Three times, I attempted to visit the Tenement Museum in New York City with a friend before we succeeded. Twice we drove in, sat in traffic for a few hours, then navigated around construction zones, only to find lot after city parking lot full. The third time, we rode the train to Penn Station, then wrangled our way downtown amidst the crush of Christmas crowds. We layered ourselves in denim and cotton, wore our heaviest coats, and exhaled great puffs of breath like smoke into frigid air. We arrived early and killed time over croissants in a coffee shop with bare bulbs, brick walls, and coffered ceilings.
I realized on our third (successful!) attempt at making it to our destination, that the journey together was more important than setting foot in the museum. Uninterrupted travel time, a few consolation lunches, and time together over steaming mugs of tea gave my friend and I the chance to peel back the polite layers. We experienced frustration and disappointment. We talked about the struggles of marriage and raising kids and how to sustain our art. And we survived my attempts at navigation in the concrete jungle of NYC. This particular map-reading disability has strained my marriage on more than one occasion. A friendship that survives my neuroses, complaints, and inability to understand simple directions is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow–a mythical treasure.
After warming our bodies with pots of tea, and our souls with talk of city life, we wandered over to the Tenement Museum. We settled on the Shop Tour, and the guide walked us through a shop front in one of the original tenement buildings, formerly inhabited by various immigrant groups new to New York City. We stepped back in time from the bright cold of Orchard Street into a dim room with a dark wood bar, barrels and taps, and brass instruments hanging behind them. Tables and chairs sat scattered about the room, and adjacent to the pub, was a tiny kitchen with a pot-bellied fire and bratwurst dangling from thin white string strung across the ceiling.
While the store front evolved over the years taking on many different faces, the original shop was a community pub run by a newly wed couple who arrived in New York as children from Germany. As we listened to the docent tell their story, it became clear that the pub served as a hub for the entire neighborhood. It was a gathering place for families, neighbors, and co-workers to share a drink, eat a hot meal, enjoy music from the homeland, and strengthen into a community. I imagine friendships were forged over a pint of lager, business deals confirmed over handshakes, and love blossomed over bratwurst.
We’ve come so far from these tight-knit communities, and we’re poorer for it. There are no family pubs, no community hubs in my corner of suburbia. My friend and I live 45 minutes apart from one another, and it takes highway upon highway to see each other in the flesh. It takes every bit of intentionality and planning we can muster to spend half a day visiting our nearest big city.
The Shop Tour reminded me how much we need each other, what community can and should be, and what community looks like today. Today, it looks like fruitless driving adventures and museum visits and coffee shop chatter. On the return train, we bumped into my friend’s real-life neighbor. We chatted on the ride home, and she asked how my friend and I met. We looked at each other for a split second, and then I laughed when she said, “We met on twitter!” How very 21st century.
The tour stirred up a sense of misplaced nostalgia in me for the past (if only we had a corner pub, a Luke’s Diner, a Central Perk, a Community Congregation), but it also encouraged me to appreciate the ways we go about community and friendship today, and examine how I can do it better. More than that, it helped me appreciate the gift of finding a friend who will plan multiple days out together with varying degrees of success. Who puts up with my particular brand of crazy. Who tells me the truth about herself and doesn’t look away from the truth she sees darting behind shadows inside of me. We met online, and she’s become one of my most faithful and dearest.
Something in me still longs for the promise of days when creating community and cultivating friendships meant spending an evening cozied up with a glass of wine, or an afternoon unfolding over cups of fragrant tea with endless refills. I can keep searching for these opportunities to take part in what once was, but I must also embrace what is. What is friendship today? How can I create physical space for it in a life often conducted online? I’m carrying these questions with me into the new year, and I hope the new year will unveil a few answers.