The Kindness of Strangers


New Yorkers are always talking about relationships. If you listen in on conversations, on the streets and on the subways, you’ll overhear a constant chatter: “she wants to be friends. I still like her but I’m not ready for that”; or “we fucked for 12 hours,” “no wonder she wants to see you again, man” (this, accompanied by a slap on the back). As I write, sitting in a cafe on a Sunday afternoon, a young man at the table next to me is discussing a dating ad with his friend: “how’s this – ‘I’d like you to come over to my house, and hang out, naked?’”

Forget work, money, ambition, alienation – sex is the common thread that unites the 8 million strangers in this city.

The English, especially women, often mock the New York dating game. “We think Americans are so odd, with their emphasis on dating,” a female journalist friend told me. “In London you just get drunk and sleep with someone and next thing you’re going out.”

But surely it’s a pleasure to exchange numbers with someone after a chance encounter, then meet them again to see how you get on? If you walk down a Brooklyn street on a weekend evening and peer into the restaurants, you’ll see couple after couple gazing into each others’ eyes. Dating may be conventional, but it’s quaint too.

My most recent date was with a 34-year-old New Yorker called Jeb. I bumped into him two weeks ago at a cash machine when we were both turned away by a sign reading, “Closed: go to the Chase Bank on Broadway”. He was rushing to a play – I’m not quite sure with whom – and I was rushing to meet a friend in a far away part of town called Williamsburg. But he took a few moments to ask me my name, find out what I did for a living, and carefully copy my number into his iPhone. Three days later he called.

My housemate had warned me against going home with him in case he turned out to be an axe-murderer, but Jeb was charming. He had black curly hair and wore a suit. He told me about his job (event organizer), upbringing (Jewish), college (upstate New York) and ancestry (Polish/German). He had just bought an apartment in Manhattan, after making a lot of money on the stockmarket’s upheavals. I couldn’t help noticing that he didn’t order dinner. Our meal consisted of niblets of cheese and quiche and bread. As he later revealed, this was in case I turned out to be boring and he wanted to cut the evening short. Fear of commitment is another well-known New Yorker trait.

We kissed at the subway stop and he asked if I’d like to spend some time in his apartment before going home; but I decided to save that visit for another day.

Back in my coffee shop, a song is playing, “You never know unless you try.” And perhaps that’s what the American way is about, that and seeing opportunity in every setback. So next time you get stuck on the tube or delayed at a cashpoint, put your irate feelings to one side, and let your eyes linger on the people lined up nearby. Blanche DuBois had some things right, and in a lonely city, the kindness of strangers is one of them.

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