Ariel Sabar’s new book, Heart of the City: Nine Stories of Love and Serendipity on the Streets of New York, follows couples from the 1940s to the present whose matchmaker was New York City. We chatted with him about location-location-location — and what it means for love.
EM & LO: What got you first interested in how place interacts with the way strangers meet and fall in love?
ARIEL SABAR: The spark for me was my parents’ love story. My mom, Stephanie, and dad, Yona, were these really different people. Stephanie was the daughter of a well-off Manhattan businessman and his sophisticated wife, the kind of folks who held season tickets to the Metropolitan Opera. Yona was born to an illiterate teenage mother and peddler father in a mud hut in northern Iraq. But one fall day in 1966, they both somehow find themselves in Washington Square Park, that wonderful gathering place in the heart of Greenwich Village. Through a series of circumstances I describe in the book, Yona, lonely and homesick, strikes up a conversation this interesting woman — thinking mistakenly that she is also a “tourist.” Four months later they are married. The more I quizzed them about their story, the more convinced I became that the park itself had played a kind of matchmaking role. Forty-four years, two kids, and four grandkids later, they’re still happily married.
What is it about New York City that makes it so conducive — or more conducive than other cities, at least — to strangers meeting and falling in love?
One of the most consistent findings over decades of studies is that the closer any two strangers are — whether in a classroom, an office, an apartment building or a neighborhood street — the more likely they are to think well of one another and become friends (or more). It’s hard to think of a much denser urban environment than New York. People are pressed up against each other all the time. Crowded places produce more of the kinds of serendipitous exchanges that can ultimately lead to love. Adrenaline plays cupid, too. The physical demands of life in New York City keep people in a kind of heightened physiological state. And psychologists have found that, well, adrenaline makes the heart grow fonder. When we’re in places that get our pulse racing and our adrenaline flowing, we’re more apt to feel attraction toward strangers — and to act on those feelings. Ultimately, someone has to decide to make that first move. But exciting places can give our systems a push.
Do you think that two strangers are less likely to randomly meet and fall in love in public today, as compared to, say, 20 or 50 years ago?
In my search for couples for Heart of the City, I called priests, rabbis and wedding photographers in Manhattan and begged for leads on people who’d met there in public. Several told me that 20 years ago, they’d have dozens of names. These days, though, because of the explosion in internet dating, more and more people were meeting online. For better or worse, the internet has permitted people to be more calculating. People seem willing to give up a measure of romance for a sense (real or not) of security. Interestingly, one of the youngest women in my book had gone on dozens of really bad dates with guys she’d met online, before tripping on the sidewalk on West 57th Street late one night and literally falling into a stranger she’d eventually marry.
So are you for or against online dating? What about NYC Missed Connection ads? Is there romance in either of those?
It’s hard to be against anything that brings two people together, even if all that screening and vetting comes at the cost of some romance. Still, what is romance if not the nerve-wracking uncertainty, the mystery that makes a relationship’s early days so exciting? Do we really need to send would-be lovers through virtual metal detectors before their first kiss? Possibly, but there’s no doubt something is lost.
I think the Missed Connections ads are proof of how ready people are for love that roots in real soil. They reflect the millions of everyday public moments where something clicked. And it clicked because you were physically near somebody, even if just for a second. You saw them. You heard them. Gosh, maybe you even smelled them. And you just knew. I’m just not sure how often that happens online. The last time I checked, you couldn’t send pheromones through email.