The people we see all the time but know so little about
As a New Yorker, I don’t really talk to my neighbors. I don’t smile or wave at those I see on stoops as I walk down my block for fear of being thought a weirdo. The thing is, Cole and I live in a brownstone with only three apartments, so it’s kind of hard to stay anonymous. We’ve had many conversations with Jorge, the building super/psychologist/martial arts expert from the first floor as he tinkers with things around our apartment. We also have a cordial relationship with Stephen and Mary, the married couple around our age that live on the floor below us. Unlike our previous downstairs neighbors, they are quite friendly and we always take a moment to chat when we run into each other in the hallway. If we could only get the landlord to let us use the backyard, we might be able to take these friendships to the next level. Though we could find other ways to connect, what really prevents us from doing so is the fear of overstepping the bounds of privacy that New Yorkers hide behind in their tiny apartments. Without an impetus, we might never make the first move.
Over the last four years in New York, my neighborly relations have ranged from hostility and outright theft in Sunnyside, Queens to friendly small talk in the stairwell at our current place in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. Sometimes we even take turns passing along the rent to our landlord with the downstairs neighbors. While growing up in the suburbs of Maine I watched most everyone talk to each other on our dead end street — including the people they didn’t like. Even in Boston, I befriended a number of tenants in our apartment complex. Yet in New York, it’s not uncommon to only recognize a few people on your block. When I’m on the roof and people wave from nearby buildings it freaks me out. Even the little kids selling candy bars from their stoop next door catch me by surprise when they say hello. Connections are rare and silence is preferred. Everyone has become so defensive to survive urban life that they don’t let their guards down around the people they should be communicating with the most. We should all have at least one good neighbor to ask for a cup of sugar, invite up to a party or commiserate with when the city throws us for a loop.
When Frank Sinatra sang about people who smile at you in Chicago, he wasn’t lying. Chicago may be all neon lights and Roxie Hart on the outside, but its core is pure, down-home Midwestern sensibility. Last week when I went to renew my city parking sticker, everyone was quick to make conversation and joke about the length of the line (“What is this? Disneyland?”). I live in a greystone three-flat with a communal deck and laundry room where my neighbors are always up for a chat. People say “good morning” on the street. Even people in customer service roles are uniquely pleasant — a few days ago I received the best service I’ve ever had in any Starbucks from Kathy on Chicago and Wabash. It wasn’t anything specific that she did. It was just an attitude that exuded calm and made me feel like she was genuinely happy to help me purchase a café mocha. A surefire way to break the ice? Get a dog. A lot of people in Chicago own dogs, especially in my neighborhood. I’ve started tons of conversations with people I otherwise wouldn’t have because I first interacted with their dogs. Talking to someone’s dog before talking to them creates assurance: I’m normal, I’m cool and I’m not going to ask you for money (which there is a lot of here).