(Editor’s note: This is the first post by Cultural Capitol writer J. D. Oxblood.)

On Dining with Strangers

By J.D. Oxblood

I live on a small island off the coast of the United States of America. That may be technically untrue, but it’s more true than the truth. I live on the Island of Long, in a small corner that is vastly different from the rest of the island and—like the neighboring island of Manhattan—the rest of America.

This is a story, like all New York stories, about what makes us different, if not exactly special. We live in tiny, tiny apartments and pay anywhere between a third to half of our income on rent. This is alarmingly obvious to New Yorkers, but if anyone’s reading this out in flyover country (that’s right, I said it) read that sentence again. It’s insane if you really chew it over, and yet we do it, year after year. And as I was recently reminded whilst dining with out of town guests, it’s always all about the rent. As my visitors were wondering why we were paying $15 for a cocktail, I noted the address: we’re half a block from Rockefeller Center. Guess what—while the cocktails are weak, the service is crap, the décor is overdone and like something some rube from the suburbs would call “so New Yorky”—these people have to pay the RENT.

I’d like to introduce a new factor in Quality of Life assessment—let’s call it the Personal Space Index, or PSI, for short. Take the total square footage of your dwelling, and divide it by the number of people who reside there. Then figure the approximate square footage of any and all common spaces (bathrooms, living room, kitchen), divide by the number of people, and subtract this from the first figure. Because, let’s face it, you have to fight these people for elbow room on a daily basis, from waiting in line to brush your teeth to a little make-out time on the couch. Using my living situation as an example: (500 total sq. feet ÷ 2 = 250) – ([common areas: 40% of 500’ = 200] ÷ 2 = 100) = 150. So my PSI is 150 square feet. Not a whole lot bigger than your average jail cell. So, yeah, we need to get out.

And yet, it doesn’t get us any more personal space. Take going out to eat. When was the last time you went to a steak house in, Pennsylvania, maybe, or upstate? As close as the Hudson Valley you can walk into a restaurant that is as spacious as the mall in “Clueless” and order a meal that automatically comes with soup AND salad, not to mention some overcooked vegetable and a potato-derivative dish. (New Yorkers instinctively understand that when you order a piece of meat at a restaurant, what you get is exactly that—a piece of meat. And maybe some cute drizzly Kandinsky line of mystery sauce across the plate.) In New York, you will inevitably be led to a row of two-top tables that are approximately two inches apart from one another. While the big-sky part of your mind is imagining that it’s set up for a party of 25, your hostess (under 25, tight black dress, reeking of conditioner) will pull a table away from the wall so that your date can sit. (Men: this is old-school gentleman 101. The woman should always face out so that she can see and be seen. If you’re worried about being assassinated, dine with another man.) Two total strangers will be seated on your left, and two total strangers on your right. You can literally bump elbows with them if you shift in your seat far enough to fart. And yet, according to the Convention of New Yorkistan, you will not speak to these people. You will not look at these people. And you will not betray, through voice or facial expression, the fact that you can quite clearly hear every fucking word they are saying.

It all makes for a veritable cornucopia of hilarity and awkwardness. We hear couples breaking up from six inches away. We hear profane sexual talk, family secrets, office gossip. It’s occasionally fun. Recently, at a favorite Thai restaurant (First Street East of First Avenue — best damn Pad Kee Mao in town) one of the two girls next to us dropped her fork. I said, babyishly, “Boo.” The girl next to me snapped—“Are you booing my friend?” I explained that, no, I was booing the situation — now she had to ask for a clean fork. The girl loosened up and I began to like her; she actually defended her girlfriend, a quality not often found amongst female culture. Later, when the girl complained about her fat fingers, I said to my date, loudly, “Look at how fat her fingers are.” Fourth wall, broken, for comedic effect.

But usually the proximity is just annoying. Most people suck. Most people have no fucking concept of personal space, or consideration of others, or even the concept of basic human decency. Recently, at Poquito’s on First Ave. and 9th (great backyard patio; quality Mexican food) the guy next to me was pontificating unbearably. His voice so clearly cut the air around us that I was unable to think about the menu, or hear anything my date was saying. All I could think about was some asshole at work named Dave. Torn between being passive-aggressive or aggressive-aggressive I went off on a giggle-inspiring rant that culminated with my shouting — “YOU HAVE TO PROJECT, MAN, WE CAN’T HEAR YOU IN THE CHEAP SEATS!” Miraculously, that got the guy to shut up. For about 5 seconds. We moved to another table on the other side of the patio and I was shocked to realize that, from a distance, he looked like a classic bull-dyke lesbian. Maybe if he plays it off he’ll do well with the lipsticks… “Do you mind if I kill the lights? Just give me a second to adjust my strap-on … it’s very realistic.” I digress.

(The face O’Reilly makes when pretending to be a bull-dyke.)

It’s bigger than dining out. I was recently dragged to motherfucking Bayside— technically Queens, but beyond the reach of the Subway and accessible only by the Long Island Rail Road—for some asshole’s birthday. When I arrived, late, I made some a defensive comment about why the host had decided to move to the middle of nowhere. He spread his arms in a broad gesture, showing off the great and fantastic beauty of the surroundings, and said, “I can’t see WHY.” I grew up in suburbs like this, I thought, and they were fucking ugly then. This is beautiful? Houses separated from each other just enough to be called houses. Tiny green lawns cut by concrete. A few trees, but no more, and no more wildlife than my little corner of Brooklyn. All I saw was wasted space, a design deliberately intended to waste fossil fuels, and a lifestyle revolving around the idea of living in the middle: not rural, not urban. You don’t live in the country, the big dream of the Great American West, and you’re not citified. You’re bludgeoning the environment and spending half your life commuting. You live in purgatory. And PS, your apartment is smaller than mine. We went to dinner — basically a Friday’s — we easily landed an 8-top and the closest table to us was five feet away. And I thought, wow, they could get half dozen more tables into this space. Why so wasteful?

It’s possible that I’m brainwashed by the City, but if you think New York is packed, you should spend some time in Asia, where the concept of personal space has yet to be invented. Shit, if you’ve ever been to Chinatown—ANY Chinatown — you’ve been shoved out of the way by an 80 year-old lady. It’s not rude — you’re just in the way. And, let’s face it, round-eye, you’re too big. I recently had an epiphany on Khao San road in Bangkok after noticing that the piece of asphalt in front of the 7-11 is, after dark, a bar. Plastic seats are plunked down, the farang are encouraged to sit, and the girl brings you ice cold beers. Since the whole street is one big party, why not use every available space? In front of the 7-11, not unlike a ghetto Texas sit-N-sip, no tables, nothing to do, just jammed together with people and drinking. And no more crowded than the average Manhattan shithole on a weekend night. And with better service. That’s when it hit me:

The dream of the American West must die.

While it may seem prepossessing to draw a parallel between the social and psychological need of personal space and the impending environmental crisis … I’m doing it anyway. Come on over to Brooklyn and ride the L train into Manhattan at 9 am on a weekday. Them Asians got nothing on us, bro, and seriously, we need those high school students like they got in Japan shoving people onto the train. Coz some people still don’t want to snuggle up. Every rabid environmentalist I’ve read in the last five years has insisted that the culture must change first — and so I offer up New York City as an example of another way to live.

Wide open spaces, big sky country, a place where a man can stake his claim, space for a man to breathe, the wild west, the great expense — all this is completely antithetical to the survival of the species. The entire world is going urban and it’s not for nothing. Hey, if you want wide open spaces, please, move the fuck out to Montana and Kaczynski it up. But if you work in an office and know more about Powerpoint than you do about rutabagas, what the fuck? Do you really love mowing the lawn so much on weekends that it’s worth the extra hour-long commute? Have you read ANYTHING by Elizabeth Kolbert? And tell me, why, six years into the Iraq war, two out of every three commercials on TV are still urging you to buy a new car? Buy a fucking vowel, people — you don’t need a new car, you need to burn the one you have. The suburbs are over. Either move to fucking Wyoming or get over yourself and join the crowd.

I’d like to say more on the subject, but really, the walls are closing in on me. I’m going to walk down to the park and dig the hot girls in bikinis catching rays. And the next time I’m in a restaurant and the guy next to me refuses to cooperate and PRETEND that we have space that, like our American forefathers, we still want, but don’t actually need, I’m going to pick up my burrito, move to another table, order another beer, and do what all red-blooded Americans do with their angst: blog about it.

Kiss kiss,
J.D. X