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....