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September 21, 2008

Sincerity and authenticity in the UWS

September 20. Day 82.

I've often wondered what the proper reaction is when people show you their new home. There are so many interactions for which I've been socialized, and so many more for which I don't need socialization. An exuberant hug, when your friend tells you she's having a baby girl? Totally natural. That tacit disapproval, reflected only in the eyes and a tight semi-smile, when someone else mentions someone else is marrying someone else as old as her father (when in fact you think it's hypocritical of your to criticize, given how old your ex was)? Affectation.

So to enter someone's home, the beautiful home of a beautiful couple whose every detail you know you'll love even before you set foot in it -- how do you "behave"? Are you aloof and politely enthusiastic, warmer than when an agent shows you a property, but cool enough to avoid seeming callow? (Gushing is so gauche.) Or do you gush? (Sincerity is sweet.) Or do you ask lots of questions -- What an interesting detail in the ledges: Is that the original cabinetry or a reproduction? -- to avoid admitting how infatuated your are? (The refuge of intellect.)

How thin, and how visible, is the line between interest and envy? (An acquaintance of mine, Dan McGinn, goes into some of these questions in a cool book, House Lust.)

As it happens, I saw three Upper West Side apartments today and visibly salivated. Because they're in New York, in such a cool neighborhood. Because they have hardwood floors and tall ceilings and gorgeous art. Because they're not mine.

I also pretended today, for one painful moment, that I was a New Yorker. Texted a friend and suggested we meet on the "UWS" instead of downtown, if it's closer for both of us. As if I'd ever write that acronym naturally, or even think of it. But I noticed it on Craigslist and appropriated it, far too easily. Affectation.

Given the market's tumble, and the turmoil that has finally surfaced in America's most unperturbable city, I imagine people will start asking themselves the same questions, but in the reverse. How to react to misfortune, not joy. You lost your job? You're still trying to sell that condo? Your retirement went poof? Followed by muted consternation, or noisy and raw despair, or a callous, self-protective follow-up question.

I had grand ambitions for today's asking. I wanted to get a recipe for a Borek, a wonderfully authentic Turkish appetizer I ate at Pascha, but decided the chef would never give it to a random person in the restaurant. I wanted to ask for free dessert, after the hostess moved my friend and me to another table, a cramped corner table, to clear some space for a larger party. Both times, I closed the door myself.

Instead, I did something so routine, it wasn't much of a victory: asked a wine bar to accept my credit card, even though my purchase was under the $15 minimum. Such minimums aren't illegal, but they do go against the merchant agreement for various credit cards (Visa and MC).

"That's fine this time, but please remember for next time," the bartender said. Next time? I nodded. Affectation.

Gained: Convenience of not scrambling to find an ATM and paying annoying fees.

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