New York is not a place where you–willy-nilly–engage people whom you don’t know. If tourists are lost and confused, you might ask them if they need help and guide them to where they need to go. If something especially strange is happening, people might murmur about it between themselves. You might even have a bit of small talk with your local business owners or the girl reading the same book as you on the train. (Scientist think these brief interactions make people happier.) All of these conversations have two things in common, however: they’re short and they’re non-intrusive. Small-town folk might call us rude. We view it as a courtesy extended to us by fellow city dwellers–in a place with almost no privacy, you let people have theirs in public.
Except we broke those rules, as did the total strangers we were dining with a few weeks ago. My husband and I bought tickets to a crab boil at Back Forty, a locavore restaurant in the East Village. Seating was communal, and we were seated outdoors with two other parities of two. We introduced ourselves and after my husband gave a crab-eating tutorial, dug in. I think we all expected to go back to our intimate conversations after that, but we didn’t. For two hours we talked to one another as though we were at a mutual friend’s wedding. We learned about each other’s careers, backgrounds, thoughts on living in the city. A member of the party was from Dublin, and he taught me a fun new idiom: “chin-wag”–meaning a chat or conversation.
It felt very un-New York and very New York all at the same time. These are probably not people I’d be lifelong friends with; I don’t even remember any of their names. It was a nice evening, though, and it reminded me how, in the right setting, a conversation with strangers can be almost as satisfying as one with old friends.