BUMPING INTO MR. RAVIOLI, By Adam Gopnik The New Yorker
MY DAUGHTER, Olivia, who just turned three, has an imaginary friend whose name is Charlie Ravioli. Olivia is growing up in Manhattan, and so Charlie Ravioli has a lot of local traits: he lives in an apartment “on Madison and Lexington,” he dines on grilled chicken, fruit, and water, and, having reached the age of seven and a half, he feels, or is thought, “old.” But the most peculiarly local thing about Olivia’s imaginary playmate is this: he is always too busy to play with her. She holds her toy cell phone up to her ear, and we hear her talk into it: “Ravioli? It’s Olivia ... It’s Olivia. Come and play? OK. Call me. Bye.” Then she snaps it shut and shakes her head. “I always get his machine,” she says. Or she will say, “I spoke to Ravioli today.”“Did you have fun?” my wife and I ask. “No. He was busy working. On a television” (leaving it up in the air if he repairs electronic devices or has his own talk show).
On a good day, she “bumps into” her invisible friend and they go to a coffee shop. “I bumped into Charlie Ravioli,” she announces at dinner (after a day when, of course, she stayed home, played, had a nap, had lunch, paid a visit to the Central Park Zoo, and then had another iiap). “We had coffee, but then he had to run.” She sighs, sometimes, at her inability to make their schedules mesh, but she accepts it as inevitable, just the way life is. “I bumped into Charlie Ravioli today,” she says. “He was working.” Then she adds brightly, “But we hopped into a taxi.” What happened then? we ask. “We grabbed lunch,” she says.
It seemed obvious that Ravioli was a romantic figure of the big exotic life that went on outside her little limited life of parks and playgrounds — drawn, in particular, from a nearly perfect, mynah bird—like imitation of the words she hears her mother use when she talks about her day with her friends. (“How was your day?” Sighing: “Oh, you know. I tried to make a date with Meg, but I couldn’t find her, so I left a message on her machine. Then I bumped into Emily after that meeting I had in SoHo, and we had coffee and then she had to run, but by then Meg had reached me on my cell and we arranged ) I was concerned, though, that Charlie Ravioli might also be the sign of some “trauma,” some loneliness in Olivia’s life reflected in imaginary form. “It seems odd to have an imaginary playmate who’s always too busy to play with you,” Martha, my wife, said to me. “Shouldn’t your imaginary playmate be someone you tell secrets to and, I don’t know, sing songs with? It shouldn’t be someone who’s always hopping into taxis.”
We thought, at first, that her older brother, Luke, might be the original of Charlie Ravioli. (For one thing, he is also seven and a half, though we were fairly sure that this age was merely Olivia’s marker for As Old as Man Can Be.) He is too busy to play with her much anymore. He has become a true New York child, with the schedule of a cabinet secretary: chess club on Monday, T-ball on Tuesday, tournament on Saturday, play dates and after-school conferences to fill in the gaps. But Olivia, though she counts days, does not yet really have days. She has a day, and into this day she has introduced the figure of Charlie Ravioli — in order, it dawned on us, to insist that she does have days, because she is too harried to share them, that she does have an independent social life, by virtue of being too busy to have one.
Yet Charlie Ravioli was becoming so constant and oddly discouraging a companion — “He canceled lunch. Again,” Olivia would say — that we thought we ought to look into it. One of my sisters is a developmental psychologist who specializes in close scientific studies of what goes on inside the heads of one- and two- and three-year-olds. Though she grew up in the nervy East, she lives in California now, where she grows basil in her garden and jars her own organic marmalades. I c-mailed this sister for help with the Ravioli issue — how concerned should we be? — and she sent me back an e-mail, along with an attachment, and, after several failed cell-phone connections, we at last spoke on a land line.
It turned out that there is a recent book on this very subject by the psychologist Marjorie Taylor, called Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them, and my sister had just written a review of it. She insisted that Charlie Ravioli was nothing to be worried about. Olivia was right on target, in fact. Most under-sevens (sixty- three percent, to be scientific) have an invisible friend, and children create their imaginary playmates not out of trauma but out of a serene sense of the possibilities of fiction — sometimes as figures of pure fantasy, sometimes, as Olivia had done, as observations of grownup manners assembled in tranquillity and given a name. I learned about the invisible companions Taylor studied: Baintor, who is invisible because he lives in the light; Station Pheta, who hunts sea anemones on the beach. Charlie Ravioli seemed pavement-bound by comparison.
“An imaginary playmate isn’t any kind of trauma marker,” my sister said. “It’s just the opposite: it’s a sign that the child is now confident enough to begin to understand how to organize her experience into stories.” The significant thing about imaginary friends, she went on, is that the kids know they’re fictional. In an instant message on AOL, she summed it up: “The children with invisible friends often interrupted the interviewer to remind her, with a certain note of concern for her sanity, that these characters were, after all, just pretend.”
I also learned that some children, as they get older, turn out to possess what child psychologists call a “paracosm.” A paracosm is a society thought up by a child — an invented universe with a distinctive language, geography, and history. (The Brontës invented a couple of paracosms when they were children.) Not all children who have an imaginary friend invent a paracosm, but the two might, I think, be related. Like a lonely ambassador from Alpha Centauri in a fifties sci-fi movie who, misunderstood by paranoid Earth scientists, cannot bring the life-saving news from his planet, perhaps the invisible friend also gets an indifferent or hostile response, and then we never find out about the beautiful paracosm he comes from.
Don’t worry about it,” my sister said in a late-night phone call. “Knowing something’s made up while thinking that it matters is what all fiction insists on. She’s putting a name on a series of manners.”
“But he seems so real to her,” I objected.
“Of course he is. I mean, who’s more real to you, Becky Sharp or Gandalf or the guy down the hail? Giving a manner a name makes it real.”
I paused. “I grasp that it’s normal for her to have an imaginary friend,” I said, “but have you ever heard of an imaginary friend who’s too busy to play with you?”
She thought about it. “No,” she said. “I’m sure that doesn’t occur anywhere in the research literature. That sounds completely New York.” And then she hung up.
The real question, I saw, was not “Why this friend?” but “Why this fiction?” Why, as Olivia had seen so clearly, are grownups in New York so busy, and so obsessed with the language of busyness that it dominates their conversation? Why are New Yorkers always bumping into Charlie Ravioli and grabbing lunch, instead of sitting down with him and exchanging intimacies, as friends should, as people do in Paris and Rome? Why is busyness the stuff our children make their invisible friends from, as country children make theirs from light and sand?
This seems like an odd question. New Yorkers are busy for obvious reasons: they have husbands and wives and careers and children, they have the Gauguin show to see and their personal trainers and accountants to visit. But the more I think about this, the more I think it is — well, a lot of Ravioli. We are instructed to believe that we are busier because we have to work harder to be more productive, but everybody knows that busyness and productivity have a dubious, arm’s-length relationship. Most of our struggle in New York, in fact, is to be less busy in order to do more work.
Constant, exhausting, no-time-to meet-your-friends Charlie Ravioli—style busyness arrived as an affliction in modern life long after the other parts of bourgeois city manners did. Business long predates busyness. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when bourgeois people were building the institutions of bourgeois life, they seem never to have complained that they were too busy — or, if they did, they left no record of it. Samuel Pepys, who had a navy to refloat and a burned London to rebuild, often uses the word “busy” but never complains of busyness. For him, the word “busy” is a synonym for “happy,” not for “stressed.” Not once in his diary If the train crowded our streets, the telegram crowded our minds. It introduced something into the world which remains with us today: a whole new class of communications that are defined as incomplete in advance of their delivery. A letter, though it may enjoin a response, is meant to be complete in itself. Neither the Apostle Paul nor Horace Walpole ever ends an epistle with “Give me a call and let’s discuss.” By contrast, it is in the nature of the telegram to be a skeletal version of another thing a communication that opens more than it closes. The nineteenth-century telegram came with those busy threatening words “Letter follows.”
Every device that has evolved from the telegram shares the same character. E-mails end with a suggestion for a phone call (“Anyway, let’s meet and/or talk soon”), faxes with a request for an e-mail, answering-machine messages with a request for a fax. All are devices of perpetually suspended communication. My wife recalls a moment last fall when she got a telephone message from a friend asking her to check her e-mail apropos a phone call she needed to make vis-à-vis a fax they had both received asking for more information about a bed they were thinking of buying from Ireland online and having sent to America by Federal Express — a grand slam of incomplete communication.
In most of the Western world outside New York, the press of trains and of telegraphic communication was alleviated by those other two great transformers: the car and the television. While the train and the telegram (and their love children, subways and commuter trains and e-mail) pushed people together, the car and the television pulled people apart — taking them out to the suburbs and sitting them down in front of a solo spectacle. New York, though, almost uniquely, got hit by a double dose of the first two technologies, and a very limited dose of the second two. Car life — car obsessions, car-defined habits — is more absent here than almost anywhere else in the country, while television, though obviously present, is less fatally prevalent here. New York is still a subject of television, and we compare Sex and the City to sex and the city; they are not yet quite the same. Here two grids of busyness remain dominant: the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century grid of bump and run, and the late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century postmodern grid of virtual call and echo. Busyness is felt so intently here because we are both crowded and overloaded. We exit the apartment into a still dense nineteenth-century grid of street corners and restaurants full of people, and come home to the late- twentieth-century grid of faxes and e-mails and overwhelming incompleteness.
We walk across the Park on a Sunday morning and bump into our friend the baker and our old acquaintance from graduate school (what the hell is she doing now?) and someone we have been avoiding for three weeks. They all invite us for brunch, and we would love to, but we are too. . . busy. We bump into Charlie Ravioli, and grab a coffee with him — and come home to find three e-mails and a message on our cell phone from him, wondering where we are. The crowding of our space has been reinforced by a crowding of our time, and the only way to protect ourselves is to build structures of perpetual deferral: I’ll see you next week, let’s talk soon. We build rhetorical baffles around our lives to keep the crowding out, only to find that we have let nobody we love in.
Like Charlie Ravioli, we hop into taxis and leave messages on answering machines to avoid our acquaintances, and find that we keep missing our friends. I have one intimate who lives just across the Park from me, whom I e-mail often, and whom I am fortunate to see two or three times a year. We are always. . . busy. He has become my Charlie Ravioli, my invisible friend. I am sure that he misses me —just as Charlie Ravioli, I realized, must tell his other friends that he is sorry he does not see Olivia more often.
Once I sensed the nature of his predicament, I began to feel more sympathetic toward Charlie Ravioli. I got to know him better, too. We learned more about what Ravioli did in the brief breathing spaces in his busy life when he could sit down with Olivia and dish. “Ravioli read your book,” Olivia announced, for instance, one night at dinner. “He didn’t like it much.” We also found out that Ravioli had joined a gym, that he was going to the beach in the summer, but he was too busy, and that he was working on a “show.” (“It isn’t a very good show,” she added candidly.) Charlie Ravioli, in other words, was just another New Yorker: fit, opinionated, and trying to break into show business.
I think we would have learned to live happily with Charlie Ravioli had it not been for the appearance of Laurie. She threw us badly. At dinner, Olivia had been mentioning a new personage almost as often as she mentioned Ravioli. “1 talked to Laurie today,” she would begin. “She says Ravioli is busy.” Or she would be closeted with her play phone. “Who are you talking to, darling?” 1 would ask. “Laurie,” she would say. “We’re talking about Ravioli.” We surmised that Laurie was, so to speak, the Linda Tripp of the Ravioli operation — the person you spoke to for consolation when the big creep was ignoring you.
But a little while later a more ominous side of Laurie’s role began to appear. “Laurie, tell Ravioli I’m calling,” I heard Olivia say. I pressed her about who, exactly, Laurie was. Olivia shook her head. “She works for Ravioli,” she said.
And then it came to us, with sickening clarity: Laurie was not the patient friend who consoled you for Charlie’s absence. Laurie was the bright-toned person who answered Ravioli’s phone and told you that unfortunately Mr. Ravioli was in a meeting. “Laurie says Ravioli is too busy to play,” Olivia announced sadly one morning. Things seemed to be deteriorating; now Ravioli was too busy even to say he was too busy.
I got back on the phone with my sister. “Have you ever heard of an imaginary friend with an assistant?” I asked.
She paused. “Imaginary friends don’t have assistants,” she said. “That’s not only not in the literature. That’s just ... I mean — in California they don’t have assistants.”
“You think we should look into it?”
“I think you should move,” she said flatly.
Martha was of the same mind. “An imaginary playmate shouldn’t have an assistant,” she said miserably. “An imaginary playmate shouldn’t have an agent. An imaginary playmate shouldn’t have a publicist or a personal trainer or a caterer — an imaginary playmate shouldn’t have . . . people. An imaginary playmate should just play. With the child who imagined it.” She started leaving on my pillow real-estate brochures picturing quaint houses in New Jersey and Connecticut, unhaunted by busy invisible friends and their entourages.
Not long after the appearance of Laurie, though, something remarkable happened. Olivia would begin to tell us tales of her frustrations with Charlie Ravioli, and, after telling us, again, that he was too busy to play, she would tell us what she had done instead.
Astounding and paracosmic tall tales poured out of her: she had been to a chess tournament and brought home a trophy; she had gone to a circus and told jokes. Searching for Charlie Ravioli, she had “saved all the animals in the zoo”; heading home in a taxi after a quick coffee with Ravioli, she took over the steering wheel and “got all the moneys.” From the stalemate of daily life emerged the fantasy of victory. She had dreamed of a normal life with a few close friends, and had to settle for worldwide fame and the front page of the tabloids. The existence of an imaginary friend had liberated her into a paracosm, but it was a curiously New York paracosm — it was the unobtainable world outside her window. Charlie Ravioli, prince of busyness, was not an end but a means: a way out onto the street in her head, a declaration of potential independence.
Busyness is our art form, our civic ritual, our way of being us. Many friends have said to me that they love New York now in a way they never did before, and their love, I’ve noticed, takes for its object all the things that used to exasperate them — the curious combination of freedom, self-made fences, and paralyzing preoccupation that the city provides. “How did you spend the day?” Martha and I now ask each other, and then, instead of listing her incidents, she says merely, “Oh, you know ... just. . . bumping into Charlie Ravioli,” meaning, just bouncing from obligation to electronic entreaty, just spotting a friend and snatching a sandwich, just being busy, just living in New York. If everything we’ve learned in the past year could be summed up in a phrase, it’s that we want to go on bumping into Charlie Ravioli for as long as we can.
Olivia still hopes to have him to herself someday. As I work late at night in the “study” (an old hallway, an Aalto screen) I keep near the “nursery” (an ancient pantry, a glass-brick wall), I can hear her shift into pre-sleep, still muttering to herself. She is still trying to reach her closest friend. “Ravioli? Ravioli?” she moans as she turns over into her pillow and clutches her blanket, and then she whispers, almost to herself, “Tell him call me. Tell him call me when he comes home.