We need a lot more of this. Photo: Courtesy of MGM

Until about a year ago, New York’s office was located a few blocks west of Lucky Strike, Keith McNally’s narrow Soho brasserie. I remember practically sprinting on some days to make it over before happy hour ended, not because I loved the extra-dirty gin martinis and the skinny, salty fries — although they were a lovely combo — but because the restaurant’s bar was a perfect place to talk to strangers. On any day, I could get recommendations for an old movie to watch, or a book to read. We’d vent about our jobs, and eavesdrop on personal stories when someone didn’t realize they were speaking loudly enough for everyone to hear. It was at Lucky Strike’s dented, copper-topped bar that I learned how, and when, to ask for a raise at work.

Fleeting conversations with strangers could be a nuisance (depending on the stranger, usually), but they could also be revelatory little moments of insight into the larger world — and a necessary way to gain some much-needed perspective on any number of situations. It was almost like accidental exposure to culture, and it was easy to take for granted because it was everywhere, all the time.

“It’s kind of an invisible thread in the fabric of a New Yorker’s daily existence,” says David Potters, who until the pandemic arrived, worked as a barista at Flora Bar’s coffee counter on the Upper East Side. “You go to get your cup of coffee, or you go to pick up your cigarettes at the bodega, or whatever quick, brief two-minute interaction you have,” he says, “and those faces, the people you interact with while doing those things, they become part of your routine — your whole day is just this jambalaya of interacting with strangers in little ways.”

Potters, like many of us, is wondering what he misses now that those interactions are so rare: “The thing about working in a restaurant is you’re just kind of thrown into this space with people who come from all different backgrounds and all different parts of the world,” he explains. “You’re gonna learn something.”

The need to socialize is as crucial to our mental well-being as sleeping or exercising or ordering a dirty martini after work. When I emailed Daniel Walkowitz, an expert in urban history and professor emeritus at NYU, about this, his response could not have been more clear: “All brief encounters like this have important meaning for psychological health.”

But with lockdowns and restaurant closings, the shutdowns of third places, and winter weather eliminating even outdoor interactions to some degree, much of the focus has been on losing in-person meetings with friends and colleagues — “strong ties.” But as the Washington Post reported in 2018, just as critical are so-called “weak ties” — relationships with people we don’t see often, or even know very well. As the Post wrote at the time, “People with high levels of what psychologists call social integration — those who participate in a broad range of relationships that consist of both intimate and weak ties — tend to be healthier and happier.” (Meanwhile, other research shows that when humans lack this social component in their lives, they are more likely to experience anxiety, depression, elevated stress, inflammation, and high blood pressure.)

Anecdotally, anyway, this rings true. Without cafés, or bars, or restaurants, the vacuum of no-stakes conversations with people I might never see again has started to feel particularly acute. I had never realized how much I relied on surface-level bonding to create a feeling of community. Even in moments where I do see people, the goal is to communicate as little as possible. “There isn’t that same openness,” says Camille Larkins, a Brooklyn bartender, of the social shift she saw after the pandemic took hold. “That ability to comfortably interact with people you don’t know is gone.”

Glori Dei Filippone, a manager at a juice bar and coffee shop on the Upper East Side, says that at the beginning of the pandemic, when social isolation was still a new idea, customers who came in would cling tightly to the brief conversations they had. Regulars who had never said more than their order before asked Dei Filippone about life outside of work, or talked about the ways they were trying to manage life during the pandemic.

“It was almost like COVID, combined with the political climate of the world really opened the customer up more to creating a conversation about what was happening in the world,” Dei Filippone remembers.

Weeks later, a woman came in and ordered a coffee. She placed the order with an abrasive, almost hostile, tone and quickly snatched the cup out of Dei Filippone’s hand once it was ready. Moments later, as she stirred a packet of sugar into the drink, the woman started crying and began unloading months-long worries and frustrations onto them. She had lost her job, was terrified of the unknown future of the pandemic, and said ordering that coffee was the first time she had left her home in a month. In that moment, Dei Filippone realized how desperate the woman was just to be heard.

The term “third place” was coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg to describe a familiar, comfortable space that isn’t home and isn’t work. We all need more of those right now, but this kind of conversation might be even more momentary than that. It’s advice that solves a problem you didn’t even know you had. It’s a designer you learn about because someone is carrying their bag. It’s a tip on which gin is best in that dirty martini.

“Something happens in the news that day, or something happens in the neighborhood, or there was a snowstorm, or there was a whatever,” says Potters. “You know that you can kind of speak your stream of consciousness to somebody that’s near you, and they’ll probably engage with you.”