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How to Spend Time Alone

In a city that can provoke loneliness—but also reward solitude.

In this crowded city of 8.4 million—in fact, the most crowded New York has ever been—one of the great and rare pleasures is finding solitude, whether on the subway or at the movies or in a booth facing the wall at a Chinatown noodle shop. But being alone when surrounded by so many others holds a different appeal from being alone in a cabin in the woods. It’s less about being a hermit and more about being a chameleon. It also breeds a different sort of anxiety. Out in the country, you might hear noises in the dark. Here in the city, you might feel like a klieg light is following your every move. Simply requesting a table for one can induce a cold sweat; people might seem like they’re staring; you’re left with just your thoughts (and a paid-to-be-nice-to-you bartender) as the rest of the city buzzes around. Being alone here is a state of mind, a perpetual choice, and an occasional imposition, a burden, and a gift—and sometimes the very best way to meet a fellow stranger. “Every form of human expressiveness is on display,” Vivian Gornick writes of walking the streets by herself, “and I am free to look it right in the face, or avert my eyes if I wish.”

Riding the Subway Alone

After I had my daughter in 2009, I was rarely alone—except during my hour-long commute between Brooklyn and Manhattan, vying for subway space among strangers: That time on the train is mine. Nothing is expected of me; there are no domestic negotiations, no emails or texts or phone calls coming in. I can read, aimlessly or for pleasure. I can eavesdrop on other people’s conversations. I can study the increasingly metaphorical ads for breast implants, whose imagery has shifted from cleavage to fruit, or those ineffectual signs pleading for manners on the subway. It’s the pointlessness of whatever I end up doing that’s most appealing. The time feels stolen, like something I didn’t have before, though in truth it is the opposite: a drop of what was once in such a steady supply that I didn’t even notice it was there.

Jennifer ­Szalai, editor at The New York Times Book Review

Staying at a Hotel Alone

At home, suddenly, there is too much me. A stack of unpaid doctor’s bills. A box of clothes I keep forgetting to bring to Goodwill. Even the dust bunnies have grown familiar. This is when I log onto Priceline, or call around for midweek specials, and I book a couple of nights at a hotel in a neighborhood that isn’t mine. Airbnb is not an option—the point is to escape personal artifacts entirely, not cozy up with a stranger’s. There are more than 600 hotels and 110,000 rooms in New York. The first time, I chose an anonymous conference center in Tribeca, two subway stops from my Brooklyn apartment; even my dreams were uncluttered. The second time, I went Euro-chic no-frills in Greenwich Village, where there is only exactly what you need: clean linens, a bar of plain white soap, coffee in the lobby. I pack light but well. In this new life, I am my better self. Having someone else make the bed helps. I work industriously through the morning, run an errand at lunch. At dinner, I meet a friend. For two days an unknown corner of the city is mine. I return home refreshed.

—Kate Bolick, author of Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own

Partying Alone

One fourth of July, I didn’t feel like having a big party and all my roommates went to other parties. I downloaded OK Computer, which, amazingly, I didn’t have yet—I decided in a day to become a Radiohead fan—and just went up to our roof, which overlooked the East River, and listened to the whole thing while the fireworks happened. It felt really cool. It was just having that mental blank. Being up there by myself made the fireworks feel totally different; instead of this big bang and hurrah, it was just like, Oh, these are beautiful.

—Sasheer Zamata, performer on Saturday Night Live

MoMA’s sculpture garden opens an hour before the museum.  

Walking Alone

I once brought the conversation at a dinner party to a halt by saying that if everyone I knew died tomorrow, I wouldn’t be undone, because I’d still have the streets of New York, where, sooner or later, almost every form of human expressiveness is on display and I am free to look it right in the face, or avert my eyes if I wish, let my jaw drop, offer it an ice cream, or call the cops—as the mood takes me. Here, alone in the street, I feel free as I do nowhere else, except perhaps at my desk. There is no one to bore, embarrass, or threaten me. No one to whom I owe attention or from whom I need attention. I am free to stop, dawdle, or move on as I will, respond or recede, observe or participate. If I were not alone, I’d be in conversation with my companion. The street would then become context—the situation, if you will—our exchange the story. Alone, the world around me is both the situation and the story.

—Vivian Gornick, author of The Odd Woman and the City

Seeing a Movie Alone

Like all men over 40, I am a nostalgist. This is the eternal rule. Every middle-aged guy’s the poet laureate of whatever he feels he might lose. Buying the ticket, buying the popcorn; grabbing a seat far and close enough to be isolated from—and yet feel a kind of body unity with—everybody. That’s a solo movie visit, where I get romanced by the anachronism.

It is archaic. A crowd forms, seeking entertainment; that little curl of ticket in your palm; even the meatspace reality of the theater—all signifiers of nostalgia: I am going to a movie. Waiting in line, you might as well be a milk crate packed with LPs.

Maybe the romantic part derives from being alone. Alone is key. You know how Sinatra makes being dumped a decisive expression of the stylish adult? Alone is cool. Alone is how we start and what we return to. The same frizzle in adolescence would have marked you as a pariah. Enjoying Johnny Guitar at Film Forum; a BAM showing of The Hustler. The movie should be a real oldie; Le Mépris at Film Forum. (Actually, these all would be best at Film Forum.) That is to say the film should give a view of a tarnished world. Which will add to your sense of being a bit tarnished yourself. A small theater is good, not too full—that sense of obsessives cherishing their obsessions. And you should be over 40. Being over 40, I think, helps your eyes follow the bright projected beam of wistfulness all the way to the story it’s trying to tell.

—Darin Strauss, author of Half a Life

Sitting in the Library Alone

All the libraries I’ve tried to work in have been busts. But the library at the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New York, two blocks north of the NYPL, is different—a stunning clutter of blueprints, schematics, how-to manuals, and industrial lore (its oldest holding is the Society’s first annual report, from 1785), crammed onto balconies above the best reading (and writing) room in town. It’s mostly empty, or, due to its vocational mandate, mostly empty of other young ambitious humanists typing up their memoirs on brightly polished Apples. I come for the solitude and stay concentrated by the hard-backed chairs, the unstable tables, the erratic hvac, and the paradox. Which is to say this temple to the technical has no outlets for those Apples—just a ragged gray extension cord that occasionally appears, like a snake in Eden, from under a shelf against the western wall. On a recent morning I was the only person there; even the librarian left, for a moment. When she came back, she asked, “Anything happen?” “Nothing,” I said. “Just how I like it,” she said.

—Joshua Cohen, author of Book of Numbers

Going to Coney Island Alone

As a child, I always wanted to stay at Coney Island after dusk. I designed a roller coaster in which riders would sit backward, never seeing their destination. Now nobody has time to join me on spontaneous trips to Luna Park at unpopular times. Once, I forced a reluctant boyfriend to ride the Cyclone with me, silently convinced that the disagreement encapsulated our sex life. I might have been right. So it has become a solitary ritual. I always linger there, savoring the ocean air mixed with the scents of fried clams and asphalt, the eeriness of a nearly deserted carnival on a drab weekday, an atmosphere that practically impersonates memory. On such an afternoon, I once stood by the Electro Spin, a giant pendulum with a rotating circular platform, watching as they ran the ride without any passengers at all.

—James Hannaham, author of Delicious Foods

Riding the Staten Island Ferry Alone

I would say the Staten Island Ferry is my city’s greatest pleasure. We live a daily island life in Manhattan. But you actually have to get off the island to see it. I’ve ridden the ferry occasionally and inexorably since my 20s. When I was a kid and I couldn’t sleep, I’d walk to the bottom of the island, get on the ferry, smoke, look pensively at the water like Hart Crane, then just take the next ferry home. And always there’s the Statue in this intimate way. In this private, non-patriotic, cigarlike way. It’s just not a glamorous boat at all, so it’s how New York makes its connection with the rest of the world. The Circle Line goes around and around, but the people on the Staten Island Ferry are actually going to work. Which underlines my leisure. I don’t have to go to another city. I can waste my time on the water right here. Being on the water is an animal thing, and that a great city continues to have a common and available appendage to its waters means New York remains cool, grotty, and plebeian. Which is exactly this poet’s studio or anyone’s dream. The utter nonutility of a relationship to the ferry and these waters is what’s really, really good.

—Eileen Myles, author of I Must Be Living Twice: New and Selected Poems (September 2015)

Visiting a Museum Alone

“MoMA’s outdoor sculpture garden is always full of people, but there are these individual chairs that can be moved around to create quiet corners—a river flowing around you in your own field of gold. Right now, MoMA has a secret sculpture within this secret garden: In an undergrowth of trees is Pierre Huyghe’s reclining female figure with a functioning beehive cocooning her head. You can miss this incredible hidden-away sight; don’t. Sometimes the busier it is inside the museum, the quieter it is in the garden: Refuge is only steps away.”

—Jerry Saltz, art critic

Reading in a Bar Alone

“In the early afternoon, bars are way less crowded than coffee shops, so that’s where I get my reading done. Washington Commons in Prospect Heights has a huge backyard, and from two to four on Saturdays and Sundays, it’s pretty dead. You can nurse your drink, and no one’s going to bother you.”

—Boris Kachka, contributing editor, books

Climbing the Empire State Building Alone

“A lot of people don’t know this, but the Empire State Building is open until 2 a.m. The last elevator leaves at 1:15. If you go up then, it’s empty, it’s beautiful, and the city sounds like the ocean.”

—Zach Woods, actor and comedian

Record Shopping Alone

Rough Trade records in Williamsburg is usually a ghost town after nine pretty much any night of the week—and it’s open until eleven, which I don’t think people realize. It’s easy to lose track of time while you’re browsing, and wandering the aisles is like flipping through the rotator on Pitchfork’s homepage, but better exercise. In one corner, they have synthesizers and guitar pedals you can play around with.”

—Lane Brown, culture editor

Tips From Pro Loners:

How to Blend In: “I put my headphones in, have my phone out, and just kind of gesture like I’m really ticked off. And I wear a lot of navy-blue polo shirts—nothing too bright.” —Michael McKeever, private investigator
How to Eavesdrop: “You still want to be out of eyesight, but instead of sitting back-to-back, you sit behind them and turn on a 90-degree angle, so that your ear is facing the person you want to overhear. Having your ear pointed at them, in a straight line, makes it substantially easier to hear.” —Morgan Friedman, publisher of Overheard in New York
How to Go to a Party Knowing No One: “I’ll talk to people who are also alone. I was recently at a party for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and I saw Tony Romo standing at the bar alone, and I felt like Tony Romo shouldn’t be standing at the bar alone. I went over, and we ended up bonding over our kids and how much we hate baby monitors. I don’t really have an opening line, but I can probably talk about almost any topic for three minutes at a cocktail party. After those three minutes, I’m out.” —Ian Mohr, deputy editor of “Page Six”
How to Break the Fourth Wall: “If you hear an argument and you’re positive of the correct answer, the appropriate time to break in is once someone has fully committed to being incredibly wrong and is really arguing their point. I’ll wait for a pause and then cut in playfully with questions about the wrong answer—like, ‘Oh, really, when did that restaurant close? Have you been there in the past couple months? Did you know there’s another restaurant with a similar name that closed, too?’—until it becomes obvious that it’s wrong. Then, you back away like, My job is done here, carry on.” —Brad Gallagher, owner and bartender at the Freehold
As told to Lauren Schwartzberg

The Future: An App for Me Time
The start-up Breather lets you dip into private spaces for as little as 30 minutes. I gave it a shot.
By Jason Feifer

I’ve been on this couch for about five minutes, not moving. Ever since my son was born on May 28, I have been on call. Not now, I remind myself, because I have literally purchased alone time for myself.

I put my feet up on the coffee table. Should I manspread? I manspread. Nobody is coming in.

I arranged this room through Breather, a company with private work spaces around Manhattan that are bookable through its app. After securing 30 minutes for $13.50 in a tower near Rockefeller Center, I just showed my ID and gave my phone number to the doorman. Then I was off to room 704. The app might seem like the ultimate quickie-hookup tool—less sketchy and just as no-tell as a motel!—but the room is maybe 20 by 20 feet, with a couch, a chair, a table, and a tub of Tootsie Rolls. And there’s a Breather employee outside. Sex here would have to be quiet—and, I guess, on this couch.

I breathe deeply. I eat a Tootsie Roll. They don’t taste any better when you’re bored. Doing ­nothing, I conclude, is not the same as briefly having nothing to do. It’s been 30 minutes. But I don’t move. Another minute passes. Then two, then three. I close my eyes. Now, this is satisfying—not buying free time but feeling like you’re stealing it. Then the Breather employee knocks. Time is up.

The Past: Living Alone Like It’s 1936
I consulted a vintage advice book.
By Allison P. Davis

Illustration by Joe McKendry  

I’ve lived alone for about four years, but it took waking up on my couch, the TV on, and a chocolate bar melting under my leg to realize this is the wrong way to be your own roommate.

The right way, I figured, looked something like the advice in Marjorie Hillis’s 1936 advice book, Live Alone and Like It. Don’t wallow in despair because you have to live alone, Hillis advises women who have obviously never lived with four people in Bushwick. Live like an aristocrat.

And so, for one month, I followed Hillis’s instructions: I cooked myself elaborate dinners while wearing a luxurious robe (eggplant Parm in a vintage kimono), slept in a “luscious, pink satin nightgown” and doused in “fragrant toilet water,” and woke up to have breakfast in bed with the paper and a cigarette. Most of this felt ridiculous.

But one piece of advice on living alone (and liking it!) has stuck: Avoid being alone too much. Hillis recommends leaving your Private Idaho with semi-regularity—in my case, fighting the urge to eat chocolate in solitude—and socializing with a large and lively group of friends. Which I’ve done. And I’ve found I appreciate them so much more because I can go back to my apartment without them.

Where Chefs Eat Alone

Kevin Adey, Faro:Mad for Chicken in Koreatown has these TVs that play regular color movies in black and white through these cutout portholes with no sound; you’re totally in bizarro-land. I’m pretty sure Reservoir Dogs was playing last time I was there. I remember being completely enthralled by it.”
Corey Cova, founding chef, Dough Loco: “When I just want to put my head down and order, I’ll go to Xi’an Famous Foods. You can sit facing a wall and don’t have to see or talk to anyone. And then I can go to Chinatown Ice Cream Factory right next door for dessert and do the same thing.”
Jonathan Wu, Fung Tu:Okonomi has only 12 seats, so as a single diner, you have a better chance of getting in. I like to watch the action of them cooking; it’s actually something to do. If you were at a table in a dining room, you’re stuck looking at your phone or a book, but because the cooks are right in front of the diners, there’s that intimacy and you can talk to the staff.”
Emma Bengtsson, Aquavit: “I have a little place, Settepani, around the corner from where I live in Harlem; it’s nothing special, nothing fancy, but good solid food, and they have live jazz playing, so you can sit outside by Lenox Avenue and have that built-in entertainment. I always felt welcome—there seem to be a lot of solo diners when I’m there, single people who are just enjoying their day off.”
As told to Mary Jane Weedman

Where to Eat Alone
Just me and my madeleines.
By Adam Platt

When you want to strike up a conversation with the poet sitting next to you: Roberta’s, 261 Moore St., nr. Bogart St., Bushwick 718-417-1118
The bar is tiny, which makes it difficult to devour your meat-laden Beastmaster pizza pie in perfect solitude. But if it’s antic, cutting-edge chatter you’re after, the unobtrusively communal, picnic-style tables of this first-class restaurant are reliably filled at lunchtimes and dinners with poets, performance artists, and chatty graffiti masters from Bushwick, Manhattan, and various points around the globe.

When you don’t want to strike up a conversation with the poet sitting next to you: Sushi Yasuda, 204 E. 43rd St., nr. Third Ave.; 212-972-1001 (or any of the city’s grand sushi bars, really)
Sure, poets enjoy sushi like the rest of us, but not at these prices. Sushi is also the quietest, most monastic of disciplines, and when the room fills up with Japanese salarymen in their identical gray suits, you feel like you’ve just landed in Tokyo, which, along with New York, is the other great world capital of dining alone.

When you don’t want to run into anyone you know: Shopsin’s, 120 Essex St., nr. Rivington St.; no phone
Chances are your friends have already visited this famous Lower East Side breakfast destination, and if Kenny yelled at them (which he probably did), chances are they’re not coming back. If they do happen to return to commune with the inspired short-order menu (the short-rib huevos rancheros; the fluffy pancakes; the majestic, bacon-bombed “Sneaky Pete”), Kenny will still be raving away in the kitchen, so they won’t dare talk to you anyway.

When you want to drink yourself into a quiet stupor: Bemelmans Bar, 35 E. 76th St., at Madison Ave.; 212-744-1600
The afternoon is always the best time for a solitary booze-up in the big city, and at this famous Upper East Side oasis, the waiters are discreet, the old classic cocktails are well made (the daiquiri, the stinger), and it’s way more fun to gaze at the famous murals on the wall than at your damn iPhone. Also, at precisely 5:30 p.m., the piano player arrives, making the joint more or less uninhabitable and reminding you that you’ve had enough to drink.

When you want to read Proust: La Grenouille, 3 E. 52nd St., nr. Fifth Ave.; 212-752-1495
Ask for a quiet table in the back, away from the chattering big-hair regulars in the front room. Order the pike quenelles or the sole grillée, take a sniff of the fresh roses and maybe a sip of Champagne, and then crack your book. The madeleines will be along at the end of your contemplative, civilized meal, baked fresh, the way the master preferred them, and served on a gold tray.

When you want to read the Post: Donohue’s Steak House, 845 Lexington Ave., nr. 64th St. 212-744-0938
At lunchtime, of course, preferably at the bar, and with the excellent house cheeseburger in front of you. Bernie Madoff was a regular at this old Lexington Avenue institution, and (as the Post reported) the art collector Robert Ellsworth ate there so often (much of the time, we’re guessing, alone with the paper) that he left each of his two favorite waitresses $50,000 in his will.

The Stunt: Table-for-One Test
We forced a set of extremely joined-at-the-hip 31-year-old twins to dine separately.
As told to Monica Kim

Kirk Mueller (left) and Nate Mueller. Illustration by Joe McKendry  

Kirk Mueller: “I was filled with an overwhelming sense of terror.”

We have never gone out to eat alone. Never. There was a lot of mental buildup: “You’re just going to get ramen, you’ve done this a hundred times.” But I was filled with an overwhelming sense of terror.

I went around the corner to Chuko on Vanderbilt Avenue. The place was completely full, so I sat at the bar; I don’t think I would like sitting alone at a table, which feels very much like you’re waiting for someone else to come. I asked for a kimchee ramen with chicken, and as I sat there waiting for my food to come, I realized I had to entertain myself. So I took out my phone and started skimming an article until it struck me that it looks weird to be alone at the bar on your phone; it felt like people were watching me. So I put the phone away and started ­people-watching myself, focusing on all these minute details. I made up stories about the people I saw eating, and I’d look at people on dates and watch their micro­expressions, the way they laughed at jokes. (Is one person more into it than the other?) It was fun, and I ended up staying for about 45 minutes.

When the check came, I realized that nobody was judging me for eating ramen alone. Everyone’s wrapped up in their own lives. And I actually enjoyed being in the moment and noticing things I had never noticed before. I definitely would like to do it again—maybe a couple of times a year.

Nate Mueller: “I felt like there was a spotlight on me.”

Going in, I was afraid of three things: Having a panic attack, fainting, and filling the time.

I went on a weekday around 7 p.m. to Franny’s, which is around the corner from us. It was filling up with people, and I was able to grab the last seat at the bar. I ordered a Negroni, quickly drank that, and then switched to wine. The bartender was really sweet, and we were chatting about drinks, but I felt that he was like, Oh, so sad, this person alone at the bar, I have to talk to him.

I ordered the zucchini penne and took out my phone and started checking email. Because I don’t have any experience being alone, I applied my usual social cues and thought, I’m being rude, I’m not talking to anyone else. So I got off my phone and started looking around before settling on a man and a woman on a date. I was sitting in earshot, and the thing that struck me was that the guy only talked about himself. He didn’t ask his date a single question. I just thought, This poor woman on a date with him.

I tend to eat fast, but eating alone, I ate much slower. That was the best part: I focused on my food only because I had nothing else to focus on. Kirk said that he ended up feeling invisible, but I felt like there was a spotlight on me. At least I didn’t have a panic attack. It was like cow stomach; it looks appealing from afar, but then you try it once and say no thanks.

Where Parents Go to Be Alone

Queens Zoo in Flushing Meadows–Corona Park: “On a weekday morning when the kids are in school and the weather is raw, I am often the only one there. It’s just me and the animals. I’ll voice my worries to them.” —Marc Palmieri, Bayside
Sheet-Music Section in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts: “I’m forced to be quiet and focus on the thing I love: music. I sit between the bookshelves, and nobody is there. Even if you do make eye contact with someone, only a smile is exchanged. It’s like a beautiful, quiet dance.” —Salina Sias, Fort Greene
Path Between the Long Meadow Ballfields and the Nethermead in Prospect Park: “I go to this rock along the path in front of a waterfall that’s the perfect fit for my butt! It’s right up against a fence, so I can recline. You can’t see any buildings, and you can’t hear any cars.” —Lauren Jost, Park Slope
Chinese Scholar’s Garden, Snug Harbor: “Here, you’re not in New York anymore; you’re in China. My family and I started going there because of their Chinese New Year celebrations, but then I realized if I went during the week, there’s just nobody there.” —Sam Moon Rafferty, Staten Island
The Dentist: “I’ve always had incredible dental anxiety, but now, given how crazy my kids make me, I look forward to going. It’s a period of time when no one can bother me. And there are drugs—legal drugs!” —Jodi Goldman, Riverdale
As told to Raven Snook

Additional reporting by Marcus Jones, Rebecca Milzoff, and Katy Schneider.