When life tilted me from the East Coast to the west, I didn’t intend to stay. I’d lost my job as the internet reporter in a layoff at MSNBC over two years before, and was thrilled to have finally landed a new one in public radio in Los Angeles—even if it meant leaving a lovely apartment I owned in my beloved hometown of New York City and arriving in a new city at age 40 as a single woman.
I was so sure I wouldn’t stick around that I planted myself across the street from the studio of my new employer in Downtown, the better to make a quick escape when my new boss, I hoped, would let me go back home. Never mind that the building was as frumpy as the neighborhood was then. The promise of a commute-free life, a killer pool where I could swim laps each day, and a breathtaking view of the newly opened Walt Disney Concert Hall helped me decide on my temporary locale.
Eager to meet people outside of work so that it didn’t become the center of my new universe, I started “dating for friends,” accepting every invitation, working my way down a list of the few people I knew in Southern California, as well as friends other friends recommended I call on. I figured a social whirlwind would make the year fly by.
One Friday afternoon, I invited two newfound acquaintances for a late-day swim. Barbara was herself new to town; Chris was a native who had recently returned. The three of us sat in my urban oasis, drinking wine and getting to know one another. As the sun set, we moved up to my one-bedroom apartment to rustle up some supper. No movie star could feel as grand. This was not a typical day for a native of Flatbush, or for most any inhabitant of New York.
The next week, Barb brought a friend, and the week after, I had a friend in town, and suddenly our Friday gathering had become a ritual.
Each week, we’d add to our growing group of friends by inviting others with whom we collided along the way. Some would balk at driving to Downtown; some seemed disappointed when they arrived that the place they were visiting wasn’t a sweeping loft. Others were as hungry for community as we were, and didn’t care.
When people asked what they could bring, or if they could bring a friend, we learned to say, “Bring what looks good” and “Bring whomever you’d like.”
Sometimes the newbies wound up coming back each week, and we’d never again see the person who’d brought them. One regular started to use the gatherings to test out potential dates. If they were prissy enough to hesitate at the location or the shoes-off policy, they were out. If they got it, they might just be his kind of woman.
One week, after a visitor arrived with the fixings for fajitas and headed for the stove in my tiny kitchen, it became clear that an all-out potluck situation wasn’t really feasible in the space I had. Each Friday morning before work, I’d start a crock-pot soup or chili of some sort, with an edge toward vegetarian, so as to please as many comers as possible. After my college friend, Liz, turned me on to Surfas, I bought a baker’s dozen of plates, and bowls, and mugs, and utensils.
Each Friday typically started with four bottles of wine I’d bought during my weekly grocery run, amplified by a rosé or bubbly brought by Barb and a lush red Chris knew was my personal favorite. Some weeks a dozen more bottles walked in the door. Other weeks, more cheese and crackers or beer arrived than anything else.
Some weeks there were just enough people to gather around the old oak table that had trekked around with me since early in my career. Other weeks, 40 people trailed in and out till midnight.
On nights the Dodgers played at home, whoever was around would gather in the bedroom for a view of the fireworks display at game’s end. (The stadium view was blocked in the living room.)
Always, there managed to be enough food and booze to sate everyone. Community was what most of us were hungering for.
Fretting about quantity and tableware and the guest list and other things that paralyze so many people from opening up their homes was not part of our Friday night tradition.
“Martha Stewart would not approve,” someone once said of our parties, and that made me proud.
The details weren’t as important as the greater whole—random connections, unexpected discussions with people you didn’t know or whom you’d met a few weeks before, no networking or agenda. In an age of airbrushed perfection and neurotic phobias about looking perfect for Instagram, here we were, hanging out, week after week—a modern family.
Just as potlucks wouldn’t work, I also decided that keeping a list or sending out an email was against the spirit of the the gathering. (Plus, it was a tedious detail.) People just learned each week to show up at Apartment 1837. When I announced a six-week hiatus to volunteer to help start a radio station in Asia, I was flattered that the regulars resolved to keep the party going elsewhere—and I myself started having a party in my short-term rental in Bhutan.
An invitation to our Friday night typically elicited one of two reactions:
The skeptic was quick with disapproval. “Every week? Isn’t that expensive/exhausting/too much to clean up? What do you do if you’re not in the mood?”
To which I’d respond, “Kids and spouses are 24/7,” to make the point that once-a-week chaos seemed nothing in comparison to what some consider traditional family life.
This this was my kind of modern family—without the pretense of a salon, nor the intensity of a religious ritual. A gathering of humans in a world filled with fascinating and yet often lonely people, huddling in their own isolated spaces, craving fellowship.
As life does and should, it marched on: Barb eventually left town, and Chris moved away too. I met a man at the nearby Central Library. He started coming to the parties. We’ve lived together in a larger unit here for quite some time now.
Over eight years, with an open door and open heart, I made a life for myself in Los Angeles—a community. Now Ted and I have parties, but not every week. Mostly we gather friends to cook at the Downtown Women’s Center. I share my simple recipe for civility and sustenance as I mark my 15th anniversary in this wild, atomized city. I’d long loved entertaining people before I got here, but it was in Los Angeles that my world expanded, and became even richer, all because of a weekly gathering centered on soup.