I remember hearing Madonna clamoring on all the streets in Chelsea in 1986, just fresh out of an all male undergraduate school for four years and ready to get my groove on in London. Papa Don’t Preach was playing at every pub and cafe in the city, and Madonna’s face was plastered all over Piccadilly Circus and the Piccadilly Line of the Underground. It was my second time in London, and I was still new to the entire premise of such a megalopolis with its incredible variety of people. There were so many people, in fact, that the concept of “personal space” had all but been abandoned. The subway was and still is a moving sea of crowds shoulder to shoulder cramming themselves into tiny tube cars to move across the city, saddled with their groceries, dry cleaning, or briefcases. The streets along the West End are equally as submerged in human beings, pushing and shoving to get to the next city block. Ironically, no one ever gets upset.
I always loved eating at the Chelsea Kitchen on Fulham road because of its central location and the fact that I felt like I was in a Pet Shop Boys video with all the colorful mohawks and punks around me. Like it or not, they usually sat right beside you at your table. You see, in most major cities, everyone gets along. They tolerate each other because the sheer force of necessity and proximity forces everyone to share. The tables in the Chelsea kitchen are likened to those we used to have in grade school, long and rectangular with just rows of chairs. It is indeed a true eatery, and where you sit determines your experience. Although there are some round tables, no one is ever guaranteed a private experience simply because of the crowds—every chair is and every foot of eating air is at a premium. A good chance exists that you will end up next to a drunken Scotsman like I did, popping off the Vodkas at 2 pm in the afternoon and querying my origins in an almost untranslatable accent.
And for the most part, in all but the five star very expensive and posh restaurants, you will have to accept the sharing of your table with another group of Londonites. I call it the Smirnoff network—the unwitting placement of people directly in someone’s space—despite the apparent acquired need of “privacy.” Americans have taken for granted the ability to waste, and not only space. The only thing I dislike about space is that, well, there is generally nothing in it. When you are forced to sit next to someone, like at the Chelsea Kitchen, you might just acquire a new idea and maybe even a new friend. That’s why I like eating at the bar over here. I find tables in restaurants isolating, with hundreds of empty holes meant to be filled with human beings, and left empty because of some notion that we all need to be in “our own little world.” And so we can enter a place to eat over here, and have nowhere to sit simply because we are afraid of anonymous social interaction!
The Smirnoff network starts at the bar. I remembered it—eating with Annmarie at the Peter Pan diner. The only interface working at the time is not a smartphone or Facebook, but a rum and coke and a Madras. People eating at the bar are actually talking to strangers—and learning about life firsthand. There is no virtual reality unless you count the influence of the alcohol. There is no privacy. Everyone is chatting about everything to everyone else, and they are all getting along. No one whispers about the table next to them or wonders who that woman or man is. We all just meet each other and hang out like we are old friends. There are no pretenses, and there are no boundaries. It is like the table in Chelsea—brace yourself for what might be a big reality check—people call em like they seem em. And you have to actually be a person again—and I liked that. And you actually get to meet other interesting people from all walks of life. I wonder, have we lost the ability to be in close proximity with people and meet them face to face? I hope not. Because I think relative to the Smirnoff network, Facebook is highly overrated.