When I first moved to New York in December 2007, the crush of the city overwhelmed me. The smell of Chinese greens stewing followed me all six flights up to the tiny walk-up I shared with a surly hipster. My bedroom was so small that I couldn’t be in it and not on the (single) bed. Anyone long-legged had to sit sideways on the toilet or else their knees knocked against the wall. When the air was particularly heavy, I could hear the asthmatic hipster wheeze his discontent through the plasterboard divider, all night long. The chaos in the air made me neurotic and depressed, and New York in January is not a kind place. I wanted out immediately.
I had lived in cities before—London, Brussels, Miami—but human nature revealed itself more rawly in New York, the cold, cruel facets of it as well as, occasionally, the transcendent. What most affected me was the unrelenting crush of people living on top of each other. The Indian matron proudly astride her stool behind the register at the bodega on Houston, surrounded by condoms, cigarettes and disposable toothbrushes. The rich, sad and damaged ladies of the Upper East Side, so heavily made up they looked like porcelain dolls salvaged from a landfill. The delivery boys riding kamikaze, monstrous bike chains slung across their backs. These people, their textured, invisible lives.
I had come to New York because, like a million other people who move there with futile dreams, I wanted to be a writer. This was not working out for me. I got fired from the only writing job I got and nobody else wanted to publish me or even respond to my grasping, overwrought queries. When I did get gigs, they were puerile and superficial. I had moved to New York to write, and the only writing I was doing was teensy bits of dumb stuff I had to unattractively claw my way into.
Even though I knew tons of people in the city, making plans took a month’s notice—New York had turned them into people too busy to hang, self-obsessed, stressed. It was incredible that I could live in a city at once so dense and so lonely. I wondered more and more about the strangers I saw everywhere. How were their days going? What was going through their minds?
So I started asking. I took ten of them out to lunch one by one and wrote about it, and when I came back to New York in May 2009, I started listening to them in a more personally illustrative context: their own kitchen. They possessed a candor and an openness that refreshed me completely. I left every meeting, without exception, glowing from the personal contact. I had knocked on the unknown doors of strangers’ lives, and what I had found made me joyful about the contents of the world.
Tonight, four of them came over for dinner at mine. I hadn’t seen any of them since I’d written the presumptuous, protracted assumptions about their lives that characterize Eating with Strangers. The tables had turned, and now my life was open to judging.
Lara arrived first, wearing the same fresh-scrubbed face and grace she’d exhibited she she’d welcomed me in to her dorm room. Dana followed shortly, bearing wine, even though I’d said to come empty-handed. They chatted in my kitchen (“So, uh, what do you do?”) as I went down to open the door for Pete. Pete and I dawdled in my apartment hallway talking as he locked up his bike (he’d brought wine too), and in the meantime, Steve showed up (also with wine).
We began drinking; the room warmed up. I had made a clear-the-cupboards hummus with chickpeas, a blistered red pepper, parsley, lemon juice, olive oil and cashews, and we scooped it up with dark, salty pretzels from the Greenmarket. The Bo Bo poultry people at the New Amsterdam market, who raise slow-growing, dark-meat-heavy chickens sold whole, with their feet and heads attached, had given me a bird after the market, and Balthazar Bakery had pawned off an enormous loaf of sourdough, so I stuffed the chicken with breadcrumbs, parsley, onion, and lemon and roasted it for an hour. There was kale dressed with lemon and ricotta to eat with the chicken, and conversation was lively. Lara and Steve had read my descriptions of the other strangers; Dana and Pete hadn’t. I asked them what it had been like to read about themselves at such length. “I didn’t learn so much about myself—I mean, I was right there with you; I know what transpired,” said Dana. “Reading the piece, I learned more about you. The things you noticed, what you chose to illustrate.”
Someone has approached me about potentially televising Eating With Strangers, a project I feel torn about. Personally, I would love to watch a show that trawls through other people’s kitchens, exploring their lives through their cupboard, fridge and mannerisms. I’ve long been convinced that food is a common denominator, an intuitive vehicle by which to gain insight into a person—or a culture’s—politics, history and ideology. Whether it’s acting as a symbol of power, an aesthetic display, or a community ritual, it always an expression of identity, of psychology and culture. I find all this totally fascinating, and if I could spend my life exploring these questions, I would jump at the chance.
Televising it would change a lot about Eating with Strangers. It would change the people interested in participating (“You can count me out,” said Dana), as well as, necessarily, my behavior while interacting with them. It’s no one’s fault. Having a camera around just alters things.
Plus, the vision would no longer be mine. It would be the videographer’s, the film editor’s, the sound engineer’s, the director’s, the producers’, the network’s, and the advertisers’. Filming Eating with Strangers would tilt the balance between me and the stranger, and what makes it special right now is that it’s just two of us, some food and a pad of paper.
Or, like tonight: five of us, some food, no paper. Just the mellow confluence of open souls reveling in the warmth of others. I reflected on how different the vibe would’ve been tonight given any other permutation of strangers. There was something especially empathetic about this collection. They were really able to relate to each other, even though they presented a mélange as random as people who find themselves suddenly stuck in an elevator together.
It was a unique moment in a world made up, I suppose, of unique moments. We kibitzed till 12:30, eating ricotta cheesecake and honey, and then all at once, as though an invisible bell had rung, they spun back off into their own worlds, into the night, leaving me to meditatively clean the kitchen.
Click here for the photostream, courtesy of Dana....