I was telling my daughter something a friend of mine had said and she halted me in mid-sentence. “Is this a real friend?” she said. “Or is it one of those people you only know on the Internet?”

Her smirk implied that she’d caught me playing with my Imaginary Friends. Which, of course, left me properly indignant. “He’s a writer,” I said. “We correspond on-line–”

“Have you ever met this person face-to-face?”

“I’ve talked with him on the phone.” Was my tone defensive? “We’ve reviewed each other’s books.”

She rolled her eyes.

**

I have some very good friends. Many are writers–articulate, outrageous, liberal, and darkly funny. We read each others’ stories, articles and blogs, and are quite honest–maybe even ruthless–in our “suggestions for improvement.” We trust each other; we share joy, grief and frustration.

Some of these friends come to visit us here in Brooklyn; some of them, we visit in New Hampshire or Massachusetts or out west or…wherever.

But yes, there are those I haven’t met face-to-face.

Now that I think of it, there are a fair number of them.

**

I wrote a novel in 2003, a great, sprawling family saga that, to my consternation, never got published. Like most of my writing, it’s larded with the pop culture of its era. The music, sports and electronica are all solidly 2003.

The world moves very quickly lately, and that book has become a Period Piece, a sort of Costume Drama of its time. It depicts a world when cellphones were a new toy in the US, and the Apple G3 laptop was state-of-the-art. A world where adults who used that G3 to surf the growing Internet often found themselves under scrutiny from family members–older members, especially–who suspected they might be cruising for illicit contact with the opposite sex.

Of course, some were. Some still are.

If you’re one of them: Tsk, tsk, tsk.

For writers, the fresh, shiny, sticky Web also offered another sort of companionship. Writers are hermits by virtue of what we do, but we’re also humans (in spite of what our agents might think). Humans are pack animals at heart; we hunger for contact with, and validation from, other members of the herd.

And so, maybe twelve or thirteen years ago–when I was doing serious work on my first book–I discovered on-line writers’ groups. On-line military writers’ groups. On-line pop culture writers’ groups. Even an on-line Peace Corps writers’ group.

Wow.

I “met” a great many fellow craftsmen over the years. I corresponded with them. Daily, in some instances. How better to get to know writers, than to exchange writing with them? We sent each other emails, links to our blogs, pieces of our future best-sellers, critiques, confessionals and, of course, the odd picture of a grandkid.

Some of these friendships have grown and persist to this day and–Kym’s scorn to the contrary–they are real friends. Even though we’ve only met in pixels and on paper.

**

New York City is its own planet. It’s filled with people–clogged, seething, overwhelmed with them–and yet, it’s hard to make new friends here. It might have something to do with that very density: because they are absolutely assailed by humanity day in, day out, 24/7, 365 days a year, people here guard their privacy with a truly astounding zeal. Even on a rush-hour train, we all maintain a layer of space–perhaps only a half-inch around our bodies–and if somebody invades it, they apologize. “Sorry” has to be one of the most frequently-dropped words in a packed subway car.

People walk the streets wrapped in the privacy of their own worlds. If somebody breaks into song, a rap, a rant, or even a tap-dance, the unspoken code for those around them is to leave them to their privacy. It was that way twenty years ago, when I played Stage Mother here to my youngest; the only thing that’s changed now is that cellphones with bluetooth receivers make it tough to distinguish between the guy talking with his girlfriend, and the guy talking with Martians.

An old friend visiting from Massachusetts learned about New York Privacy up close and personal when a guy near him at a neighborhood festival barked at him. Literally, as in Woof, Woof. The man informed John that he had “invaded my space, so yeah–I’m barkin’ at you, man.”

What I’m saying is, it’s hard to get close to people here.

Don’t get me wrong: I get out. Quite a bit, actually. I volunteer for stuff. I have a face-to-face writers’ group. I work out at a local gym, and do yoga. I have memberships at MOMA and the Aquarium and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. I’m friendly with people in our apartment building, and a few of them drop in for dinner now and then. Paul and I have a busy social life.

In the three-plus years since we moved here, I’ve made a lot of acquaintances. Some are very good acquaintances.

Still, I have yet to meet anybody in New York I can call on a moment’s notice to hit a coffee shop or a movie. There’s nobody here, other than my kids, who feels comfortable opening my kitchen cupboard to get a water glass without an invitation.

I don’t think it’s me, per se–I don’t have leprosy or intractable halitosis, and I always use deodorant. It’s New York: people are busy; they work; they go on book tours; they have a grand slate of friends already; their dance cards are full.

**

And so, my old face-to-face friends still figure prominently in my life. But it’s also the everyday attention of “virtual” friends that makes my transition into this crazy, hectic, foreign planet more comfortable. They add a fine, vital dimension of sanity and acceptance to my life.

I hope they can say the same of me.

Would I like to meet them face-to-face? Certainly I would. Will I? Maybe; maybe not. Who knows.

The thing is, in this Brave New World, there are all manner of communities. I’m not convinced–as I sit typing this in a coffee shop on Cortelyou Street in Brooklyn, among others who are typing silently on their laptops, all of us drinking our coffees in the privacy of our worlds–that it’s of paramount importance that all members of a community literally breathe the same air.

So…thank you, my virtual friends. All of you (You know who you are). You enrich my life.

And, should you appear magically in my kitchen–which would be lovely–the glasses are in the third cupboard from the left.