Maybe you live here in New York City. Maybe you visit from time to time. Maybe we have mutual friends who will cause us to run into each other, probably at a party, or on the Internet. Maybe we will exchange contact information. There will be email, a meeting, and more email with links referencing whatever we discussed. Maybe things will go further. We will exchange party invitations, job opportunities, and substantive gossip. You will forward me things. I will forward you things, some forwarded under the proviso that the receiver refrain from forwarding them again. Our friendship might reach the point at which we feel at liberty to pass our respective contact informations on to third parties. There will be a net increase in orderly traffic, an expansion of the social graph. Our phones will make more noises.
The thing that is being sponged is New York’s ever-diminishing supply of time and attention. I’ve heard maximum sponging described as “inviting you into my world,” or “expanding the opportunity space.” Sometimes the social lattice is imagined as a branching labyrinth of rooms, leading to contacts, leading to rooms, and so on. Some people talk about “levels,” a sort of contact hierarchy through which the novice must ascend.
It took me a few months to get out of my first room. A publicist invited me to a party on a high floor of a charitable foundation, the kind of party where Dewar’s is poured across white tablecloths and the windows of distant offices wink across the skyline like the cells of a golden spreadsheet. Across the room I saw a friend who had lived in New York for a few years. He was an intelligent man, a loud ta lker and thoroughbred drinker who was by then burdened by the many friendships he carried on the books. He greeted me with a question—“What are you doing here?” This was probably meant in a friendly way. At the time I heard it as a challenge. I hadn’t yet immunized myself to a certain harshness in his voice, one acquired through long nights of pushing subtle points across noisy tables. Two hours later we descended to the sidewalk with his friends. Before long, they were my friends. The night repeated itself two hundred times over the next few years. The momentum of these evenings was sustained by the symphonic variation of certain tropes. One of these was sponging.
The first towns likely had hustlers who met over pints of grog to expand the opportunity space. The speed with which these relations now form and unravel is, however, something new. The density of ambitious, neurotic people; the loneliness; the turnover; the worried possibility of who or what might be one table away; the penetration of the web-enabled social graph—all of these act as accelerants on the city’s intrinsic hustle. There are the legends of the New York Post—Crockefeller, Madoff—stories that assure the city tribe that somewhere out there someone is playing it faster and looser.
The story of the phones concludes when you and I stop calling. Then you call me, or I call you. The receiver does not pick up.
The caller looks in wonderment at the street. The caller thinks: “If you can get a New Yorker to pick up the phone, unscheduled, then you have made your way into his innermost circle. You are someone who he would cross the street to say hello to.” Everyone on the street is talking on their phones. The caller wonders who they are talking to. The caller’s phone rings. It’s the receiver, calling them back. You and I were supposed to talk about something. What was it? Our call has that peculiar and shitty quality unique to streets-of-New York phone calls. One of us sounds busier than the other; neither knows the etiquette for patching this up. A plan to meet sometime next week emerges, its details vague.
This post is part of Tao Lin Day. To read more posts in this series, click here.