Overheard at the Café

“The Hangover”
1888, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Overheard at the Café

 Among the rewards of my composing this column at the café where I’m what the French call an habituée, is that I get to overhear scenes from other people’s real lives.  The café meets my need to be alone and in focus when I write, without leaving me isolated.  I get to look up from my writing notebook, from time to time, and consult other books in the library of life.

There is a stern rabbinic dictum against gossip, but none that I know of against overhearing what you can’t help overhearing.

Here’s what I overheard just a few days ago.

A couple was seated together in a shadowy corner of the cafe, wrapped in a conversation that appeared intense and consequential for them both.  From what she told him, the woman believed the man to outrank her socially.  Despite her modest social position, apparently she was sufficiently important for him to recruit her as the woman on whom he could pour out all his secret complaints about … his marriage.

I could not make out what was so wrong with his wife.  There seemed to be money involved, but it was hard to figure out who or what was being fleeced.  At any rate, the wife was so difficult that he would have left her a few years ago – most definitely he would have left her – had he not come down with a disabling medical affliction.  All the same, his nameless feeling for the younger woman seated beside him was something he could scarcely describe.  It was really something!

His approach was canny.  He did not say he was in love with her.  He struggled to say, the words bursting out unbidden, that he was greatly drawn toward her – held in her orbit by a powerful magnetism to which he could affix no accurate name.

The younger woman listened, holding nothing back in the way of warmth, compassion and concern, punctuated by allusions to her own more modest position and attainments, compared to his.

Presently the young woman got up to go to the restroom.  Meanwhile, I was assiduously continuing to take notes on several articles that I needed to read and I did not look up.

“You look like you’re working on the Red Sea Scrolls,” the man called out to me jovially, his voice projecting across several tables.

“You mean the Dead Sea Scrolls?” I said with a skeptical glance, shaking my head and returning to my articles.

My God, I thought.  She’s out of sight for a New York minute and he’s already working on Plan B!

Now I’m fully capable of taking a woman aside — even if she’s a perfect stranger to me — and telling her that one hour spent alone in her own solitary company would be better than a lifetime with this crumb!  However, for whatever reason, I felt that in this instance I should stay out of it.

Since then, I’ve thought about how this woman really saw her situation.  I suspect she saw it better than she let on.  What was really going on that night in the café?  Liberated or not, women still feel that we can’t get through our lives without a man, and that – if we are alone – the world is not on our side.  Better a losing situation — with a man — than accepting a Nobel prize on the world stage without a man.

When I was divorcing my first husband, I remember confiding my fears of the solitary future to a close woman friend, like me a philosopher.  I said that I would now be returning to the socially disadvantaged situation of the single woman.

No, she reassured me, with her keener ear for the rhythms of social life.  The situation of the woman who has been married is at least one or two rungs up from the bottom.

A few decades hence, when the story can be told more fully, what sort of a difference will feminism have made – against all this tide of history, biology and culture?  Against the whole erotic tidal wave?

I can’t make it better than it is.  Life for a woman without an accredited male protector has social costs.  Be it said too, life for anyone without a faithful and personal love has ramified costs.

So what’s the answer?  Is it all just a lottery, securing the conditions of personal happiness and social safety?  Or does God send the right person to each of us?  In Cool Tombs, Carl Sandburg, the poet, muses:

Take any streetful of people buying clothes and groceries,

 cheering a hero or throwing confetti or blowing tin horns …

tell me if the lovers are losers …

 tell me if any get more than the lovers …

in the dust … in the cool tombs.

To me, the story of life is a romantic story.  But not every romantic story is a happy one.

There’s tragedy in that,

 but dignity in admitting —

 without censorship —

 the painful truths of our lives.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father, the "Genius" Among the Giants. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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