New York City’s best friends are television and movies.
In 2011, I gave away most of my belongings and moved to Manhattan. I had spent 10 years writing about Ireland for Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal, and when the country’s economy finally stabilized after the bottom had fallen out of both the housing market and the government’s finances I upped and left. Seduced by television shows like “Friends,” which celebrates its 25th anniversary Friday, I was ready to write a new chapter.
I had only ever visited New York, and I had an unrealistic view of Manhattan life. I had consumed TV shows and movies set in New York. I liked glossy, aspirational movies like “The Last Days of Disco” and “Six Degrees of Separation” that gently delivered a humdinger of a social message. They provided an escape from the unending stream of sectarian violence in the British province of Northern Ireland, which was a constant theme on our TV screens.
We had four TV channels in Dublin, and they were crammed with American programming all of life’s parade at our fingertips: lavish soap operas, comedies where the characters’ problems were resolved in 30 minutes, and a story about a lovely lady and mother of three girls and stepmother to three boys in a house in sunny California with one bathroom — plus, a live-in-housekeeper called Alice that middle-class Americans today could never afford.
Aniston was friendly, matching her reputation. She is one of those celebrities you never hear anything bad about. ‘You’re from Oireland!’ she said, doing a stage-Irish accent. It made me laugh.
It seemed like everyone in America was either middle class or upper middle class, or plain old filthy rich. By the time “Friends” arrived on my TV screen, I was sold. This was the land of Harvey Milk and money. I moved here for a new adventure, new challenges and, on a spiritual note, I believed there were wonderful friends waiting for me here — friends I had yet to meet. I have met many of those people, and, eight years on, I can’t imagine not ever having known them.
Six months after arriving in New York, I was invited by an Irish friend to be a plus-one at a charity dinner in Gramercy Park. I put on the tuxedo that I had worn throughout the heady days Ireland’s economic boom, known locally as the Celtic Tiger. As I stood around gabbing and sipping my drink, a friend said, “Jennifer Aniston just walked through the door.” This happens to all first-generation immigrants, right? What a nice introduction to New York!
I wangled my way through the guests, and, standing in the corner, there she was: Rachel Green, America’s girl next door. I had long stopped watching reruns of “Friends.” I liked the show when it was on the air, but the whitewashed comedy hasn’t aged well. I feel about the “Friends” theme song the same way my Italian niece feels about the song from “Frozen.” I have listened to that song by The Rembrandts so many times it makes me feel a little sick.
The people I watched on TV growing up, however, remain eternal stars. I was star-struck by Aniston. I appreciated the natural and self-deprecating nature of her comedy. Her performance in “Friends” never felt old. I noticed how her confidently her character moved. I also admired the way Aniston navigated through a highly public divorce. She had dignity. Sure, she opens up to Oprah and is friends with Ellen, but she also appeared to have a centered approach to life.
I wish I could say the same for me in that moment. I introduced myself to Aniston and her friend: “I’m Quentin. I’m from Ireland.” Aniston was friendly, matching her reputation. She is one of those celebrities you never hear anything bad about. “You’re from Oireland!” she said, doing a stage-Irish accent. It made me laugh. We exchanged a few pleasantries and, thinking of the folks back home, I succumbed to temptation. “Could we get a photo?” Pause. “For my Facebook?”
Aniston struck me as the kind of person who had mastered the art of healthy boundaries. She is someone who is comfortable saying no. She didn’t need an out. Still, I had made it easy for her to wrap our conversation up. I had offered her an Irish exit on a tray in a giant steaming mug of coffee courtesy of Bewley’s in Dublin or, better yet, Central Perk. “I don’t do Facebook,” she replied. By mentioning social media, I had made a fatal mistake.
Aniston revealed to me the intersection of reality and celebrity culture. This was not a famous face brought into my life by the benevolent gods of New York City to deliver the divine message that I made the right decision to move to New York. I was just another presumptuous schmo lumbering up to her to capture the moment. This actor, who waitressed on the Upper West Side where I now live before “Friends,” had probably gently rebuffed thousands before me.
I applied some humility to my burn, thanked Aniston and her friend for saying “hi” to my “hi,” and walked sideways like a lobster back to my table. Of course she doesn’t do Facebook. She, of all people, has had enough exposure to our society’s toxic media. Facebook “friends” offering their precious thr’pence-worth on the latest development in her world is the last thing she needs in her life. Who in their right mind would open themselves up to more?
Well, 2.4 billion people around the globe, to be exact. That’s 2.4 billion people who want to stay connected, as Facebook
Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg likes to say. Or 2.4 billion people who like to present a happy, smug and frequently false version of their lives. Or 2.4 billion people who like to bounce around in their own echo chambers. Both Facebook and “Friends” offer us a sense of belonging and, for a few minutes or hours, they appear to deliver.
Facebook ‘friends’ giving Aniston their precious thr’pence-worth on the latest development in her world is the last thing she needs. Who in their right mind would open themselves up to more?
Too much screen time, however, is bad for your health. Studies suggest there is a link between Facebook and depression and that lonely people share too much on Facebook. My Aniston photo would have been misleading — the 21st-century equivalent of first-generation immigrants who wear borrowed formal clothes, and send postcards home to make them look successful and wealthy. They say, “Look, mom — I made it!” My own tuxedo was bought secondhand from a formal wear rental store.
I have never forgotten Aniston’s rare choice to maintain her privacy. This was pre-Cambridge Analytica. She was way ahead of her time. Most people on social media experience peer pressure and contend with ill-judged comments and usually make a few of their own. When I shared an apartment in a Georgian building in Dublin with a college friend in my 20s, she gave three valuable pieces of advice for such situations, “Don’t respond. Don’t respond. Don’t respond.”
“Friends” was a politically agnostic, economically ludicrous fantasy. It’s important not to forget that. “Friends” characters couldn’t have afforded to live in Monica (Courtney Cox) and Rachel’s spacious West Village loft apartment. In the second season, viewers were informed the apartment was rent-controlled as Monica inherited it from her grandmother. In 1994, the monthly rent for a small two-bedroom hovered at $2,500 or less. Today, it costs $3,500, an increase of 40%.
America’s middle class has, in fact, been shrinking in the years since the show first aired. The cost of living has overtaken the cost of maintaining our lifestyles, as seen on TV. Household income was $52,942 in 1994, when “Friends” premiered. Last year, it was $63,179. It has risen just 19%. Inflation has soared 73% over the same period. The lyrics of the “Friends” theme song could be rewritten for 2019: I’ll be there for you. Will you be there for me when I retire?
Aniston, to her credit, showed that familiar strangers who might approach us in restaurants, on the subway or on the street corner deserve the same respect. Unlike some of her other “Friends” cast members, Aniston still doesn’t do Facebook, Instagram or Twitter
That’s an especially notable stance in 2019 when reality TV, our celebrity-obsessed entertainment culture, cable news, politics, economic policy and social media constantly collide.
One intemperate word or ill-chosen battle with a powerful figure on Twitter is just one re-tweet away from heaping scorn upon us and upending our lives. Yet we continue to share the most private, mundane details of our lives. We do it to ourselves. Aniston reminds me that shiny, happy people who appear on our TV screens are flesh and blood, just like you and me. She values her privacy. After all, her life has already picked apart by tabloid magazines.