So there I was in New York on business, at the end of a wearying day of travel and meetings. I decided to grab a quick dinner at the fashionable bistro near my hotel. A lively but crowded place, with tables bunched together so closely that just getting situated would be a major effort, and once I was seated, there would be no question of getting up again for light and transient causes. New York seems to abound in such places, as well as in little dramas like the one that was about to enfold me.
At the next table were two women, I would guess in their late twenties or mid-thirties, sipping large glasses of white wine, utterly absorbed in conversation. So absorbed that they barely noticed me squeezing in next to them, and continued conversing at full blast even as I was reading the menu. And I soon noticed—how could I not?—that they were intently comparing notes about their respective boyfriends, and doing so with unsettling specificity. No intimate detail was too intimate to be related, analyzed, praised, disparaged, rated on a scale of 1 to 10, or otherwise disclosed, dissected, and dispatched with clinical precision. I’m sure the conversation was therapeutic for them, but for me it was almost unendurable, and there was no escape. Fortunately, I had brought a book with me, although I merely held it in front of my face as a prop, staring at it with frozen blankness like a subway rider at rush hour, occasionally turning a page for show, as I listened in table-locked captivity to their tales of adventure and deprivation in the jungles and deserts of male companionship.
This triumph of analytic candor went on for what felt like an eternity. I knew they weren’t trying to shock or provoke me; instead, they were working from the assumption that for all practical purposes I didn’t really exist. And all would have been well had I not made the mistake of glancing up from my book to take a peek at the woman facing me. She caught me looking—and registered, not embarrassment, but barely suppressed outrage that I appeared to have been listening to their (quite inescapable) conversation. And I was summarily judged an unspeakable creep for having done so. “Let’s go somewhere else, Mona,” she huffed, as she pulled out a twenty-dollar bill, slapped it on the table, and stormed away. I was incredulous. What more could I have done? Worn a blindfold and earplugs? Make like a potted plant?
—Wilfred M. McClay