New York Lesson No. 333: Neighbors

New York has a lot to teach me about how to be a good neighbor.

The morning after a rather long night not long ago, I stopped in at the corner bodega near my office for a Diet Red Bull. It’s a disgusting way to wake up, but coffee makes me jittery sometimes.

After having been a customer for two years now, I enjoy a certain a mount of familiarity there. I’m just another regular from the neighborhood, but it’s nice to be recognized. New York is a small town when taken neighborhood by neighborhood. You can feel pretty anonymous on crowded streets of the Manhattan workday, but you’ve got your deli and your cleaners and your coffee shop, and before long, folks in those places start to smile at you for real.

As I entered, I nodded at the cashier.

“Eh, boss,” he said.

I set the can on the counter. “Two dollars?”

He turned to his boss. “Two? Two-fifty?”

The boss looked over at me. “For you,” he said, his face widening into a grin, “two dollars. Because you are the best in the neighborhood.”

It was just silly. Nothing, really. The price probably really is two dollars. But things like this never happened at the suburban grocery stores of my childhood. As an adult, I find I’m often embarrassed by hospitality and friendliness. Sometimes I want to be anonymous.

I was raised a “bad” neighbor. Nothing against my parents; we just didn’t mix much with other the other families people living complete, unannounced lives across the yard and on the other side of the street. It just never came up. They were they; we were we. In the suburbs, our doors may have been unlocked, but our curtains were closed.

My mom occasionally availed herself to the babysitting talents of a few of the other moms when necessary, but even that limited interaction was short-lived. And it involved money. We were aware of the various divorces. (There was a mysterious rash of them in the mid-90s, as if families all through the neighborhood suddenly and simultaneously woke up from a dream.) I myself babysat for a few of the divorcées in the neighborhood. But we never had block parties. We never pooled our garage sales. The kids traveled in packs by day, but they returned to their quiet homes by night.

My world didn’t extend far beyond those kids and whatever life-threatening mischief we could conjure in the woods that surrounded the subdivision. It certainly did not include my friends’ parents. Parents of other kids were, without exception, formidable and utterly foreign. They occasionally drove us places. And if you couldn’t avoid it, they would sometimes talk to you. But one was always quiet and still in their presence. One did not address them directly.

So now I find myself not talking to my neighbors. I see them in the laundry room, in the elevator, on the bus. I may smile or nod. I may hold a door. But do I ever talk to them about so much as the weather? Rarely. Sometimes I feel like I should, and other times I think, what’s the point? We live in the same building — so what? We don’t choose each other. But the people in your neighborhood — the barber, the goofy guys at the bodega, the lady in the bagel shop — there is some choice involved. We make these people part of our lives on purpose. Yet I stumble whenever my barber asks me something besides “How short do you want it?”

On the bus recently a guy standing right next said to a woman just boarding the stairwell, “Sorry, we don’t let opera singers on this bus.” She recognized him and laughed, and they began a conversation — on either side of me — about some show they were rehearsing. I was jealous of their neighborly familiarity. Minutes later, the bus driver accidentally blew past a stop and a little old lady in one of the seats near the front said to him, “Lenny, you forgot me.”

“Oh, sorry, dear,” he said. He stopped at the corner and let her out. The opera singers continued all the way to the last stop. I walked from the bus to the subway and continued my silent journey.


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