David Usborne: Our Man In New York

In the lonely city of 'Friends', you're lucky to have one


It is a long time since I've attended a stag night and I was not sure what to expect last Wednesday evening as I made the long subway journey up to Pampa, a restaurant specialising in Argentine food, on 98th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. Pampa is famous for its steaks but not, as far as I knew, for cigars and naughty strippers.

Surely, the groom-to-be, Peter, was not the type for such shenanigans. He is an intellectual sort and the very idea made me giggle. But then again, even though he and I go back more than 20 years, I began to wonder how well I really knew him. He is a good friend for sure, but for a long time we have been lazy about our relationship, only rarely seeing each other even while living in the same city.

All this is churning in my mind as the Number 3 train rattles north. I began pondering the same question that has recently been put to all Americans: who are my real friends exactly? I seem to bump into acquaintances every day, but how many could I turn to in times of crisis?

This comes up thanks to a widely advertised study in the American Sociological Review that purports to show that as many as one in four Americans do not have a single friend they can comfortably confide in. The average American has just two real confidants. Twenty years ago, when the last such study was conducted, that was three.

The notion of the lonely American is hardly new, stretching back to the pioneers sowing the first crops in the vast emptiness of the plains. The Harvard professor Robert Putman drew our attention to it in 2000 with his best-selling book, Bowling Alone, which explored the collapse of traditional community institutions, such as the bowling team, that gave people reason to leave their front rooms of a Friday evening.

New York, I would like to think, is different from the rest of America. Another friend ­ all right, good acquaintance ­ recently moved from her apartment in Hell's Kitchen, where she loved to throw roof-top parties, to a suburb of San Antonio in Texas, finding herself with a nice home, a nice pool but a lousy social life.

To see another soul during the day she must get in the car and drive to the mall. This would surely be enough to make many a housewife ­ or househusband ­ desperate.

But though this may be the city of Friends, it is not a place where holding on to friends is easy. When you are 20 in Gotham, you give yourself to the night and all the strangers who share it with you. At 30, the slavery of the clubs and private parties gives way to the slavery of work. At 40, you realise you're exhausted and you flee town for good. Who's had time for friendships?

So, thank goodness for Peter's stag-night, an occasion for bonding (if of the male variety) if ever there was one. It is my little piece of self-assurance that I have friends, I really do. Never mind that when I arrive at the restaurant I realise, of the eight other men present, I know only Peter and one other.

But when guys are in the mood to gossip (hens nights are surely dull by comparison) a great deal can be revealed in a single meal. It was Nick who set the mood, arriving with a hilariously inappropriate gift for Peter: a pristine copy of The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pick-Up Artists by the former New York Times writer Neil Strauss. From then on, the conversation became stuck in a rut it refused to leave for four hours: the sexual chronicles of every man at the table, Peter's especially.

The young waiter was transfixed as would have been Peter's fiancée who rang three times asking to swing by and join the fun. And three times permission was denied. If she already knows all of Peter's secrets I wonder if she knows those of the married man sat next to me, who confesses to an intriguing private hobby, photographing nude models, whom he pays (but never has sex with) according to how naughty they are in front of the camera.

After some consideration, I think I can conclude that Peter is one of those friends I could turn to for support if life gets ugly.

As for most of the others around the table, I have some work to do. Fortunately we will all be meeting again soon: the upstate country wedding is in three weeks. We will just have to find other things to talk about than sex. Parents (and the bride) will be present.

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