MAKING FRIENDS IN NEW YORK
'You pays your money and you takes your choice'
On a perfect day youd call your friends about it , meet for coffee
and laugh. But thats the hard part living in a new city, making
friends. New York is a strange place. Youd think youd make
friends right away. Its big, its got lots of people in it
and some of the greatest coffee places in the world, but sometimes to
make friends, first you have to have some. Or a job.
The place was Brooklyn Heights. I have fond memories of the Russian restaurant
there and the great strolling walkway overlooking Manhattan. No finer
view in all of New York and it's free. I felt connected to history, but
detatched from the human race. Getting to meet people for a conversation
was hard. One always feels that it is yourself that is the cause of the
problem but I heard others complaining too, so I knew I had to do something
about it if I was ever to 'belong' to the place.
Join a writers group someone suggested. But writers are weird
introverted people and make lousy friends. No, I wanted media people,
advertising people, lightweight, bitchy, amusing friends. People who have
a pretty cynical approach, but a huge appreciation of irony. Try putting
that criteria in the want ads. Try meeting them when you are on the outside
So when Nora came knocking on our door with an idea for meeting people
I was so astonished I immediately agreed. Nora, a large bespectacled woman
from Baltimore had just moved into Brooklyn herself and she was lonely.
But Nora was more organised than myself. The way to do it, she suggested,
was if everyone in our block would pay $15 bucks and well have a
party with nametags and everything and well meet in the the only
place with a garden out back and well all be friends.
Well it was worth a chance. Here we all were living in Remsen Street brownstones,
completely oblivious of each other, hardly daring to nod at each other
for fear of sexual harassment legal suits or just plain fear and we should
all definitely be friends. RIght?
It was set for a Thursday night. The name tags would be at the door and
there would be wine and cheese. I expected a big crowd, I mean, there
were four apartments per building and hundreds of people living on this
really elegant Brooklyn street. You would expect they would all want to
make at least one friend, or at least be curious.
My room mate John and I turned up around half an hour late and there were
around five people. We put on our name tags and were introduced to some
socially dysfunctional people with great jobs, like librarian, insurance
salesman (on the make) unemployed bartender (rare) actor (character actor),
the local priest and Sonia.
I knew Sonia right away. She was the attractive woman living right across
the way from our apartment with two kids. We had even waved. This was
a good start.
I just want to know one thing, Sonia asked me. Why do
you always stand on your kitchen table, actually, why do you always make
people who visit you stand on your kitchen table.
It is questions like that that make you realise that people are watching
you more closely than you think. Well I looked at Sonia and I couldnt
tell a lie.
Well if you stand on the kitchen table crane your neck and look
45 degrees over the street, then you can see Norman Mailer working at
It seemed like a perfectly normal answer to me, but Jena just stood there
You can see him working?
Yes, he seems to be doing a lot lately anyway. Everytime I think
about taking a rest, I notice hes still working and I force myself
not to quit until he does.
Youre a writer?
Me too, my husbands a writer. Writes for the New York Times.
She moved onto someone else then. She instinctively knew that she was
wasting her time. Everyone knows writers dont have any money. That
evening wasnt a total success. Only twenty people turned up out
of a total possibility of 250. Either they thought $15 bucks was too much
to pay for a new friend, or they didnt need a friend. My room mate
found himself cornered by the priest. The trendy bearded jolly priest
who didnt believe in dog collars, or God. He did however live in
a great converted carriage building r with exposed brick and a grey slate
kitchen. He invited about five of us back, probably hoping for converts.
We drank homemade wine with him and his wife who made shawls for a living.
She showed us about 20 shawls under someone actually fell asleep.
Thats the great thing about New York, you could never guess what
anyone does for a living.
The next day I met Sonia in the supermarket. One of her kids had been
traumatised by the biggest cockroach in the world crawling out of the
chilled cabinet where they kept the cakes. It was truly gross, but not
unusual. This was the year of the great garbage strike and as I helped
carry her shopping Jena made soothing noises to her kids. We stopped beside
one of the garbage heaps at the end of the road where rats were moving
in and around the mounds of fetid food and rubbish.
There, one of the kids shouted. I saw one there, its
Weirdly they didn't seem to mind the giant sleek and a bit slimy rats,
but the roach was not a subject that could be mentioned without invited
Sonia invited me in for tea. My first invite anywhere since getting to
The apartment was amazing with long maple wood floors, lots of plants
and a great view over the Hudson River, if you squinted from the bathroom
The kids showed me their Muppet collection, Sonia produced peppermint
tea and I promised to give her a copy of my novel when it came out. I
had a new friend. The best $15 bucks I ever spent. The husband I learned
was an unfaithful wretch, but since he was the New York Times book reviewer,
I didnt comment or take sides. You never know.
A month later, during which we had waved a lot at each other, I finally
let Sonia in, to stand on the kitchen table so she could see Norman Mailer
working at his typewriter. She was impressed. She called her friends at
Vanity Fair to tell them and they told their friends and someone (but
not me) wrote an article about it. (Which is why I think Normal Mailer
Later I gave her the proofs of my novel (my first, 209 Thriller Road.
St Martins Press) and she took it home to give to her husband (or throw
it at him I think she said).
I took her kids to see the Muppet Movie and they loved it. It was great,
I had a new friend and a kind of family to play with. New York suddenly
felt friendly and full of possibilities. I was beginning to think of staying,
writing another book there.
novel came out two weeks later, no one bought it, there were no
reviews and I think they sort of remaindered it about three weeks
later (its a short book life in New York booksellers).
Ironically that last weekend there was a good review of it in the
New York Times by Sonia's husband. But the book had already gone
from the shops. Theres a lesson there somewhere, but I never
learned what it was.
Sonia wrote me a month later from Ithaca. Shed married someone else,
they lived up country and I mustnt write because her new husband
wouldnt like it. I discovered that I was very upset by this. The
same day I got a call from London. A possible new book deal. I had to
go back to London. I found that I didnt really mind. Maybe you have
to grow up in New York to have real friends.
I have been back many times. During the eighties I wrote a couple more
novels there and researched a third that will finally come out in 2002
(with luck). Now I have family living there. I have met all my nieces
friends, but they all look very tense and lonely to me. Successful, tense,
lonely and pretty desperate to meet Mr Right. Everyone hoping for serendipity
to happen. Well it might, but first you have to buy that ticket and a
Sometimes I remember Sonia, her beautiful kids whisked off to Ithaca.
I wonder what happened to all of them. Then I remember the instructions
not to write. I can just wonder.
© Sam North 2000
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