One of the cool things about attending a conference in Big City Like No Other is that some of my conference friends finally had a chance to meet my little sister, Urban Sophisticate, who lives and works in the Middle Island of the city. On Sunday when we were up in her neighborhood to go to an art museum, Artist Friend and I met Urban Sophisticate for lunch. She's heard so much about Artist Friend over the last five years that she always calls him the Famous Artist Friend. Alas, she missed her chance to meet Artist's Friend's younger brother, LovesWildlife, who is the same age she is, because he'd gone home by then; I am sure that after seeing a photo of him naked on a balcony, she regrets that. I mean, perhaps if I had posted the nude photo sooner, maybe she would have tried a little harder to meet us the night we called her at midnight from some obscure bar fifty blocks from her home.
Another night I met Brooklyn Friend for a late evening meal (well, late evening by city standards – to me, it seemed like the middle of the night), and my sister joined us. Brooklyn Friend has lived in the city her whole life, so she walks around the city with complete assurance. I, on the other hand, was heady from walking around the city all day, overstimulated by all the sights and sounds, and as we walked into the restaurant, I was babbling stuff like: "Look! Out the window! All those people! You can see people going by! As they walk to the subway stop! To take a train!"
When the hostess came over, I said, "Can we sit by the windows?" She smiled and pointed to at table over near the window, perfect for people watching. Brooklyn Friend said to her, apologetically, "My friend is from out of town."
Another night, Brooklyn Friend took me and some of my friends to a bar owned by her nephew, a colorful place patronized by hip young people who apparently love very loud music and who gave me the kind of smiles you give to someone's mother. We also walked through Famous Park Where Old Men Play Chess in the Sun, a place so alluring that it caused me to miss a conference session one afternoon.
On Saturday night, my sister told me she'd be at a bar called Blue Night Bird That Makes Hooting Noises. She told me what street corner it was on, as if that information would be enough for me to find the place. But it turns out that certain bars in Big City Like No Other have such a loyal and elite following that they don't feel a need to do anything as unsophisticated as putting out a sign with their name on it. After a several attempts to find the place – and text messages to my sister insisting that her directions were completely wrong – Chicago Friend and I walked through a cluster of buildings, peered down over some railings, and saw a sign below our feet with a picture of a blue owl on it. At the moment, which was sort of like a scene out of a Harry Potter book, the doorway of a small bar slid into our view.
As we climbed down the stairs and entered the doorway that had appeared out of nowhere, Chicago Friend and I found ourselves surrounded by beautiful urban people – sleek, sophisticated, well-dressed. I can't speak for Chicago Friend but I felt a bit out of place as we wove our way through black pants, silky dresses, and wine glasses held at just the right angle. It's not so much that I was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, or that I don't wear cosmetics, or that I don't drink at all. It's that I felt sure I had not been in the city long enough to assume any sort of sophisticated air. To be honest, I think at this point in my life, I'd have to live in a city for decades before attaining any sophistication at all. But we found my sister, and her group of friends, and I felt right at home as soon as they began exclaiming, "Oh! You are Urban Sophisticate's Sister!"
My sister's friends were friendly and warm, smart and fun. They are also mostly reporters. At first I forgot this detail – I mean, they looked like normal people; it's not like they had their press credentials stamped to their foreheads. But within minutes of being introduced, I found myself answering questions, and then follow-up questions, and then being put on the spot with a particularly probing question – and that's when it hit me. I was being interviewed.
I love going to conferences – listening to new ideas, seeing famous scholars up close, catching up with old friends, sharing my own ideas, eating in great restaurants, and talking endlessly about books and science and politics – but this time I had the added bonus of spending some time with my sister and a close friend from Brooklyn, and we had a chance to see just a little bit of each other's worlds.