There are some basic guidelines to living in New York. The most important, I believe, is that people walk here like you drive anywhere else. The sidewalks are our roads -- walk accordingly.
There are slow lanes, and fast lanes, and it is inappropriate to stop in either. Should you need to stop, you need to signal, then merge to the shoulder of the road. It is never, ever appropriate to stop in the middle of the road to stare at the Madewell store, or anything else. Similarly, it is ineffably rude to line up in a row with your party and take up all the lanes in any direction of traffic. While single file is preferred, it can be appropriate to walk in a twosome -- but then you MUST be in the slow lane.
While walking in New York is perilous business, eating is something else altogether. Accordingly, it has its own rules and regulations. Today I will be discussing one of the most important: eavesdropping.
It is unavoidable that you will overhear personal conversations in the city. We all accept it. You just have to hope that it's not someone who could ruin your life, personally or professional. [Sidebar: my favorite note in the gloriously TK collection of advice and rules for Vanity Fair interns involved a little play in which some Snotty Interns are complaining about their job, only to find RICHARD JOHNSON is listening in! OMFG2006!]
As dangerous as public dining can be, the rules of public conversations are pretty simple: If you're eating by yourself, and people are talking next to you, pretend to either be reading (book or mobile phone time waster, it's up to you) or perhaps seriously interested in what you're eating. That way the people next to you can talk reasonably comfortably -- they understand that you are abiding by the general social contract. Sure, you might repeat something funny you overheard to your friends, but that's unavoidable! At least this keeps the talkers up on their raconteur skills!
Should you be dining in pairs, however, the rules shift, dramatically. You must maintain your own conversation no matter what. At no point is it appropriate for your party to sit in silence while the people next to you are talking about something -- be it mortally embarrassing, hilarious, important, pedantic or inane. A pair of silent eaters who are clearly just sitting there letting the other pair do the talking work is like wrangling total strangers into your bad date, And I have enough of those to worry about my own, thanks.
Speaking of which!
Older couple who were sitting next to me in SoHo last night: While I was perfectly happy to tell my friend about my farcically bad time of it with a fellow, I don't feel like I know you well enough to share the story with you. Because you were total strangers. And I feel inclined to let you stay that way as you clearly were not abiding by the rules! While it was neither our faults that the vaguely mean hostess sat you down RIGHT NEXT TO US in a nearly empty restaurant, I feel very strongly you were not abiding by the social contract and were leeching off our conversation.
What was I to do? I was nearly whispering towards the end there, and my friend (unfortunately) can't read lips. While I'm sure you got a kick out of just how bathetic my life is -- and trust me, I think it was pretty funny too, once I got home in one piece -- I just feel like I wasn't really ready share that with you. Because you were total strangers. I know I have trust issues (or, should I say, I'm rapidly getting them...) but I'm sure you can see my point.
What was I to do? NOT talk with my friend? Do you know how hard it was to actually get it together to see her, in person, out in public? It was an epic struggle, let me tell you. I had so many new documentaries on Netflix streaming to watch, for one.
You couldn't chit chat about what you did that day? You couldn't complain about the fish tacos? You couldn't share your thoughts on our Do Nothing Senate? What about that Wallace Shawn book of essays, that seems right up your alley! Christ, couldn't you have at least visited the good old days with Mandy Patinkin? What were you two doing below 72nd, anyway?
Anyway people, there are rules. WHICH APPARENTLY NO ONE FOLLOWS. OH GOD, WHY BOTHER.