Eating late was a sign of sophistication. To eat in darkness, even in midsummer, when sun and birds have gone to bed and parents, back in their suburban habitats, are tiring; to eat in a blaze of artificial light, the auxiliary of restlessness and stimulation; to finish with coffee, last slap to the circadian rhythms, and tell any midwesterner who might be gaping, “Oh it never interferes with my sleep” (that’s because we don’t sleep, you rube); to pluck, from the rush of oncoming headlights, bouncing over the not-so-paved streets, the cab that will take you home (there will be no shortage of cabs, because cabbies know when city dwellers require their after-dinner rides): What could be better? I mean ordinary lateness, mind you: not the lateness of students pulling all-nighters, clubgoers, trannies, Balzac, garbage men, or fishmongers. Just the regular lateness of regular sophisticates. The one time I was in Madrid I learned that the locals are called gatos, cats, because of the hours they keep. That’s the idea.
For a while one of the local TV stations had the perfect tuck-you-in-afterwards ritual — Honeymooners reruns at 11:30, Star Trek reruns at midnight. You only had to watch a few minutes of the Star Trek rerun because you had long ago learned all the episodes: This is the one where the Americans have become tribesmen and Kirk gives a dramatic reading of the Preamble of the Constitution. Click.
But if everyone is a sophisticate, then the restaurants get a little crowded at cat-time. And changes in the layout and acoustics of restaurants have made that very unpleasant indeed.
There are two places in my neighborhood that are typical of the new order of things. Let’s call one Café Mononucleosis. The menu is Spanish, for all those cats, and I am told the food is good. I will never know, because it is impossible to get in. Youngsters snake out the door like a tail. The walls are wrap-around glass windows, so you can see where they are yearning to go: an array of narrow tables, packed together like lines on graph paper. The wineglasses are huge, which makes the tabletops even smaller. The bare thighs of the women touch the iPhones in the pants pockets of the men, and that is contact between strangers at different tables, not between dates facing each other. Everybody screams. Let’s call the other place Be It Ever So Humble. This is in some little leftover building with a bit of 19th-century charm, a converted carriage house perhaps. The charm is nice, but maybe the owners should have bought another and put them together. Each room is the size of a large oven. Diners sit on punishingly tall stools, taller than director’s chairs, with no backs, arrayed around tables that were too small even for Café Mononucleosis. Everybody screams.
No room, and chairs that you cannot comfortably sit in; the third baneful innovation is the communal table. The first time I saw one was in the restaurant of a boutique hotel (then a newish thing), where JFK Jr. was holding a party for the magazine he edited at the time, George. The guests of honor were Donald Trump, Larry Flynt, and Al Sharpton. If it had been ordinary restaurant hours, why should I have had to share a communal table with any of these gentlemen, much less all three of them? Screaming might have been a welcome distraction.
The new noise level might be explained by years of earbuds (no one can hear anymore). But why the easy acceptance of discomfort, or of subway-platform proximity? It is possible that no one knows how to eat anymore; I have read that the sit-down family meal is gone, slain by multiple televisions and social media. The Norman Rockwell tableau of the Thanksgiving turkey is not just bad art, it is bad art whose subject has died. Certainly everyone of a certain age texts and tweets as he or she eats, or masticates dumbly while the person across from him or her does so. Samuel Johnson reached down and twitched the shoes off women’s feet for less. So when they all get together to eat in a restaurant why shouldn’t they sit in midair, in each other’s laps, and scream?
If this is the new sophistication, then six must become the new ten-thirty. More and more I find myself dining at the blue-plate-special hour, the time once reserved for stout bland people in cornland IHOPs, or old Jews at older delis in Florida. I have in a sense become those people; I am certainly their age, or closer to it. I still have two claims to sophistication, one small, one large. My small claim is that I know what I am avoiding at ten-thirty (knowledge is the seal of being in with the in crowd, or in this case, in with the out crowd). — You’re eating stones. — But I know it. — Well that’s all right then. My larger claim to sophistication is that outside the doors of the momentarily quiet restaurants are not acre-size parking lots or Gulf Coast miasma, but foot traffic, car traffic, rush-hour traffic, rushing, jostling, who’s in my way? The chameleon takes the color of his background, which is humanity. When a woman is tired of London I will take off her shoe. We’ll go out later, when it’s dark, for coffee.
The season brings its own solution to the dilemma of six versus ten-thirty, which is tables outside. Tables on the deck, tables on the sidewalk, tables on the park. Vendors closing up shop: hats, bags, fresh fruit, stale art. Buskers playing bagpipes, banjos, washboards, overturned white plastic buckets. Noise and nearness dissipate, float away in the mild air. Even in the city, with its buildings and residual smog, you can see the evening star. And skin comes out like the flowers of bloodroots. But I won’t start on that.