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