After some dumplings in Chinatown on the morning of my midlife moment, I moved on to the Paul Frank shop on Mulberry Street in Nolita. It’s a family favorite — we see ourselves in his Julius, the monkey face — and I thought it would be nice, even downright parental, to buy a shirt for our daughter and a hat for our son.
But the Paul Frank shop was closed so early in the morning.
I walked, turning a couple of corners, aimlessly.
And, then I saw a blue coffee shop. It was not a commercial chain, so I looked a little harder. Café Gitane. And there was a pretty woman, sitting alone at a table in the front window.
Before telling you about my delightful visit to Gitane, you need to understand how singularly unsuccessful I am at meeting women.
How Singularly Unsuccessful
I Am At Meeting Women (condensed)
Here is the list of women that I have approached during the past 47 years. I am including only those where there was no appropriate context. We weren’t at a party, we didn’t work together, we weren’t introduced by a trusted friend:
- The pedestrian on Seventh Avenue.
She was beautiful, taking long strides. Long brown hair. I don’t remember the season, but it wasn’t the bitter cold of winter. She was a little ahead of me, so I caught up and we walked a block or two beside each other. Not having any idea what to say, I turned to her and drew that trusty arrow from my quiver: “Can I buy you a drink?” I’d never said these words to anyone, but I think I saw them in a movie (where they worked). Improvising, I might have added “…or something?” I don’t remember.
What I do remember is her response. She spoke very loudly, as if she were recognizing me, her old Russian enemy, Comrade Fukhoff. So she shouts just his last name, loud as could be. Very nice, I thought, as I sought the nearest sewer into which to climb. Crushing.
- Goal: a relationship, with the potential for intimacy. Outcome: neither.
- The medical student on the airplane.
from Georgia on Halloween, I’d already suffered the odd Atlanta
tradition of dressing up as clowns on Halloween. I was wearing my usual
bow tie costume, but just about anyone in Atlanta had been dressed as a
clown: people at bus stops, bank tellers, librarians. Very weird. Not
nuns, not gorillas. All clowns. Anyway, I’m on an airplane and seated
beside a lovely young woman, flying back to New York. We chatted about
careers: she’s a medical student. I’m in public relations. I’m sure I
said something about how none of my sisters had married Jewish doctors
and wouldn’t it be great if I were the one to achieve this. To this
day, I don’t think this bon mot hurt my case, but after our
first (and maybe second) dinner dates, she decided that medical school
was worth all of her time and I was worth none.
- Goal: marry a Jewish doctor, with the potential for intimacy. Outcome: neither.
- The stranger on a train.
The Amtrak regional service
leaves New York’s Penn Station and gets stuck in the snow hours from
Boston. I’ve seated myself beside an attractive woman. We chat the
entire eight hours, as the train crawls through the darkness. We laugh
and feel kinship. It’s really somewhat magical. But she never tells me
her name. “I’ve been stalked,” she explains, matter-of-factly using a
word that I’d never heard before. The pain in her voice — at her
experience, at her inability to make herself vulnerable to me — was
- Goal: get her to take my business card, with the potential for intimacy. Outcome: you know.
Twenty years pass, during which I marry Alisa. (We were fixed up. Clearly, I didn’t meet her on my own.)
- The eater of raw fish.
Having accompanied our daughter to Brooklyn for a dear friend becoming bat mitzvah,
I decided not to attend the Saturday night kids party. I walked over
the Brooklyn Bridge. (I can’t meet women on or off the bridge, but I
can cross it, no problem.) I wandered all the way to my old favorite
haunt, a tiny West Village restaurant formerly called Fukuda, now Taka Japanese.
I craved a conversation in my old neighborhood. A woman sat beside me
at the sushi bar. I tried this one: “Would you like to have a
conversation?” Seemed honest. (My daughter rates this comment as
“incredibly lame and completely neurotic.” My wife just laughed,
“That’s weird. Talk about sketchy.”) But the sushi eater doesn’t hear
me, I think. Then I thought more clearly: of course she heard me and
has responded with the opposite of conversation. Silence. (It’s like
the question you can’t answer yes: “Are you asleep?”) I should be glad
she didn’t recognize Comrade Fukhoff.
- Goal: Just a conversation, with no potential for intimacy. Outcome: half successful.
I think I know why I’ve been so unsuccessful at striking up
conversations with women. Firstly, it’s a lack of talent. My “lines”
are bad. Secondly, I’m not visually what they are seeking. Small neck,
bad haircut, that deer-in-the-headlights look. Thirdly, it’s a numbers
thing. So, why only four attempts? I guess I accepted rejection
meaningfully. Fourthly (whew), it’s because women have had (or at least
heard about) bad experiences with stalkers and other jerks. (Damn those
jerks for ruining everyone’s evening.)
Finally, it also might be the result of my having always thought
that all women were virgins and that intimacy was my goal but not
theirs. Recently, Chapter 18, “Of Hoggamus and Hogwash,” in Natalie
Angier’s Women: An Intimate Geography set me straight. Summary: Women are not the demure gender. They wild thangs.
Whoda thunk? Not me.
My Grandfather Knew How
All the while, in the back of my head and all over my libido, there’s my grandfather, Andy Sokol, whose number #1 career story is the name of this blogsite, Net Cotton Content.
This is a different story about Andy.
We were once on a deserted beach in Abaco, Bahamas. Just our family,
four generations of us. My grandfather was reading his book, relying on
his deafness to keep him out of our conversation, sitting beside my
grandmother, Kitty, gorgeous well into her 80s. (Really. Stories of
Kitty are for another day.)
Across the beach arrives a beauty. Not much to her bikini. Vavoom.
No complaints from the Isaac family who gaze her way, man ,woman and
child. Andy, suddenly with superhuman sensory prowess, looks up, calmly
places his bookmark in his novel, rises from his chaise lounge, pads
across the beach, approaches her (as she is smoothing suntan lotion on
her edible limbs), and leans over to whisper in her ear.
This isn’t May/December. This is Bronze Goddess/Bronze Age. Andy is
80 and not thinking about closing the deal. She’s probably 23 and would
be reasonable to see him as an old man.
thing we know, she nods and hands her suntan lotion to Andy. He puts
some in his hands, warms it by rubbing them together, and then rubs the
lotion on her back. Carefully. Everywhere she can’t reach. Lovingly. The bastard.
Without another word, with both their desires satisfied, Andy
crosses the hot sand back to his chair, picks up his novel, removes the
bookmark, and resumes reading. Not a word. No kiss and tell. No
2,400-word blog post.
My grandfather rubs lotion on young Gina Lollobrigida’s back — and I
can’t even strike up a conversation with a woman chewing raw tuna in
Back To The Coffee Shop
So I’m at the counter at Café
Gitane, with my back to the front window and the pretty woman at the
table. The waitress has kindly given me coffee and a pain au chocolat. I don’t drink much coffee, for reasons of redundancy, but now that I’m middle-aged, I figure I could use a jolt to the system.
I sit for a few minutes, reflecting on my record in the streets,
airplanes, and trains of New York. I write some notes for my dear blog
But what is the midlife moment, if not an opportunity to start living without fear?
So I turn around on my bar stool, and say to the woman, “Excuse me. May I join you or would you prefer your privacy?”
A word, if I might, about this woman. But only a word. I’m not going
to tell you her story, because it’s not mine to tell. But I think it’s
fair to say that her standards are high, and still she smiled, “Join
I gathered my coffee, my pastry, my little piece of chocolate (nice
place, this Café Gitane), my nerve, and looked up at the waitress,
saying, “Upgrade.” The waitress smiled. She seemed all for it.
Suddenly, the women of New York are accepting my shtick. (That’s shtick, friends.)
As I sat down, I said, “I’m not on the make.” I meant to re-assure
her and limit any false impressions — and, of course, I was reminding
We sat for about an hour, maybe more, discussing our lives,
reflecting on the meaning of it all, including the spontaneous meeting
of a stranger. Our business lives are similar enough that perhaps we’ll
Mainly, it was thrilling to be so generously welcomed by a woman
with better alternatives. I told her, “Where I’m from, we look for
trucks in the parking lot to know if a restaurant is nice. I saw you.
You are the New York equivalent of lots of trucks.”
That was as close as I came to saying that I thought she was
attractive. A friend has since told me, “I think she knew what you
thought when you asked to sit down.” I guess that’s right. She probably
didn’t think it was my sympathy for her poor misshapen appearance that
led me to her table.
- Goal: Just a warm, kind conversation, with no potential for intimacy. Outcome: successful.
And, now, I believe, I shall quit while I’m behind.
What Does It All Mean?
tells me “There is a sad loneliness here in America. In India, people
are never alone. Here it can become quite quiet.” He’s right. We’ve
removed the idea of spontaneous meeting. Everyone is alone in a crowd,
on their cell phones, like the students on the OSU campus at The Back To School Special. Is this loneliness why we have 50% more suicides
than homicides in America? (Don’t we want more homicides than suicides?
Shoot, I don’t know. It’s hard to pick a favorite in that hog race.)
Anyway, in that coffee shop last Wednesday, two people took the chance
of embarrassment or worse, to replace solitude with company, to
exchange — as my first teacher, Pink Floyd, sang — “cold comfort for
Issues are raised, I know. Eyebrows are certainly raised by anyone
who hears this story. “You turn middle aged and the first thing you do
is pick up a woman in a coffee shop?”
That’s not fair. The first thing I did was eat Chinese dumplings.
And I didn’t pick up anyone.
And, furthermore, pal, have we arrived at the point where I’m not to meet a stranger, simply because she’s beautiful?
Is This Infidelity?
So, asks the middle-aged man, what is
infidelity? That’s a question for Mr. and Mrs. Isaac. And we think that
infidelity takes many forms. They are many flavors of betrayal: sexual,
physical, psychological, emotional, financial. I think it comes down
to: with whom do you most crave time? from whom do you keep your own
In this case, it would be infidelity for me to not have told my wife
that I’d had these cups of coffee, and that I’d been so delighted by
And, yet, at the same time, I’m ethically bound not to tell anyone else’s story, so it’s fidelity
for me to keep a friend’s secrets — yes, even a brand new friend from a
swanky coffee shop. Her story is simply not mine to tell. I wouldn’t
tell my wife your story either. Marriage, at its best, is more ethical than a lifelong gossip session.
yes, yes. Of course, it would have been infidelity to become physically
intimate. I know that. Duh. Edwin Hoover’s (Alan Arkin) advice to
grandson Dwayne in Little Miss Sunshine was wrong. Right?
What do you think? Do you think I misbehaved? Or, to the contrary, could such behavior be wholesome and even healthy? Isn’t it
otherwise bad for us to be so cut off from meeting members of the opposite
sex? Surely, we weren’t made for such monastic monogamy. People
need such an experience from time to time.
Alisa says, “No harm done.” (We already know her thoughts on infidelity.)
Well, What If She Had Offered Some Of That?
That’s none of your business. But here’s the answer.
So There You Have It…
… a 2,400-word essay that says, basically, “nothing happened.”
I did invite her to join me for the central appointment of the day, a visit to Borough Park with some friends and teachers. She politely declined. We chatted more, finished our coffees, exchanged
business cards, and parted.