All Un-Alone in the City

Photo: Bill Jacobson/Getty Images

It’s not polite to talk about numbers: But how many men and/or women have you added to your list since you’ve lived in New York? Are we talking single digits? Double digits? Triple digits? How many of them were long-term, how many short-term, and how many turned out to be one-week (or one-night) wonders? Do you still keep in touch with them, and do you remember their names? Do they remember yours?

We’re talking, of course, about friends—a topic of joy, anxiety, and competition in the city that invented Friends, Seinfeld, and Sex and the City; a city in which invidious comparison is available with the flick of the remote, or with a glance into any restaurant window. A city in which, at the moment, it is August, and many of the people we count as friends are away for weekends, or weeks at a time, leading to a sudden slip-off of phone calls and e-mails that produces the existential question: Do I exist when the bulk of my friends are absent? It’s like a dip in the Force.

In June, sociologists at Duke and the University of Arizona released a study that showed that, over the past twenty years, the number of people that the average American has heart-to-heart talks with (or, in shorthand, “friends”) has dropped by one-third, from about three people in 1985 to about two in 2004. For many people, the only confidant left is a spouse. Then, last month, Joseph Epstein, the Chicagoan taxonomist of American social mores, released a book called Friendship: An Exposé, in which he addressed the broad topic of friends much as an exterminator might address the broad spectrum of pests, suggesting it was high time that Hallmark came out with a card that read on the cover: “We’ve been friends for a very long time,” and continued on the inside, “What do you say we stop?”

Assuming (which may not be entirely fair) that people have the friends they deserve, and that, given human nature, if they really wanted more, they’d make an effort to socialize beyond their lawns, New Yorkers are once again faced with evidence that the priorities of the average American may have little to do with our own. For us, not having a spouse is acceptable; not having friends is anathema—a sign that your neuroses are so beyond–Woody Allen that only a shrink would take your calls. And when we marry, the comfort and reassurance of family life are constantly weighed against the stimulation and temptations of urban life and the preexisting bonds of longtime friendships. A hundred years ago (and earlier), before modern transportation made it easy for people to carom across the continent(s) at will, people largely stayed where they were dropped, leading to the invention of such strategies as “etiquette,” which is, essentially, the art of not alienating the people you are constrained to live among. But New Yorkers are unusual in that they still stay put (except in August), though not so much through constraint as through choice. The result of staying put is that the old-fashioned art of cultivating and maintaining your circle is as necessary here as it was in a small town in Indiana in 1875. Or 1975.

I remember, arriving alone in Manhattan at the tail end of the eighties, being alarmed that I lacked the built-in friend base that my New York–born contemporaries had. Having grown up in Indiana, I had witnessed the efforts that adults went to in low-population zones to whip up a social whirl: gourmet clubs, canoeing expeditions, picnics, car races. Activities changed—my mother would joke about going to a “dog shoot in Fowler” (a nearby hamlet) to pad the schedule—but friends remained the same.

In New York, there was no need to resort to dog shoots, but how did an absolute beginner go about finding a plus-one, much less a plus-posse, when everyone seemed so dazzlingly unavailable? At work, in those early days, I furtively filled out a Rolodex card with the names and numbers of nearly everyone I spoke to for more than ten minutes, wondering if they would mystically morph into Friends. I labeled the card “Amici” and filed it under A, so that if the Rolodex flapped open, nobody would guess the meaning of my hopeful jottings. Over time, thankfully, I was able to shred the card. There is no Idiot’s Guide to How to Make Friends in New York, but if there were one, it would have to include a thorough classification chart of the indigenous friend varieties.

There are the friends-from-the-office, whom you see most often, because of the workaholism of this town, but don’t necessarily hang with outside of work (a subset of this is the office “marriage”); there are the “tribe” friends, the essential, familially claustrophobic pack everybody depends on; the drop-of-a-hat friends, tireless explorers of the city’s delights whom you ring up when your tribe members are lying low; activity-friends, whom you round up for poker games or bike rides; too-busy friends (which can include married friends), who E you and phone you and suggest meetings that they generally, sheepishly, cancel; friends you only see at parties; old lovers (popular among the breezy, the thick-skinned, and masochists); old friends, who include schoolmates, college roommates, family, and anyone who knew you before you were employed; new friends, who come and go like junior-high crushes; and friends-of-the-heart (who can be drawn from any of the above groups, and who can change).

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.

All Un-Alone in the City