How About Never?

When a troupe of Norwegian actors visited Clay Shirky, they wanted him to show them the New York City that movies fail to portray. Mr. Shirky knew immediately which aspects of New York are essential and unique to living here: “Friends you don’t like, and parties you have to go to.”

It’s been proven, anecdotally at least, that everyone in this city of eight million knows everyone else. Moreover, everyone wants a chunk of everyone else’s time, creating a tyranny of making plans (a.k.a. getting together, meeting for coffee, grabbing a quick bite, popping into a new brunch place). Time and energy are subsequently chewed up by obligationships -all kinds of people you feel you should see but don’t really want to. It was a decade ago this month that New Yorker cartoon editor Robert Mankoff gave Xerox-room bulletin boards and refrigerator doors the gift of the “No, Thursday’s out. How about never-is never good for you?” cartoon. Then, as now, the cartoon got at how “we want to meet people and we want to not meet other people,” Mr. Mankoff said. “We have to connect and disconnect, and that’s the dance we do all the time.”

Too often, though, the connection is with that vast tier of B-listers-or Blisters, since the thought of the meeting chafes, and you don’t see them enough to ever grow used to it.

To be clear, these people aren’t “frenemies” (those who act friendly to your face, but scheme and talk smack behind your back). The interactions don’t even have the thrill of malice-they are, in fact, usually totally benign, if not surprisingly pleasant. Which amplifies the guilt afterward: When exactly did you turn into someone who bitches and bleats about sitting down with a person who only wishes you well? When did New York become a town in which “Let’s meet for coffee” has come to mean “Goodbye-and I hope it’s forever?”

Most likely this transformation takes place the second a New Yorker realizes that spending time with Blisters comes at the expense of spending time with his or her closest friends-who are themselves exhausted from twirling through their own B-lists.

Timothy Donnelly, a poet and graduate student who lives in Cobble Hill, admits to “dreading social engagements”-despite his crammed calendar. “But once I get to where I am going, and I settle into the company of others, make eye contact, perform the appropriate hello, apologize for being late, I always end up having a good time,” he said. “And I have to wonder what the fuss was all about.”

Part of the fuss is overcoming urban inertia: Since there’s always something going on, sitting at home for a night (or a month) doesn’t mean missing out.

“Staying in feels like a sinful luxury,” said Colleen Werthmann, an actress. “Like, the city is an avalanche of things to do tonight-and I’m going to lie on my bed and watch Dateline !”

But another part of the fuss could be because of the sheer number of people who want a piece of you.

“The city’s natural resource is people. In West Virginia, they have coal, and the industry is all around coal. Here, we have people, and everything in New York is social,” said Mr. Shirky, an adjunct professor of network dynamics at the Interactive Telecommunication Program at New York University. As Mr. Shirky explained it: “The number of pairs in a group grows faster than the number of people in any given group. If you have three people, Alice, Byron, and Clarissa, you have A to B, B to C, C to A-three pairs. Add a fourth person, you get six possible pairs. A fifth person, 10 possible pairs. When you live in the largest city, the number of pairs isn’t twice as large as in a city half its size, it’s exponentially larger. It’s the New York math.”

Put more plainly, he said this means there’s “an egregiously outsized group of people who want to meet you for coffee.”

And e-mail only exacerbates it: “There’s no protocol for having an e-mail that doesn’t end with, ‘Let’s get together,'” said Sue Johnson, a Web producer who has been known to be booked solid-breakfast, lunch, drinks, dinner-for weeks on end. “I can’t help it. How do you say no? It’s like you’re dating someone, and it’s easier to keep seeing them than to have the unpleasant conversation.”

Given an inch-or a few hours at Les Deux Gamins-some people want a yard. Carly Jacobs, a television producer, has one friend who would like to see her every few weeks. “It’s been going on for years,” she said. “We would have dinner, and two weeks later I’d get a call, like: ‘When can I see you again?’ I have put this woman off so many times. I’ve said I’ve been out of town; I’ve been on vacations much longer than the ones I actually took.”

Clearly, some people are impervious to hints. Jennifer Buzzelli, a television executive, said that one acquaintance has been asking her for four years to get together. “I’ve said things like, ‘The next two quarters are really bad for me. Let’s talk after that.’ I make up an excuse every time. Why doesn’t she get it?”

Kirsten Major, a foundation worker, has a friend who would like to get together once a week. “And it’s too much,” she said. “She acts so put out and sad when I cancel that I just don’t make plans in the first place. I feel guilty about letting her down-but also pissed off at the guilt trips. And that makes me even more avoidant.”

“Sometimes just meeting up is the small price to pay for being able to stop the back-and-forth,” Ms. Buzzelli said. “You show your face, stay an hour and a half, and you get to cross it off your list.” And Ms. Jacobs said that following through on a plan with her persistent friend “buys me five months of freedom.”

Considering that such enthusiasm is brought to extant obligationships, it’s truly a wonder why anyone agrees to socialize with new people. It’s as though lives are like apartments, furnished with friends, and should you come across some person at a cocktail party and hit it off, you leave the party with not only excitement about this new friend, but also the slight panic when you realize you didn’t check their dimensions-as in, “Where in heck am I gonna put this?”

Occasionally, the apartment’s furniture can be rearranged. More often, the new person becomes a knickknack up on a shelf, dusted off every few months. “When you meet someone who seems fun, you exchange a couple of e-mails, and it kind of dies that way,” Ms. Major said. “If the understanding of the level of friendship is mutual, you can see the person once or twice a year for a party or a movie. Once or twice a year sounds awful, but it’s true.”

Once or twice a year also sounds like scheduled checkups, which in a way, these get-togethers are. This large set “is your caseload,” Mr. Shirky said. Matt Kaufman, a medical resident who has actual rounds, thinks of his friends in two groups: “the inner circle, and everyone else.” Ms. Werthmann thinks of her friends as “different shades and colors” (like the terror-alert system). Ms. Buzzelli’s brackets for friends include “the weekday lunch, weekday dinner, weekend lunch and the be-all-end-all weekend night.” And Ms. Johnson has the A-team, the B-team and the C-team. (“Throwing a party is a great way of getting the let’s-get-together people and the B-team out of the way at once,” Ms. Johnson said. “Though I hate the idea of putting my friends on a list of things to do.”)

Even without conscious categorization, you can often tell where the person fits by the character of the conversation. “With the people you don’t see all the time, you spend the entire time talking about the past three months and hearing about their past three months. It’s not satisfying,” said Joey Bartolomeo, an entertainment writer. Inevitably, you end up hearing yourself tell the exact same anecdotes again and again; it’s shtick that you’ve honed out there on the circuit of B-list get-togethers. Ms. Bartolomeo recognized that she does this: “I feel like, ‘I’ve told this story to so many people already, what’s one more time? I’ve made this entertaining; I won’t see this person for another several months, and this will tide her over.'”

After a while, this brand of interaction resembles the reverse gear of Michigan J. Frog: Sitting across the table from the Blister at Café Lebo, you launch into a top-hat-pumping, cane-shaking verbal cakewalk. Then, the bill settled, you say your goodbyes on the sidewalk, hop home, and let out a limp, lonely brrrrropppppp .

Following such a hollow engagement, you may crave contact with one of your A-listers, a genuinely very good friend-not just someone you happened to order your respective bosses’ lunches with 10 years ago and oddly kept in touch with. “I learned very quickly when I moved here that you see your good friends about once a month,” Ms. Jacobs said-certainly more often than anyone else, but so infrequently because you’re busy rotating through the lower tiers. “But I talk to them all the time on the phone.”

Ms. Johnson will go months without seeing members of her A-team-but, she said, “your closest friends are with you in spirit. Though that still seems so sad.” When granted furlough from plans with B-listers, you’re often too wiped out to meet up with those in the inner circle. What sets closest friends apart is their ability to understand that what you need to do is go home alone, eat Nutella straight from the jar, sit in the dark and watch The World’s Scariest Police Chases (they may even join you over the phone, respectfully staying silent between commercial breaks).

Interestingly, television serves as a gauge by which friendships are measured. For Ms. Bartolomeo, it boils down to something her closest friends grok: “Would I miss The Bachelor for you?” (It bears mentioning, Ms. Bartolomeo knows how to program a VCR.) “Would I rather be home watching reality television than out with this person?”

The network lineup factored into one of Ms. Jacobs’ boldest cancellations. “A friend of mine was having a party because he was leaving the next day to cover the war in Iraq,” she said. “It was his last night in the U.S., and I lied because I wanted to go home and watch 24 . Sorry, Kiefer trumps you.”

More acrobatic cancellations and postponements are often called for, however. Ms. Jacobs admitted, “I’ve started calling people from my cell phone when I’m at home, telling them that I’m just leaving work.”

Indeed, Mr. Shirky, the network dynamics expert, pointed out that the more wired you are-with cell and Internet connection-“the more you’re assured of 100 percent asynchronous contact.” And, he added, “that makes sure you never have to end up meeting,” since it’s never too late to call the cell phone and cancel. Plus, many New Yorkers now have three active phone numbers-home, work, cell-so it’s shamefully easy to fib and say, “I didn’t check that voice mail until it was too late.”

Ms. Johnson said she has discovered that “part of the ritual of getting together is canceling.” She said an ambiguously worded e-mail can buy her weeks of postponement. For instance, “Let’s check in next month” assigns a shared responsibility, so there’s no need to feel guilty the next month, when you’re not the one to check in. “Sometimes when I’m the one who gets the let’s-check-in e-mail, I e-mail back with: ‘How about the 13th at 1 o’clock?'” she said. “Because I know where they’re going with that.”

In bowing out of social obligations, Oliver Metzger, an attorney, has figured out how to be polite but firm: “In the past couple years, I have just started giving excuses like: ‘I haven’t seen my wife in six days, and we just want to stay in and order a pizza.”

In the absence of honesty, there’s fantasy: “I’ve just started to fantasize about being in a relationship, so I have a built-in excuse,” Ms. Buzzelli said. “Like, ‘Sorry, we’re going to stay in and put up some shelves.'” Ms. Major took it a bootied step further and admitted to fantasizing about having a baby as an excuse: “Having a boyfriend just makes it seem like you’re ready to desert your friend whenever the homme du jour appears. A kid would fix that.”

A child certainly is the next best thing to a house-arrest anklet.

“Your life is hyper-local, considering the transaction cost of packing up and getting in a cab with a stroller,” said Mr. Shirky, who lives in Cobble Hill. “It’s no better for me to go to Wall Street than the Bronx. Once I call the car service, I may as well go to New Rochelle. Given the hassle, I’d rather just roll the stroller to the corner store.”

Beyond the deli, parents’ social lives can include luring friends for a house call, despite its diminished appeal. “While it makes me sort of sad that my friends don’t want to hang out with me and my kids, I am starting to understand,” said Launa Schweizer, a Park Slope mother. “Why would they want to come over and watch me with my really lame baby-sitting job that I can never get out of, since the parents never come home?

“Before I had kids, I had lots of friends, spent lots of time on the phone, wrote all these e-mails,” Ms. Schweizer continued. “There were acres of time that I could choose to spend as I wished.” Two daughters later, her schedule has changed drastically. “I suppose if I were a more laissez-faire mother, it wouldn’t bother me to spend lots of time away from them and keep up the friendships that have died. And while I refuse to detail their deaths, some of them were spectacular, gruesome and horrifying. Train wrecks.”

On the occasions when Ms. Major has managed to shed a B-list friendship, “I get rid of the person’s phone number immediately. I keep an old-fashioned Rolodex, so it’s very ceremonial-the disposal of the card. In one case, I burned it.”

But not all B-list friendships end in flashy Bruckheimer fashion. Dr. Kaufman said he changed his e-mail address without sending a change-of announcement, thereby paring down-however inadvertently-the number of people who can easily contact him. He also said: “If I used to know a phone number off the top of my head, and it’s been so long since I’ve used it that I can no longer recall it, that’s a sign it’s over”-as though the human body can reject a friendship the way it might a transplanted organ.

“When people talk about time, they are really talking about priorities,” Ms. Schweizer said. “It’s a lie to say you don’t have time for someone. Instead, be honest with yourself and realize you’ve made some choices, then live with them.”

But Mr. Mankoff suggested that this endless jitterbug of planning and canceling and rescheduling and screening and avoiding and caving and (finally!) meeting up for those 16 ounces of chai latte serves a crucial function: It delays ever having to assess the quality of your life.

“It’s like, I’m so busy that I don’t know if I’m happy or unhappy,” he says. “But I’ll total it all up when I’m dead.”

How About Never?