Hugh Ryan is an essayist, YA author, and journalist living in Brooklyn.
Stalk him online at hughryan.org
My parents’ dining room table is early 20th-century mahogany, with solid columnated legs and comfortable seating for six—eight if necessary, 10 on desperate family occasions. In the morning, it’s newspaper sprawl and pots of coffee. In the afternoon, laptops and lunch. Family dinner, whether for two or twelve, is always at the table. It is the anchor to which life in the house is tethered. When I think of living in Westchester, I think of that table.
Since leaving home, I have, by conservative estimate, lived in nine New York City apartments. Not one has had a dining room table. In fact, not one has had a dining room. For years, I dreamed of four walls dominated by a massive wooden slab and a dozen hard-backed chairs, blaming space and money and time for my lack. When I could fit a table, I couldn’t afford one. When I could afford one, I was worried I would soon move and need to transport it. And always, always, always, there was the question of carving a dining room out of my already too-small apartments.
But in truth, my lack of a dining room table wasn’t about space. When I’ve had spare rooms, my roommates and I dedicated them to work areas, storage, or awkward things we didn’t want elsewhere, like litter boxes and sentimental trash. (I’m looking at you, poorly framed photo of my college dorm.) My current apartment is a converted loft that could fit my parents’ table three times over, but we make do with a breakfast bar and two small tables that we shove together when needed.
A good home, small or large, city or suburban, has a place for everything and everything in its place. This doesn’t just mean a drawer for silverware or a great shoe rack. It means a room for every daily purpose: sleeping, cooking, showering. A dining room and its table are a physical manifestation of an expectation: that dinner will be eaten here, by many people, most days of the week. It is a way of looking at the world, an inward focus that my life in the city rarely has.
To live in New York City means to live in public, gloriously and pathetically, hilariously and tragically. It means schlepping dirty laundry three blocks while wearing pajamas, and summertime stoop-side hangout sessions with temporary neighborhood friends. It means dinner in a different place, at a different time, with different people, every single night. It means no room for a dining room table, not because of crowded space, but because of crowded lives.