Thomas Beller

When I took my seat at Michael’s, a restaurant on 55th Street, between Fifth and Sixth, it was with a sense of relief, because in the past week I’d twice been stood up at the place, and this time when I approached the extremely well behaved and well groomed team of maitre d’s they all looked up at me with trepidation, as though thinking, “Oh no, here’s the deluded guy who thinks he’s having lunch here.”

I was the first to arrive, and so I had time to scan the room and people-watch. There were several pretty Jasper Johnses on the walls, and the multitude of diagonal lines that filled the canvas gave Michael’s the faint air of a gilded bird cage. At the table next to mine three men were deep into it. I could only make out snippets of their conversation, including this line: “Even in Romania, which is a very poor country, we’re selling 100,000 units.”

After that I tried to make out their line of work but couldn’t. One of the men was a dead ringer for David Crosby, but with a mean capitalist glint in his eye; he had taken off his shoes and I could see his socked feet gleefully moiling around on the carpet, gleefully contemplating all the copies of Cosmo Girl, or the Eminem record, or GQ, or whatever piece of American culture he was fobbing off on the poor Romanians.

I was seated at the front of the room and had an excellent position from which to view people make their entrance and to see their faces fix with the expression that, over the years, they have developed in order to mask the pang of excitement and anxiety that accompanies walking into a restaurant or a party. Several hardcore Upper-East-Side ladies arrived in Jackie O. sunglasses and Chanel suits. They looked great, and reminded me of Lypsinka, the drag queen, whose one-man show (if that is the way to describe it) is a brilliant satire of the kind of feminine grandeur they seemed to embody. It was a vicious satire and a loving one, which is one of Lypsinka’s many accomplishments, and so I looked at these ladies not with disdain but with some combination of amusement and affection. For them, as for me, this lunch was the high point of the working day, as close as we would get to the world of offices and the formal arrangements of work.

My afternoon was spent working on mrbellersneighborhood.com, which in some instances means actually writing the sort of casually reported vignette that the site strives to deliver, and in other instances means editing or posting pieces that others have written, or changing the New Stuff box that appears on the front page.

In honor of my lunch I posted “Dear Grace Mirabella,” by Isaac Mizrahi, a reproduction of a note Isaac Mizrahi wrote to Grace Mirabella on the occasion of her getting fired from Vogue. There is something about the handwriting, the syntax, and the tone that is really intriguing, for some reason, and it’s just the kind of odd cultural artifact (it was written in 1988) that I like to throw into the site; I see Mrbellersneighborhood.com as an archeological site as well as a magazine. But this is just hyperbole. It’s a Web site, something read while sitting up at a desk, and now that the fever of its startup is subsiding, my feelings about working in the Internet medium have become a little more shaded. When I was hit by the first wave of Internet enthusiasm, I swallowed the entire New Economy rhetoric whole; it was an almost evangelical experience, and I felt it like a drug: The Internet is so consuming and, when one first really embraces it, multidimensional and amazing that it can block out whole areas of sadness and despair and confusion with its insistence that there is a fundamental paradigm shift in the way people live underway, and it is a shift for the better.

Now, though I’m still excited about the Internet and the Neighborhood and these two other sites I’m working on (therearwindow.com and thebasketballdiaries.com), I’ve come to question, or at least pause over, some of the accompanying rhetoric of the Internet, particularly with regard to the subjects of self-branding (i.e., we’re all our own best-selling product and had better start thinking about the ways to best market that product, which is us), and of privacy, about which the Internet seems to say: You don’t have any, and you’re better off without it (i.e., if we can give you ads you want, as opposed to a lot of junk that bothers you).

Privacy was the subject of a conference at the New School University that was kicking off that evening, and, mrbellers work wrapped up, I and a friend went over to hear the keynote speech and attend the inaugural dinner. After my tart, sleek, media lunch, I was in the mood for intellectuals and the slightly more frumpy and soulful world of academia. What I got was Charles Nesson, Big Shot Harvard Law professor and director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard. What Nesson had to say, in amazingly measured modulated tones that made Dr. Spock sound like Lenny Bruce in comparison, is that we are losing our privacy at a rapid rate and that we had better take a close look at the matter before it’s all gone. His talk was substantiative, and I particularly liked the question/answer session that followed.

John Hollander, the Yale English professor and a walking advertisement for why a life in or around academia might actually be good, in the long run, for the soul, got up and discussed the peculiar paradox that while we are the owners of our bodies, in the matter of suicide the state has some say over what we are allowed to do with it. In a similar vein, he pointed out that though he owned a letter that William Faulkner wrote, he had no rights to the language in that letter, which belonged to the Faulkner estate. But then, paradoxically, it was within his legal right to burn the letter.

I had no idea how any of this directly related to the matter of privacy, but it was all fascinating which is as much as one can hope for, really—to find something fascinating.

Then a young and very earnest man got up and said our concern with privacy was a vestige of puritan hypocrisy, that privacy was about preparing in private what we were going to display to the world in public, and that it would be perfectly fine if this “rehearsal process,” were itself performed in public.

Then we all went upstairs for a dinner. The food was very good, and I sat next to George Kateb, a Princeton professor of political philosophy, who said that the process by which our privacy was eroding would only be reversed by some cataclysm, like a natural disaster that would unplug our technological grid, an asteroid hitting the Earth, that sort of thing. For a moment I thought he was absolutely out of his mind, and that he was suggesting that such a thing was imminent. He was a charming, engaging, erudite guy, he had an animated discussion with my friend on the other side, the food was excellent, the man with a beard a few seats over was talking about Bolsheviks, and I was happy. Then, at the end of this delightful event, some speeches were made, of thanks and so forth, and then there was one last speech, a sort of mini-keynote, made by a man who was introduced as having written, among other things, “over a hundred op-ed pieces for the New York Times.”

He proceeded to bore the audience to a state of near hospitalization, not because of the substance of his speech, which was fine, but because he inserted the word “um” in between every other word. One must be wary of anyone who claims to have written a hundred free-lance op-ed pieces for the New York Times. They are likely lying, as the Times only accepts two or so a year from the same free-lancer (I would guess), or they are insane, in that the Times certainly prints every single piece a person submits, which means the guy has spent thousands and thousands of hours madly cranking out opinions in the hopes they will get an airing in the New York Times.

Come to think of it, there are probably a lot of people like that.

Now I am dashing off to this morning’s conference, chaired by Louis Menand, whose papers have titles like, “Sexuality, Shame, and Intimacy,” by Ruth Bernard Yeazell, and “How publicity makes people real,” by David Bromwich. I wish I could report to you how it went, but this is my last column for Slate’s “Diary” page, and so I bid you all farewell and good luck.