The diner is empty except for a table of friends near the front, laughing about something. I choose a booth near the back. I sit on the tan vinyl, facing away from the entrance. The waiter hands me a menu. I already know I want a grilled cheese sandwich and soup.
I am somewhere in Park Slope. Brooklyn isn’t somewhere I haven’t explored extensively. I’ve been to Williamsburg a few times to check out live music. I’ve been to DUMBO, because it’s close to some really good chocolate. I’ve walked through Brooklyn Heights with a friend and discovered poets’ homes and cute bookstores; beautiful promenades and brownstones that whisper history. I’ve walked through Prospect Park at the end of winter, blooms still a bit shy. I’ve ridden my bike through Brooklyn down to Coney Island, where a couple miles from the coast on Atlantic Avenue I can feel the ocean’s coolness, and I can smell the sea.
This diner is on 5th Avenue, between 8th and 9th Streets, for what it’s worth. It’s sometime after 9pm, and the friends at the front table look like they’ll be around a while. They’re having a good time; they remind me of my friends. The evening in Park Slope has proven itself pleasant. The waiter stops by and I order a grilled cheese with tomato and the lentil soup. And a coke.
I think back to my brief wanderings. My intention was to find a certain music venue, which I did find, but I didn’t want to return home right away. I strolled within a safe radius from the subway station and found that I like Park Slope. It’s quiet and residential; a big church sits on a corner of 4th Avenue and 9th Street (or thereabouts). Families float between their favorite ice cream places and their homes. Yet, the area is also hip, so I can hear the sometimes not-so-faint live music from nearby clubs. I bet the daytime is totally different, but just as cool.
The waiter returns and places a cup of chicken noodle soup in front of me. I don’t say anything. I like chicken noodle soup.
I find I’m sipping my coke a little more quickly than I expected.
I take the Moleskine notebook from my bag and put it on the table. I open it to a fresh, blank page. It has been a while since I sat in a strange place and wrote. I used to do it all the time, especially when I first moved to New York six-and-a-half years ago. At music joints, like the Living Room, I would take notes about the gigs. In coffee shops or parks or diners, I always would have my notebook.
People often used to approach me and ask if I was a writer, then I would modestly smile and avert my eyes and maybe blush and say “no, not really.” Then it turned into “kinda-sorta.” Then “maybe.” Then at least I’d try to qualify my responses with, “I’m aspiring” or “Yes, but not professionally, yet.” Then I’d always redirect the conversation back to the others. That kind of attention has always made me uncomfortable.
Then life, as it does, caught up with me. These places, I’d always go by myself. I had so much time to think and shrink into my shell, the quintessential hermit, and I was fairly content. The city kept me company with its places and lights and music and temptations. Anonymity appealed to me. Millions of people in the same boat as me, millions of people I don’t necessarily have to connect to; the paradox itself was way more exciting than overwhelming. All these things I can do and see, with no attachment. All these strangers asking if I was a writer, and my answering them at first as if I’d never see them again, then progressing somehow to a point where I realized I wanted the conversation to extend beyond the initial and superficial contact.
I started making friends.
It was like a slow, painless fade-in, a coming-to, a gradual wakening into morning. People stopped asking me if I was a writer, because those people already knew, because we arranged to meet for a second or third and successive times, and I told them where my heart was and then we’re hanging out or catching up and the faces I see don’t look familiar because there are millions of them and they blend into sameness, they’re familiar because they’ve stepped forward from the masses, and we relate to each other. I recognize my friends. It’s like a police lineup, but I don’t have to stand behind the one-way window. They’re guilty of extending themselves to me, but that is no crime.
I am a writer, aspiring, unofficially, whatever. That fact stands. However, it occurs to me that those people, wherever my notebook was, actually never asked about writing as much as they were giving me hints about friendship. Deliberately. Almost pointedly. Patiently. Which I finally took. Gratefully.
The waiter comes to my table and profusely apologizes for giving me chicken noodle soup, and he graciously offers to bag up some of the lentil soup, at no extra charge. I’m not annoyed or even put off in any way. I smile and accept his offer. It’s 10pm, and I start to think about my trip home. I can’t wait to tell people about Park Slope. I put away my notebook. The diner has become quiet, except for a conversation behind the counter about the movie Stranger Than Fiction. I love that movie.
The front table is empty. The friends have left.