The Impossibility of Making New Friends

After moving to New York, Janet Manley attempts to find new friends through Meetup.com.

meeting

The arrivals are different than the departures. At goodbye parties, the common factor is you. The crowd gathers to feign distress at your leaving. “Don’t go—” the faces say, “You still owe me gas money.” Their wet eyes watch you drive away, cursing under their breath at the guitar lessons you never gave them, before turning their backs and starting a life without you, refilling their cups with one last gulp of frozen sex on the beach mix before driving over to your old rental to steal back their push mower.

On arrival to a new town, you are greeted by no one. Before long, you grow nostalgic for the raucous farewell party, turning pictures of the jovial gathering through your mind, smiling as you think to yourself, “Who in the hell were those people? And how did they become my friends?” This question, along with “How do I behave after I accidentally touch someone’s butt on the subway?” will resonate as you contemplate a new town populated by strangers. Several drawn-out conversations with the falafel man later, you will decide “Enough!” and turn all your attention to the getting of friends.


I am bad at making friends. I have known this since I was four, when I failed a bonding session on a trampoline that should have been a cakewalk. All the other girls started bouncing and were instantly besties, while I stood at the side, friendless in my singlet, too embarrassed to hop on. (Even at age four, I knew the dangers of letting excess chest flesh bounce, unsupported.) In days past, people like me were left to our hessian bags and closeted lives of shame and isolation. Today, there is the internet.

Just the other day, a friend emailed me a Facebook page for the Denver Gay Vegan Collective — a group I might have been able to join had I not left Denver. And not been married. And not been a sporadic croissant eater. But it begs the question, if there are enough gay vegans in Denver to form a collective, surely there are enough chubby, blonde, Chris De Burgh fans to start a collective in New York? I got to searching.

If sites like Meetup.com are anything to go by, nary does a Tuesday go by without Christian bowling, Floridian fly-tying, sexy single new moms catching up for macaroons, or a spot of foraging for edible weeds. One particular meet-up run by Bike to Adventure features a video from last year’s inaugural “Caveman Campout” as a sales tease — if you can’t make friends while running around a campsite wearing shrubs for pants, then you probably are beyond help, it seems to say. Likewise, their “food on a stick” rides seem designed to distract participants from the awkward dance of acquainting each other — should your ability to socialize like a normal person be challenged, the group silently promises, you will have a piece of food on stick in your hand to wave around, bite on, discuss, inspect or, as a last resort, throw, so to cause a distraction and make your getaway. This is a misdirection technique also employed by the Hash House Harriers, who host an urban orienteering and drinking event. No doubt, the camaraderie among hashers is that of soldiers manning the front lines. If soldiers were constantly hammered and needed their friends to re-tie their shoelaces.

Outside the broadly appealing meet-ups focused on eating, drinking, or praying, there is an astoundingly precise array of niche meet-ups. “Strictly Sophisticated Lesbian Lovers” caters to that demographic, though just how strict the organizers are is unknown: Do I strictly need to be a lesbian to join, or must I only be strictly sophisticated? I’ve tried to cross paths with the “Brooklyn Spontaneous Writers Meetup,” but how can you know where they will ever be, or when? Who is going to intervene when the “Dance Addicts” relapse?

I’ve joined the Aussie Expat meet-up group, through some longing for the broad accents and laid-back conversationals of my countrymen. (Where else can one crack a Craig McLachlan joke for any sort of payoff in this town?) I’ve hit happy hours here and there, ginned to talk about myself competently, but I otherwise sit on the outside of the circle, observing the games within.

I decided to join a writers meet-up, fretting over the wording of my “introduction.” The application forms for prospectives are a test of word economy, flair, coherence, and skill at not coming across as a jerk. To access the group’s events page, the system asked for detail around my “writing background,” striking fear into my heart that my sordid bylines and light internet footprint didn’t comprise hefty enough recommendations. Everyone knows that writers have just about the lowest self-esteem of any social group. Why on earth would you open the door to collaboration and support with: so, you really haven’t written much, have you? If there was a meet-up for “People Who Would Like to Write But Are Probably Too Crap,” I imagine you’d attract a far thicker swarm of interest.

To my delight, the system swallowed my list of abandoned Tumblrs as proof of writerlyness and granted me access. Fanning my sweaty face, I attended my first meet-up praying, “Please don’t let these people be so much better than me.” Of course, once you are seated at a random coffee house with other sweat-pants-clad folk clutching scribble pads and scuffed MacBooks, a second fear strikes: please don’t let these people be much worse than me. After all, you want these people to be the real deal, to open the door into the secret world of writers, to possibly collaborate, or just compliment you, week after week. And for that, they need to be convincing.

In a conversational round-robin, I was asked what I “do,” to which I offered a deeply self-deprecating apology for my day job — I assumed nothing less than “I write for The New Yorker” would suffice. Following my condescension, several people at the table felt obliged to lower their self-worth further by proclaiming long-term unemployment with even greater atonement. (You see how hard it is to avoid being a jerk at these things, even by accident.) I attended a few more of these, treating them as a “healthy habit” that marooned me from internet access and forced me to put finger to keyboard. However, my enthusiasm for inter-borough travel waned as I realized that, minus travel time, I could achieve three times the volume of writing in my own apartment. And I could do so while picking lost Bagel Thin crumbs out of my bra as I went.

At the same time as I foraged for friends at these free buffets of people meeting, I began a writing class with a higher barrier to entry: $400. A short ten weeks long, the course would introduce the class to stand-up comedy with the seminal “This is what a joke is.” (This blew minds.) From there, we would fight for survival against the realization that standing on a stage trying to summon laughs from a crowd was far more difficult than anyone had imagined. Rather than pit writer against writer, the effect was to galvanize the group into tribes capable of fashioning tools and lean-tos, so to live another day on Comedy Island. There was something at stake, beyond resisting a second 900-calorie apricot scone or running out of battery power. A few weeks in, emails began to flicker among class members. Then a meet-up happened — real-life hanging out (like in Friends!), no agonized profile descriptions, no desperation, no promise of further outings. After that, another meet-up, buttressed by a shared history, a shared fear of bursting into flames on stage.

The differences between the two groups shouldn’t have been massive. Both attracted people not wallpapered into fulfilled, bustling lives. Both attracted people willing to put themselves out there, wherever “there” might be (in my own case, I take it to mean anywhere there is no guarantee of a public restroom). But the only connections I’ve made thus far (taking into account my great social ineptitude) have been through friends, or friends of friends, or via night classes. So why do organic meetings continue to win out?

In New York City, the sheer volume of people you meet outweighs that of every other U.S. city. It is a termite mound crawling with millions of specialists, hobbyists, peer groups, and kindred spirits. Perhaps the most frustrating notion on arriving is that your people are out there… somewhere; that the people who get you, who are hung up on the same things, and have the same goals, and the same passion for Chris De Burgh as you, are on the move, just around the corner. Until you can get onto their scent, the internet meet-up serves as a low-percentage dating system that may or may not net a peer group or, better still, a bona fide friend. From my short time in town — less than a year — I appreciate the ability of the internet to fill the social calendar up until these people can be tracked down.

However, the difference between meeting people through friends of friends, and meeting people through a meet-up is the filter that is missing. As Groucho Marx said, “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.” Through internet-facilitated introductions, the social filter — rejection, antagonism, indifference — that serves to sift “like spirits” from cloudiness is missing. You cast a wider net, but so, too, you catch more sneakers and transistor radios and car tires than fish (presuming this metaphor is employed in the East River). Even so, you may see me at the annual Caveman Campout this year; I’m putting it tentatively on the calendar.


La danse by Matisse, courtesy of WikiMedia

Janet Manley lives in New York and can outwalk the best of them. She tends to croissant and Twitter habits. For solicited commentary on the state of open-toed boots, contact her via her website.