Socially Anxious and Alone in the Big Apple
While alone in New York City, in search of someplace to spend the late evening hours, somewhere to laugh or to drink or to dance, I found myself wandering into Oscar Wilde, a Victorian-themed bar. As soon as I grasped the golden mermaid door handles, I knew I was entering the Disney World of bars. From the decor to the writing-themed cocktails on the menu, no detail was left out. Every inch of the walls was covered in picture frames, clocks, and lamps. Dazzling chandeliers hung overhead, statues stood perched on the counters, and even the beer was pulled from gold and marble taps. I geeked out over Oscar Wilde’s quotes, which, like Easter eggs, were found in every nook and cranny, wrapped around the bar under the countertops, framed on the walls, and spoken over a speaker in the exquisitely-decorated ladies’ room.
The immersive-ness of the themed experience distracted me from the fact that I was all alone on a Friday night in an immensely crowded bar. It took a good fifteen minutes for me to order because I am not one to aggressively force my way into a sliver of space at the bar or to loudly attempt to grab the attention of a bartender who isn’t aware that I exist. I got a few stares as I weaved through the crowds alone, trying not to spill my nearly overflowing (and certainly overpriced) “Pale Princess” grapefruit gin cocktail.
I made it to a separate area full of tables, where I suppose they serve food in the earlier hours of the day. There was a fireplace with teacups on the mantle. I felt like I was in someone’s parlor, which I suppose was the point. My table was my island, away from the crowds. I figured sitting at a table alone looked far less pathetic than standing in the middle of the room by myself.
As I sipped my bittersweet drink and texted my best friend, I wished I were back in Ireland, where I spent my spring break. Not only would I have my friend Mykal by my side, who was so sociable she could spark a conversation with even the most intimidating stranger, I would also be in a friendlier place. Everyone in Dublin seemed to acknowledge that they were walking the earth among fellow human beings who had interesting stories, hopes, and dreams. To them, it seemed that people weren’t strangers to be avoided but potential friends to be made. I had received so many compliments on my hair (not of the catcalling variety) and everywhere we went, people made us feel as if we were someone they genuinely cared to know.
This bar wasn’t like that. Everyone was here with friends and coworkers. No one was going to save me from my isolation. It wasn’t like in grade school where teachers advised us to approach the lonely kids at recess or in the cafeteria. This was the real adult world. I was twenty-one years old. My social anxiety was something I had to own and get over if I ever wanted anything.
So I decided to venture back out into the battlefield (i.e, the middle of the bar). I found a pedestal next to a pillar, serving as a makeshift table without chairs. I figured I wouldn’t be taking up too much space if I set my drink there and just people-watched. I hoped I could assume my usual role of a wallflower, among the gilded accents and paintings. But I also longed to make a connection with someone, anyone. I wished I had Mykal’s smooth conversation skills. She didn’t know how to just flirt — she would make friends with anyone, from the bartenders to women in line waiting to be screened before entering a club. She was the perfect yin to my yang, because she was never afraid of bothering anyone, and I didn’t know how to not be afraid.
Not ten minutes later, two men and a woman approached my pedestal and asked if they could set their drinks down. “Of course!” I said as warmly and jubilantly as possible because I feel I always have to overcompensate for what people tell me is a serious case of resting bitch face that makes me unapproachable. I figured they would simply set their glasses down and continue on conversing as a group, but instead, they struck up a conversation with me. As soon as one of the men, a tall, pale, blond, blue-eyed guy of about twenty-five, spoke and I heard what had become a familiar accent, I realized that my wish had, in some way been granted.
The comical coincidence of walking into a bar themed around an Irish writer alone thinking, “If only I were in Ireland, then someone would talk to me” and then suddenly finding myself making friends with tourists from Ireland had me feeling quite, well, lucky.
It turns out, you don’t have to be a social butterfly to enjoy solo travel in a big city. You just have to be willing to share space with strangers.