot of something hearty and fabulous—say, oxtail stew, boston butt or chili–then hold two dinner parties one after the other.

Contrary to what one might think, the second set of guests are not getting shortchanged, because by the second dinner you are probably more relaxed (having cleaned and shopped like a madwoman before the first one), and usually the Italian pot roast you spent hours making is even better the second day.

Of course, in the case of back-to-back dinner parties, the guests must not know about each other at all. While a make-up cocktail party is like being offered a wonderful consolation prize, being part of a double dinner party weekend can seem more like a prize cut in half.

The one rule to follow when hosting consecutive parties is that you can never let the people at the second party get the idea that your first party was in any way more enjoyable than the one you are having with them right now. You want them to feel fortunate and much sought-after, as if you are going to extra trouble just for them—which, in a sense, you are.

The people who could not attend the primary event should feel flattered that you have gone out of your way to extend your hospitality to them. It’s as if you are saying, “I want to have you over so much I will even have a do-over just to get you here!” even though it is really a case of a relatively easy two-for-the-fuss-of-one for you.

Speaking of two-for-one, I somehow got to go to both of the lovely parties given by Ned and Donna. Not fair that they invited me to both? Hey, there’s got to be some perk to this whole Miss Mingle thing!


Originally published by the West Side Spirit, January 26, 2012

2/4/12

What's Your Sign?

I don’t usually travel on the subway with a white plastic Venetian face mask, but that’s what I was doing last Monday night.

I wasn’t wearing the mask, I was merely holding it in my lap. And yet, almost immediately after the train left the station at 23rd Street, a cute guy with super-chic eyeglasses got up from where he was sitting across from me and approached. “Excuse me, I’m sorry to bother you,” he smiled, “but didn’t you just LOVE it?” He wiggled his eyebrows in a conspiratorial fashion, nodding at the mask.

The “it” he was referring to was Sleep No More, the experimental piece from London theater group Punchdrunk, which I had just had the good fortune to experience—hence the mask (every audience member must wear one during the show.) Avant-garde and utterly unique, Sleep No More is part theater, part haunted house and part art installation held in a 100,000-square-foot warehouse in Chelsea. It’s hard to get tickets. After you have seen it, you definitely feel as though you have been initiated into a special, elite club.

It was not premeditated on my part, but by carrying the mask, I was advertising the fact that I had just come from this play. The mask would mean nothing to those who were not in the know. But for anyone who had “checked in” to the McKittrick Hotel on 27th Street (the setting for Sleep No More), it was like having a secret banner, a sign that read: “I’ve just been to the coolest thing in New York.” I proceeded to have a truly fun chat with the cute guy about the show.

This kind of recognition and subsequent bonding frequently happens when you are carrying theater programs. After I saw The Normal Heart, I sought out other people who were holding the program after I got on the subway at 42nd Street; I had been so moved by the performance that I was looking for people to talk to who were in the same emotional place I was. (They were not hard to find; besides the programs, they had the same stricken looks on their faces as me.)

Whether it’s a public television tote bag, an admission sticker from the race track or an ink mark on your hand from the hottest New York nightclub, this kind of visible “prop” can identify you and attract like-minded people. It’s a sign that tells someone he probably has more in common with you than he might normally have with a stranger. That the two of you have shared an experience, whether it be an art exhibit, a concert or a political demonstration. He has found someone who is in his “club.”

Even a Mets cap, to another Mets fan, can provide an opening for conversation, though that’s not exactly a small club. A souvenir from the World Series would be better. Like the Sleep No More mask, a souvenir from the World Series illustrates that you are in an exclusive club.

It’s the exclusivity, as well as the shared experience, that engenders a great conversation. There’s nothing like that “We’ve got a secret” feeling you get when you run into a stranger who is carrying something that only a few people have or would recognize. The smaller the club, the more excited you are to run into someone who is a member.

New York is one of those places where, on any given subway car or street corner, there are probably people with your sensibility or life experiences hidden among the crowd. You can’t tell much by clothing (though if someone is wearing a nun’s habit, you might surmise they are religious), but if someone is draped with a New York City Marathon warming blanket on the day of the race, you know they have just completed a 26.2-mile run. And if you yourself have ever run a marathon, both you and the runner are going to be more than delighted to engage in conversation. You are practically meeting up with a soul mate.

For me, in the case of my Sleep No More compadre, it was like discovering a stranger who had had the same vivid, beautiful, disturbing dream I had. When my fellow theatergoer got off before me, at 50th Street, I felt almost sad. Some other people who got on to the train cast odds looks my way, as if they were expecting me to subject them all to some kind of unwelcome dramatic presentation. But I just smiled and held proudly onto the mask, my secret emblem of the evening.

(Originally published in the West Side Spirit, January12, 2012)

1/23/12

The Myth of the Lift

It seemed like a no-brainer at the time. I mean, if you have to go to a funeral in New Jersey and you’re faced with a choice between public transportation (in this case, a bus from Port Authority followed by either a long walk or a short cab ride) and a ride in a friend-of-a-friend’s car, you choose the ride, right?

That’s what I did. Now, it’s true that I live uptown and I had to take the subway down to the Village, where the owner of the car was. But what’s a 20-minute subway ride if it saves me from having to take the Port Authority bus? Unfortunately, we had to wait another 15 minutes for the other passengers to arrive (there were two other ride seekers). But then we were off.

Right away it was apparent that no one, least of all the driver, knew where we were going, and using the GPS on a cell phone while driving at high speeds on the highway turned out to be not so effective. We got hopelessly lost—the kind of lost where there is no possibility of retracing your steps; the kind of lost where you spend an inordinate amount of time looking for a gas station in the hope of getting directions, which gets you even more lost than you were before. My anxiety was intensified by the amount of blithe socializing going on inside the car; there was a lot of, “So how do you know so-and-so?“ when everyone should have been focused on looking for the right exit. No one but me seemed to care that we were going to be horribly late to what we had been told was a very small funeral. I thought with longing of the Port Authority bus.

This was not the first time I had been seduced by the seeming luxury of getting a ride. Every Christmas I am invited to a party in Westchester and I usually go to great lengths to arrange a ride; often it’s with someone I do not know very well. Last year, on the way back not only did the car I was in get lost, it broke down. It took me four hours to get home. Once again I found myself wondering, why didn’t I just take the train?

Just why does “The Ride” have so much allure for New Yorkers? Offer someone a ride to a party on the other side of the park and it seems too glorious to pass up. All of us have at least a bit of car envy. Door-to-door service. Privacy. You are not dependent on the transportation system; you are in control. Driving is how the other half—that is, the rest of America–lives.

But the rest of America doesn’t risk spending hours stuck in Midtown traffic or looking for a parking space. And, for the most part, the rest of America are driving their own cars. When you accept a ride from someone else, he is in control. It’s really bad form to jump out and say, “Thanks for the ride!” while the driver searches for a space. You can be within sight of your dinner party (or even worse, a theater event, with the minutes ticking down toward curtain time) and be stuck circling around and around the block, praying to the parking gods and getting more stressed out with every second.

The key to this whole ride business, as with so many other areas of life, is who you are with. If you are riding with good friends, you won’t care that much if you a little lost. Last Saturday I opted for a cab ride home with friends who offered to “drop me off,” even though I knew by the time we found a taxi and crawled along the West Side Highway it would take much longer than the subway. We sang Cole Porter songs to each other and so it was fine.

But, when in doubt, I say opt for the good old MTA. So often we forget that one of the best things about New York City is that no one has to drive. Why else are there so many cocktail parties here?

Originally published in the West Side Spirit, December 15, 2011

1/5/12

Overachieving Overnighters

Recently, friends from Montreal (a married couple) came to stay with me for one night on their way to see relatives in Virginia. When they called to let me know they were running late due to a delayed flight, I said to them, as firmly as I know how, “Now, listen guys, I have gin in the freezer. Your martini glasses are chilled and waiting, so don’t stop for anything. Don’t buy me anything. Just come directly here.” I said this because they visit me often, and I know their houseguesting M.O. all too well.

Was I surprised when they arrived bearing not only a bottle of expensive gin, but flowers and other gifts as well? Not really. Nor was I surprised when they insisted on taking me to dinner. In the morning, they snuck out before I woke up and brought back coffee, bagels and lox, fresh strawberries and a newspaper—even though by that time I had a pot of coffee brewing and was more than prepared to whip up mushroom and feta omelets.

Now, these are old and wonderful friends, and of course I felt pampered and loved and grateful to them. But I have to confess I also felt a little bad. I felt dehostified. The couple took care of me the whole time, rather than the other way around. And while guest largess may seem like an absurd thing to complain about, considering all of the stories we hear about horrible houseguests (people who arrive without warning, stay too long and never send a thank you)—these guests were so overly generous that it made me feel like a horrible hostess.

It is often a delicate balance, this dance between host and guest. Hosting and guesting, like almost all forms of human interaction, is a yin-yang thing. You can’t really be a good guest unless you allow the host to be a good host; you can’t be a good host if you don’t let your guest contribute in some way. Whenever I have a visit from my Montreal friends, I definitely feel that the balance is out of whack.

On the one hand, it’s nice that I don’t have to entertain or take care of them when they come. On the other hand, I am frustrated I can’t do more for them—not only because it is my house but because it simply feels good to make others happy. People can forget that it is generous to let others give to you as well as for you to give to others. Sometimes, when a host says to her guest, “I do wish you would allow me to take care of that,” she really means it.

But do I really mean it? Do I really want my beneficent over-nighters to take it down a notch? Maybe my friends are actually responding to signals I am unaware I am sending. Like most New Yorkers, I tend to suffer from TMHS (Too Many Houseguests Syndrome) which can make me a more jaded, less eager-to-please host than I might otherwise be. Manhattan hotels are so expensive that many people who come to stay with New Yorkers are coming primarily because they need a place to stay; seeing the host is frequently a secondary thing. I suspect that years of these “favor-based” sleepovers have made me a more careless host. And it’s a carelessness I am not proud of. For one thing, I should be the one getting up early and bringing home the bagels, not my guests. I know a D.C. woman who will drive 30 miles to the fish market in the middle of a heat wave to buy a bushel of crabs, just because one of her guests mentioned she had a hankering for them.

Perhaps, after all, it is I who needs to become an overachieving host. The next time these friends come to town, I swear I am going to pick them up at the airport in a limo and hand them their chilled martinis as soon as they step inside the car.

They won’t know what hit them.


Originally published in The West Side Spirit, November 30, 2011