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All Un-Alone in the City

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In five boroughs, holding some 8 million people, the risk of being crossed off someone’s mental “friends” list, or supplanted by a fascinating interloper, is an ever-present spur to comradely effort. Proust wrote that the threat of infidelity hovers over successful marriages; in the same way, the expendability of local friendships keeps players on their toes. And when a friendship dies, its casualties cannot easily avoid each other, given the persistence of social circuits—leading to confrontations out of Choderlos de Laclos—men flinging drinks and fists at one another, women cutting each other dead. To escape the awkwardness, you’d have to leave town for good … another kind of death.

To Epstein, friendship seems to be no big whoop. “Friendship does not arise out of necessity, but out of preference,” he chin-strokingly opines. Yes and no. I have never come across a New Yorker who does not regard friends as a necessity; and while making friends may happen out of choice, keeping them over time requires the same tact and harmonizing of egos that occur in family life. How New Yorkers pull off this delicate balancing act, while holding down their jobs, is one of the city’s enduring mysteries. In fact, in seventeen years of socializing in this town, at thousands of social occasions (breakfast, lunch, brunch, dinner, book party, party party), I have found only one rule of friendship etiquette that remains constant: Maximum number of times you can meet somebody on second introduction, forget their name, yet still become friends: 1. Maximum number of times you can meet somebody on second introduction, forget their face, yet still become friends: 0.

Friendship: An Exposé
By Joseph Epstein. Houghton Mifflin. 288 pages.


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