Category: New York life


Salsa Verdi

Posted on February 1, 2017

At first it seemed like a normal neighborhood restaurant. The Mexican Festival on 102nd and Broadway in Manhattan is colorful, crowded and noisy. It was Friday about 10:45pm and the customers who were finishing up their dinners were talking – even yelling – over the live mariachi band. I took a seat at the bar, which was a little quieter and darker than the main dining room.

At around 11, the mariachi stopped. I wondered why the bar seemed to be getting more crowded instead of less. A man sat down and opened a small upright piano, which I hadn’t even noticed was there. A young woman handed him sheet music, and he began to play. She opened her mouth and began–dramatically, beautifully, caressingly–to sing a German aria (I believe it was a Schubert lied, the last thing I expected to hear in this venue).

Welcome to opera night at Mexican Festival, where in the midst of lively bar chatter which only seems to diminish a little for the performers, classical singers get up to sing their hearts out, one after the other–sometimes alone, other times as a duet or trio. Many seem to be students. Some are dressed up in sparkles, and some are in sweats or jeans and you would never expect what was about to come out of their mouths.

A few of the singers seemed nervous as they walked up to the piano and plopped down their music, but that vanished with their first intake of breath. They knew they were good. Besides Mexican tenor Juan del Bosco, who moves his audience with an amazing combination of verve and sweetness, I was delighted by a powerful tenor named Lindell Carter as well as an artful soprano, Heather Bobeck. When Bobeck sang “Sempre Libera” from La Traviata, all the singers boisterously sang the responses from wherever they happened to be sitting around the room, including the man sitting next to me at the bar. I admit, it startled me at first. Later, one plaid-clad mezzo, deep into her role, flirted her way down the room as she sang “The Habanera.” Hardly anyone seemed to be listening, but of course I was wrong: A dozen people belted out “Prends garde à toi!” exactly on cue–then went back to their drinks.

Being at Mexican Festival on Friday nights is a bit like being on the set of an opera—as if you are one of the extras on stage who happens not to be singing–or like being at an opera cast party. It’s Cheers for opera lovers. Juilliard with a shot of tequila. There is an extraordinary sense of camaraderie. The place oozes good spirit, encouragement, and fun. Naturally, one of the songs that inevitably gets performed is “Toreador” from Carmen. Even the non-singers will join in on that one.

To me what makes this such a unique phenomenon is the combination of casual atmosphere and formally-trained voices. A lot of people seem to be just hanging out, talking to their friends while the singers are performing. Until your senses become adjusted, it seems oxymoronic to be listening to such proficient opera singers in this dark Mexican restaurant on Broadway and 102nd St. at midnight.

Mexican Festival
It all began one day when the aforementioned Juan del Bosco happened to stop by the restaurant and discovered they had mariachi. In Mexico in the early decades of the 20th century, mariachi was actually sung by operatic tenors. So it was natural for Juan to ask if he might sing occasionally with the band at Mexican Festival. He soon got to know the restaurant’s two owners, Tony Carcamo and Jaime Lucero, and he started inviting friends to come there to hang out – they were mostly singers, dancers and musicians.
Then one night Juan said to Tony, “What if we do opera night here?”
Tony said, “What do you need?”
“Just a piano.”
And so Tony bought a piano. (You know what they say: Build it and they will come.)

In a city that is choking with tourist traps, chain stores and entertainments that most people can’t afford, it feels miraculous to find a pocket of secret musical magic going on in this unexpected corner. I guess it shouldn’t surprise anyone, given how many creative people are clustered on this island; indeed three of the best music schools are right here—Juilliard, Mannes and Manhattan School of Music. Still it’s amazing to wander off of an almost deserted Broadway into such a treasure trove of talent and musical communing. It’s obvious that many of these singers are friends. Whenever I go I always get the impression that I had somehow gotten into a private party – or some sort of relaxed audition scenario I am able to watch because I knew the secret password.

A couple of weeks ago I took some curious friends there for after-dinner drinks. Juan was there to greet us (when he is not singing, he serves as host), as was the ever-charming co-owner, Tony. Only in a small town does one usually experience that “we’re-closed-but-who-cares-it’s-just-us” feeling. In fact, it struck me that there is no sense of Diva behavior here; everyone supports each other, there is no visible competitiveness. One of the reasons for this might be that no one is paid to perform – except the pianist. (According to Juan there are three or four different pianists, who rotate depending on which one is free that night). And just to make it even more appealing, every once in a while, a opera superstar will perform there, such as the renowned Javier Camarena, who sang there last March, on his birthday.

I love opera, so I’m in heaven on these Friday nights. But a part of me wishes I could have experienced the karaoke hour that reportedly used to follow the opera, but which has since been (apparently) usurped by the opera crowd. To have been taken on the strange odyssey from mariachi to Madame Butterfly to “Mack the Knife” all in one night would certainly have been one for the books. And then who knows, by 2am I might have taken the stage myself.

 

Please Pass the Paranoia: On the Dangers of Sitting Down

Posted on June 16, 2015

When having a private conversation in a public place–even a crowded New York City restaurant–you can never be too circumspect.

One evening, after a particularly stressful audition, an actress friend of mine named Katie decided to stop into Café Loup in Greenwich Village, to unwind a bit over a martini and some country pâté. After ordering, Katie took out her New Yorker and began to read when suddenly, amidst the ambient sound of the dinner hour bustle, she thought she heard her full name uttered–and in an oddly conversational tone, not as an address. It had come from the table next to her.

She hadn’t been paying attention to these nearby diners. “But when you hear your full name spoken–and as you know, my last name is not a common one–it really gets your attention no matter how engrossing Malcolm Gladwell may be,” she told me. Thinking it was someone she knew who had spotted her and was trying to be funny by casually dropping her name, Katie looked up pointedly and expectantly at the group, preparing to smile in recognition. She made eye contact with the person facing her. It was a woman she’d never seen before. At the table were another woman and a man, neither of whom she recognized. Katie looked back down at her magazine, thinking, Maybe I just imagined that, maybe I’ve got post-audition auditory dysfunction. But she kept listening. While she could not make out every word over the noise of the restaurant, she could tell the man was regaling his two dinner companions with a story about a friend of his who had expressed interest in a woman after seeing her online dating profile.

“Apparently from her photo this Katie ____ (here he used my friend’s full name again!) has really huge bazongas,” she heard the man say. “But Pat says her description made her sound kind of overly ambitious.”

Embarrassed, Katie didn’t know what to do. Should she get up and leave? Confront them and ask them to stop discussing her? In the end she stayed and finished her martini as quickly as possible, feeling confused and uncomfortable. She had no idea what photo the man could possibly be referring to–since the only pictures of herself she could remember posting were from the shoulders up–but she resolved to stay away from any suitor named Pat. To Katie’s immense relief, the diners soon went on to other topics. But her much longed-for relaxing interlude was ruined.

We think because we live in a big city that the odds are slim to none that anyone we might be talking about will be within earshot. While people in a small town assume everyone knows everyone, and behave with corresponding discretion, we city-dwellers have this illusion of anonymity. We talk about the most personal things on a packed subway train, in the midst of crowded stores, buses, theaters, and restaurants. We offer up our intimate thoughts and feelings, and gossip about other people, completely ignoring the strangers present. Funnily enough, the more people there are, the more privacy we convince ourselves we have–when, mathematically speaking, a crowd actually increases the odds of someone knowing the person we are talking about. While it’s true that a high level of crowd noise can create some privacy, it can also serve to make us more careless; invariably the din subsides at the very moment we are talking loudly about the illicit affair a colleague is having with her next door neighbor.

Also, in New York City, the connectivity of people exists with about three degrees of separation rather than six. People in the same fields tend to go to the same restaurants, parks and often even travel on the same subway lines.

It is for this reason that one editor I know uses code names for all the professional people in his life whenever he tells me about them over drinks. Super-paranoid about being overheard talking about people in his industry (he has a high-profile position in book publishing) he’ll refer to his boss as “Red Balloon,” his departmental nemesis as “Evil Kitty” and the head of the company as “Elephant.” If anyone was actually listening to us during one of these discussions, it would sound more like a children’s book plot than work gossip.

Just recently I was at Gennaro’s restaurant on Amsterdam, talking to my friend Lisa about a mutual friend named Bob who was having a marital problem. It was 8:00pm and the restaurant was crowded. I leaned forward so as to speak directly into Lisa’s ear, but not before craning my head around to the right and to the left to check out who might be at the tables beside and behind us. (Especially to see whether there were any singles. People sitting alone at a restaurant are always listening to conversations around them; they can’t help it.) Lisa started laughing at me and shaking her head.

“Jesus, who do you think you are, Deep Throat? You think out of millions of people, Bob or one of his friends is going to be sitting at the table next to you?”

I refused to be embarrassed. “You just never know,” I said.

And the thing is, you never do.

Of course, my mother would say the answer is to never gossip about anyone, ever. She is fond of quoting the old adage: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

My advice? If you don’t have anything nice to say, say it in a whisper.

 

Museum Selfie-ishness

Posted on November 26, 2014

Recently, at the Museum of Modern Art with my niece, I found something unexpected blocking my favorite Van Gogh: a young woman standing with her back six inches away from the canvas, taking a “selfie.” As we strolled around the galleries, I spotted more of them. Selfies in front of the Jackson Pollack. Selfies in front of Monet’s Water Lilies. Selfies in front of Campbell’s Soup Cans. Like most technology-driven social phenomena, museum selfies seemed to have mushroomed overnight.

Until recently, the only digital annoyance I remember having to contend with in art museums was other visitors photographing the art at close range. Many museums allow non-flash photography, and it’s true that if a lot of people are taking pictures it can obstruct others’ view of the painting. Still, why shouldn’t someone be able to photograph a work of art they love — in order to enjoy and remember their museum experience later? Obsessive photo-taking might be somewhat self-centered in that there is no consideration about how it is impinging on the sight lines of others around them. On the other hand, the desire to capture the beautiful images of the art makes it ultimately a forgivable practice.

However, the narcissistic knee-jerk act of the museum selfie is in a whole other category. Now, not only can’t we see the art because someone is standing right in front of it, we are forced to look at the selfie subject(s) instead of the art. The art is now the background to the selfie-taker—as if it were wallpaper, or the view from the Empire State Building. The implication is that the work of art is secondary in importance to the person in front of it. Obviously it’s your choice if you want to have Van Gogh’s The Starry Night as your own personal backdrop (although I myself do not have that kind of hubris). The problem is that you are changing the art experience of those around you. Even when selfie-takers are not completely obscuring the art, it’s psychologically impossible to ignore it when someone is making themselves the subject; it’s hard to look past them at the painting. It is just like trying not to listen to someone talking on his cell on the train.

It’s difficult to say which is worse: The fact that we seem to need to document every moment of our existence or the need to put ourselves at the center of everything. (The selfie has become such a part of our culture that it was even the title of a TV show on ABC.) Because digital photos are free and easily deletable images we are in the habit of taking them without much thought. In museums, we sense we are having an important experience. We see beautiful art. We are moved, excited. The contemporary conditioned response to this emotion is to whip out the camera. And it is also highly contagious behavior. Once you see someone else doing it, you figure: Wait, maybe this would make a cool picture—me in front of a famous painting. This would be great on Instagram.

It’s pretty hard to fight the sweeping tide of cellphone selfie-taking per se. Besides, selfies are not all bad. In the old days when you traveled to Paris, you would have to ask a passerby to take a photo of your and your friend in front of the Eiffel Tower. Now you can just take it yourself. Isn’t this convenience an improvement? I have also seen some wonderful museum selfie photos that are a playful or ironic statement on the art: for example, a picture of person standing to the side of the painting imitating the pose of the subject in the painting, or a photo where it looks as if the person depicted in the painting is actually holding the phone. This kind of art riffing—which some people might find offensive—demonstrates a creativity I can’t really object to.

What I will object to is the “selfie stick,” a device for extending the cellphone an additional arm’s-length away. Even though I caught many people taking selfies in the museum, thank god I did not see anyone using one of these relatively new gadgets. (Is it just me, or does the term “selfie stick” sound pornographic?) The sticks are already in wide use in Asia, which is a sign they will probably be trending here very soon. What these accessories will mean in museums, of course, is an even more hindered view of the art, as using the stick allows for more people to fit into a group selfie-portrait.

So there I was, at MOMA with my niece, frowning inwardly and eschewing the whole self-involved, self-aggrandizing selfie trend. Until – er… guess what? My niece suddenly whipped out her iPhone to snap a selfie of us standing in front of a Gauguin. Did I resist? Did I take a stand against the decline of respect for great art? Or did I lean my head happily against my niece’s, open my eyes wide and smile gaily?

Like I said, these technology things are contagious.

 

Beware My Derriere: The Etiquette of Sitting Down at the Theater

Posted on June 11, 2014

Every time I go to the theater and I find myself having to enter a row where there are people already seated, I experience the same moment of indecision: “How do I navigate this? Which way do I go in — facing the stage or facing the people?” Most people I know go in with their backs to the others, but this always seems wrong to me. Especially if my row-mates remain seated as I am squeezing in, I am acutely aware of my butt having to travel by embarrassingly close to their faces. And if I should happen to step on someone’s toes or bump their knees in the process, it is difficult to apologize over my shoulder.

However, after researching various “official” opinions as well as conducting an informal canvass of all my theater-going friends, it is clear that although European custom requires the theater or movie-going patron to enter the row while facing the back of the theater, the accepted practice in the United States is to go in facing the stage. In fact, both Emily Post (in her Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home, 1922) and Amy Vanderbilt (in Amy Vanderbilt’s New Complete Book of Etiquette, 1963) declared this back-to-face sliding-by operation to be absolutely the proper etiquette.

But even among Americans there are varying opinions, many of them adamant. One etiquette expert I came across professed the proper form to be that men go in facing the back of the theater, while women go in the opposite way — a piece of etiquette-ology I find fairly bizarre. I mean, since gentlemen’s feet are generally bigger than ladies’, and ladies’ rears are generally bigger than gentlemen’s, if you were going to make a gender differentiation I would think it would be the gentleman going in facing front, and the lady facing the back of the theater. But either way it would look like some kind of weird line dance.

The argument for facing the stage is that it is more efficacious, because you can bend forward a little and slide in while pressing as far as possible into the seats in front of you. This way you are less likely to step on anyone’s feet, and also you can preserve the illusion that you are not inches away from people, as you can’t see them. Moreover, most people feel the close proximity makes it too embarrassing to pass by front-to-front. It’s like facing someone in an elevator. “It’s too intimate,” etiquette maven Letitia Baldridge once wrote. “It looks like they are going to kiss.”

I don’t know about kissing but I almost always vote for conversational contact. (They don’t call me “Miss Mingle” for nothing.) The rationale for facing people while making your way to your seat is just that–that you are able to interact with the people whom you are incommoding. It is considered good manners to thank people (or apologize, if you are coming in on the late side) as you inch by them, and it is much harder to thank people if you go by backwards; you cannot make eye contact easily. And of course there is the avoidance of the aforementioned butt-in-the-face issue (which I admittedly may be overly sensitive about, as I happen to have a particularly protrusive posterior.) Sometimes your course of action will depend on whether or not the row stands up for you (which if they are well-bred they will do). In that case, you can even go in slightly sideways.

Every decision regarding proper etiquette is made up of one part not discomforting others, and one part not looking like an idiot. What the theater seating question really comes down to is a choice between two variations of feeling awkward. I think for me, the point at which I started gravitating towards the face-to-face method happened a few years ago when, going in backwards along with the others in my party who were doing the same, I stumbled over someone’s umbrella lying on the floor and ended up sitting in the lap of a rather portly man.

This was bad enough; but unfortunately, in my surprise and embarrassment, instead of saying, “I’m so sorry,” I said “Thank you” — which were the words that were on the tip of my tongue, since I had been murmuring them to everyone else in the row I was passing.

“Oh, no, thank you,” the man laughed in response.

 

Attack of the Alien Armchair: The Adventure of the New “Luxury” Movie Seats

Posted on October 25, 2013

I entered theater 6 at Manhattan’s 84th Street AMC Loews in that relaxed, absentminded way you do when you are confident of the physical surroundings that await you–the way you do when you are entering your neighborhood grocery store or the lobby of your apartment building. To my utter shock, instead of familiar movie seats, what I found stretched out in front of me was a strange-looking sea of huge, carmine-red armchairs. It reminded me of a furniture showroom.

My movie companion that evening, a native New Yorker and a purist in all things cultural, stopped dead in the doorway behind me. “What is this? What’s going on?” she said. Dazed, we made our way down to our reserved seats in Row D. As she dropped into the chair beside me, my friend shook her head in disgust. “Well this is just ridiculous. This marks the end of movie-going for me.”

Stupidly, I at first thought that these were merely comfy chairs with an enormous amount of foot room, until I saw someone nearby fully reclined, and then I located my own control button on the left side of my chair. Wow! UP my feet came, OUT stretched my body and BACK went my head. It did feel luxurious, though as someone who is not accustomed to recliners, I could not help but think of a dentist chair.

However, despite my own wariness and my companion’s grousing, I determined to try to be open-minded. “But wait,” I said to my friend. “It’s really kind of cool. No more cramped knees, and–see? You can take the weight off your spine.” I pushed my button some more and tipped farther back. “Maybe this is good. Just think: No one kicking the back of your seat, and no tripping over people and their buckets of popcorn to get to the Ladies Room.” I also pointed out that it was nice not to have to dread that last minute giant who inevitably sits down right in front of you just as the movie is starting. There was certainly no possibility of head-blocking here.

The two faux leather seats assigned to us were actually attached–a kind of love seat with a movable armrest in the middle–presumably so two people on a date could cuddle. The material of the chairs was slightly clingy or cloying, with a vaguely vinyl feel. I couldn’t help it; I did not like the idea that my hair and my head were touching where countless strangers had also laid their heads. I had a fleeting desire for one of the paper headrest covers they have on Amtrak trains.

But by the time the previews were over I realized the main problem, at least for me: it’s everyone lying down together. It seems somehow too intimate. It felt like a weird dream where you are in your own living room but there are strangers present. There is something decidedly off-putting about seeing other people’s elevated legs out of the corner of your eye. I don’t want to be aware of other people; I want to focus only on what’s up on the screen. In the traditional seats, you may have to fight the person next to you for the armrest, but somehow the “from the neck up” perspective allows for a feeling of anonymity, and you can more easily disappear into the dark crowd as the film commences. You can forget where you are, and therefore enter wholly into the fantasy world of the movie.

Reclining in these big chairs also feels super indulgent, hedonistic, and frankly a little bit…. well, obscene. I mean, just how comfortable do we have to be? I know we are all craving more leg room on airplanes, but could putting BarcaLoungers in movie theaters be going too far? And what about the inevitable napping? I can’t imagine there won’t be some snorers in every showing–although maybe not during the riveting movie we were seeing, Captain Phillips. (Halfway through the unrelentingly intense action I had to un-recline my chair. It just felt more normal to hyperventilate in an upright position.)

Reportedly AMC Loews has converted about 25 of its nationwide theaters to what it is calling their “plush power recliners.” Obviously the chain is trying to make the movie-going experience more appealing. But is the way to get people out of the comfort of their own living rooms to try to duplicate it? No matter how cushy the chair, you are still in public; you are having a group experience. To me these power recliners are the worst of both worlds. It’s not as relaxing as your living room, and it’s not as satisfying as an auditorium experience.

What’s next? Chaise lounges in Carnegie Hall? Beds on Broadway? I couldn’t help thinking, as I glanced around the darkened theater after the heart-pounding, climactic scene of Captain Phillips: Isn’t this what it looked like right before the fall of the Roman Empire? Everyone in reclined positions, gorging themselves on too much food and drink, watching people getting killed for entertainment, as they, the audience members, remain ensconced in total sensory comfort?

 

NYC: My Own Personal Cocktail Party

Posted on April 19, 2013

Oddly enough, this year Tax Day reminded me of what I love most about New York City.

I always do my taxes at the last minute, partly because I need deadline pressure to get anything done. So on the afternoon of April 15th, I was getting ready to e-file my return. (New York State now mandates that anyone using computer software to prepare their tax returns must file them electronically, which I had never done before).

Even though everything had been double-checked, I sat for over an hour in front of my laptop, stalling, unable to make myself push the “e-file” button. I knew this method was easier, cheaper, and quicker than snail-mail, yet I felt a strong urge to do it the old-fashioned way. I thought to myself: Why am I resisting this so much? Am I really that much of a Luddite?

I found myself picturing the scene I had been a part of for so many years: walking to the post office at 4:45 on Tax Day with that particular feeling of jangled nerves and accomplishment, noticing out of the corners of my eyes my fellow New Yorkers — their own bulky envelopes in hand — all eagerly headed in the same direction.

That’s when it hit me: What was bothering me was that I was going to miss the camaraderie, the excitement of walking up to the post office, communing with other last-minute filers, smiling with them, exchanging jokes about just making the deadline.

I admit this sounds like a relatively insignificant thing, a piece of social minutia. Many of you may be thinking: Jeez, she gets excited about going to the post office? But I swear am not totally people starved or anything. It’s just that to me — a person who always loves talking to strangers, anytime, anywhere — New York City is basically one big cocktail party. Not only that, it’s a cocktail party with interesting, emotionally available people.

At the risk of seeming New York-centric, I believe people here tend to be more culturally-diverse and more engaged in what goes on around them than people in most other places, so our conversations tend to be more interesting — and often more unguarded.

Maybe it’s because we all have a “we’re in this mess together” feeling or it’s because we are in a hurry, but New Yorkers have a way of cutting through the polite nothings. We tend to start talking as if we are already in the middle of a conversation with a friend. We will dispense with the usual pleasantries and go right to the heart of things.

Without any preamble, without any “hello, how are you?” we will just start speaking, as if we already know the person next to us: “God, I wish the train would come, I’ve got someone waiting at the theater for me, and if I keep him waiting one more time, I swear he’s going to break up with me.” Revealing personal details of our lives comes naturally in the Big Apple.

Once when I was in the park with a friend, we came across someone whose parrot had escaped and taken refuge high up in an elm tree. Soon a small crowd gathered, and we were all chatting to one another about pets — about losing them, finding them, and loving them. The man next to me said, “I always wanted a mynah bird when I was little but my father told me, ‘Bad enough you learned to talk.'”

New York life is filled with opportunities for intimate five-minute conversations. I’ve had passing exchanges with strangers 10 years ago I still remember to this day. We are often accused of being rude, and that may sometimes be true, but we are, for the most part, very open and willing to connect with each other.

In the end, of course, I e-filed. But later when I went to the drugstore, don’t think that I did not engage the stranger standing in front of me in line. I heard her talking on the phone about Schedule C (it sounded as though she was talking to her spouse).

“So do you file your taxes electronically?” I asked her after she hung up. “This was my first year doing it.”

She smiled, slightly sheepish. “No, we are mailing ours. I kind of love the tactile feeling of it, and the comfort of seeing other people there who are as late as I am getting it done.”

“I know exactly what you mean,” I replied, laughing. And in my imagination, we clinked glasses, as a waiter passed by with a plate of hors d’oeuvres.

 

TMI: Too Much Intinerary

Posted on April 13, 2013

 

I was just wondering how soon my friend Ruth might be coming up to New York for some long-overdue museum hopping when I happened to log onto Facebook, and there she was, in living, hi-res color. It was a post from the night before: “I’m in the Big Apple. Here I am at 55 Bar, drinking a hot tamale martini! ☺”

I felt a small but distinct pang of hurt. Harrumph. Why hadn’t Ruth told me she was coming? Did she not want to see me for some reason? She usually stayed at my apartment when she was here. Did she find another person to stay with? Had I been nothing but a hotel to her?

Then I stopped and thought about it, and I realized that Ruth planning a New York trip that did not include me was not really the thing that was upsetting me. After all, New York is a city of eight million people; it would be unrealistic — not to mention egotistical — to think that my friends don’t ever come to see other people besides me. (It’s different when you are visiting a small town. If my friend in Essex, Connecticut found out I had gone all the way out there without calling him, it would be hard to explain.) No, it was the fact that Ruth did not seem to care whether I saw she was visiting. It was the unabashed public announcement of her presence that felt like a slap in the face.

“Checking in” on sites like Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Yelp and Path has become de rigueur for many people. I admit I don’t really get it. When I see something like, “Jim Smith just checked in at the IHOP on 14th Street,” I always wonder, am I supposed to hightail it on down there? Or maybe I’m supposed to ask what Jim is eating?

Why is it that we feel everyone has to be alerted about everything about our lives? We have become a society of over-sharers. (The very word “share” has changed in connotation. “Sharing” photos of your kids or news of your latest accomplishment is not quite the same as sharing a loaf of bread with someone who’s hungry, or sharing the secret of happiness.) As if the me-generation wasn’t self-involved enough, it has evolved into the please-look-at-me generation.

Not surprisingly, many people tease me about my circumspection regarding the Internet. One, referring to what he called my “sharing squeamishness” lectured me, “This is the information age! Privacy is old-fashioned. Too much information? Get over it. Embrace the new transparency, the new, more open life.” I’ll admit it’s true that for the most part these trivial check-ins are harmless — if sometimes annoying in their banality. However, it’s not harmless when someone posts about invitation-only events in a forum where there are people who were not invited, people whose feelings might be hurt unnecessarily.

These kinds of manners used to be a given. We learned the rules when we were six years old and started inviting people to our birthday parties. “Don’t tell Susie Johnson about the party, honey, if you’re not going to invite her,” our parents told us. “You will hurt her feelings. How would you like it if you found out there was a party you were not invited to?” What most of us didn’t realize when we were six is that when we grew up, this rule would be thrown out the window, thanks to social networking arenas where it is considered perfectly fine to break this basic rule of kindness. (And to add insult to injury, we are all supposed to “like” these posts.)

I have written much on the generosity of not always telling the truth. In fact, many readers have criticized me for “promoting lying,” because I believe in going out of your way to protect someone else’s feelings, and that certain small acts of prevarication are the cornerstone of civilization. Being totally open and completely honest every second, no matter what, is not spiritual or emotional health in my book. It’s narcissism (even, in its extreme, a kind of social schizophrenia). When did we become a culture unable to tell the difference between dishonesty and discretion?

I am a firm believer in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to social plans. This goes for dinner parties, cocktail parties, weddings and other special events, and, yes, out of town visits. We should always think about how what we are saying (or posting) might affect others. It doesn’t matter that you yourself might not care one way or the other if the roles were reversed and you were the one reading the post. Be aware of your audience.

Here, in my opinion, is the proper travel itinerary etiquette: If there is a good possibility someone you are not planning to see is going to find out you are visiting in her area, preempt — tell her you are coming but that you are zipping in and out and that you are mostly there for business, or for family obligation. You want to make it seem as though you are truly disappointed not to be seeing her. Otherwise, just don’t say anything about your trip. If you happen to run into her on the street while you are there (which is unlikely in a big city) you can tell her, “I knew I was not going to have time to see you this trip, so I didn’t call, but I hope we can arrange a visit soon!”

I went somewhere last weekend under such a cloak of invisibility, to ensure I did not step on certain people’s feelings. It was not a secret; I simply did not broadcast it. I did not tweet or post my plans. I did not alert the media.

So where did I go? You can forget trying to find out. Go ahead and call me old-fashioned, but I did not leave any cyber-footprints.

 

This Restaurant Serves Grouse

Posted on December 19, 2012

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.

 

Pet Peeves

Posted on September 19, 2012

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?

 

Beware the Chair

Posted on July 22, 2012

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.”

 

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