Fancy Running into You Here

Written by Jeanne Martinet on . Posted in Opinion and Column.


Urban encounters of an unwelcome kind

By Jeanne Martinet

I was on deadline for a project. I was stressed out. I was also out of food and coffee. With the clock ticking, I grabbed the first hat I could find and jammed it over my unwashed head, and pulled on a pair of old walking boots (with no socks—a look which I must say did not help matters since I was also wearing a mid-calf-length mu-mu). I had gone half a block when suddenly, there he was: an ex-boyfriend, coming right at me. I tried to hide (which in pedestrian-terms means looking the other way and walking fast), but it was too late. He had spotted me. I cringed inwardly as he greeted me by kissing my unwashed, unpowdered cheek. “Of all the sidewalks in all the neighborhoods in all of Manhattan, he walks onto mine,” I thought gloomily on the way home.

But of course, this kind of unexpected encounter happens all the time. It’s a part of Murphy’s Law—or rather, Finagle’s Law, which takes Murphy’s further: “Anything that can possibly go wrong will—at the worse possible moment.” If you absolutely do not want to run into your ex-boss, you absolutely will, and not only that, it will be with mustard on your chin and your fly unzipped. Slip out in your torn sweats for a pizza or a bagel, and there they are: the agent who turned down your play, the community board member you had a big fight with at the last meeting, the man you had a date with who you never called back. It’s no good trying to protest, “Darn, this is the one day I did not put any makeup on, and I run into you!” This is just like saying, “I really look better than this.” Who cares, or even believes you? Because you still look horrible right now, and apologizing for it will not erase the current image of you with blue ink on your face.

Suburbanites and small town-ers will tell you that it is worse for them, because everyone they know goes to the same stores. A friend of mine wailed recently, “You are so lucky to live in a big place like New York City! I want to be anonymous! In my town, I have to be on my toes every minute.” I tried to explain to her that in Manhattan, there is really no such thing as anonymity—only the illusion of anonymity. When you walk out onto the crowded streets, you may feel as if you have Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility pulled over you, as you make your way through the bustle. The idea that millions of people live here tricks you into thinking you can make it there and back unscathed by any unwanted social encounters, and then—whammo! Surprise attacks in the city can occur in a store, on the bus or on the subway, but most happen on the sidewalk. (My friend John keeps running into his old barber, who likes to stand outside his shop when he is not busy. The barber will greet him, “Hey, haven’t seen you lately,” with a critical look at John’s unkempt head. This kind of thing cannot happen in a place where people drive cars everywhere.) Also, you never know who might suddenly pop up in New York. People visit or move here all the time. If you live in Memphis, and your long lost boyfriend lives in Sonoma, you do not expect to run into him on the street, but it is possible in New York.

Can you pre-arm yourself somehow? Actors wear big hats and weird glasses so they won’t be recognized. You could try this incognito trick, but with the time it takes to create a disguise, you may as well just go ahead and put on a new shirt and some lipstick. The best thing to do is keep a good lookout as you make your foray out into the world. If you see the person first, you can look the other way and try to walk by quickly, or whip your cell phone out and walk fast while you are on it, with your head down. Maybe the other person will be so engrossed in texting or talking to someone else that she won’t notice you.

Of course, if you are really lucky, she will be on deadline, too—and look even worse than you.

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Jeanne Martinet, aka Miss Mingle, is the author of seven books on social interaction. Her latest book is a novel, Etiquette for the End of the World. You can contact her at JeanneMartinet.com.

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