How YOU doin’?
Growing up, we always knew our neighbors well. I played with all the kids on our street, and my mom usually became best friends with whoever lived within two houses of us. If you went into your driveway and your neighbor emerged from their home, you said hello. Not doing so would be considered terribly rude. If your mom caught wind that you’d chosen to ignore Mr. Jones or sweet Mrs. Baker, you’d be scolded for acting like a heel. My mom still gets offended when she visits here and no one chats with her on the subway.
Now that I’m all grown up and living in Queens, I’m having to renegotiate all I knew about social dynamics between neighbors, strangers and general members of the community. I’m still learning the rules about who wants to be greeted and who wants to be peacefully ignored. I introduced myself to the girl who lives on the second floor to my right and she looked very surprised, “I’ve lived in this apartment for 10 years and no one in the neighborhood’s ever introduced themselves before.” She looked about my age, so I started imagining myself baking a coffee cake and having her over in the late afternoons for tea and neighborhood gossip. This will never happen of course because now that the niceties are out of the way we will probably ignore one another for the next ten years.
This is apparently the New York way. I was raised the Texas way, which is probably very similar to the Midwestern way, which might also resemble the Nepalese way, if the grocery store clerk on my work street is representative of her culture. Her name is Indra, and she greets every customer by name, always recalling trivial food facts like that I guzzle coffee in the morning and big bags of popcorn in the afternoon. I have always loved these kinds of interactions with people we see over and over. In my college dorm I was one of the few people to have my order announced by name instead of number over the loudspeaker in a thick Spanish accent, “Hennifer, my friend, your stir-fried vegetables are ready.”
And now I’m grown up and living in my own brand of Seinfeld episode, wondering if it’s still okay to say good morning to my other next door neighbor who I’ve been five feet away from for 30 minutes without any mutual acknowledgement whatsoever. This is different from yesterday, when he was out first and I came out second, and I nodded my head and we both said good morning. Every day it’s different. Sometimes we’re in the mood for cheery how-you-doin’s? and sometimes we’re both like, “Ugh, you again? I just wanted to come outside for some privacy.” There are only so many conversations one can have about storm drains and watering plants, and now I just want to be able to sit out front with my scratched glasses and pajama pants with a cup of coffee, quietly staring into the sky, contemplating my unrealized dreams and peacefully ignoring those around me.
The problem is, we have no privacy. We live in houses that are attached to one another, and except for a few strategically planted hedges, we all have full sight of another. This means that when I sit out front I do my writing about five feet from a man eating his cereal while listening to Tibetan news. If I go in the back, I have full view of his 20-something son, who is almost always shirtless and in his underpants washing the family dog. Her name is Honey and she poops a lot. I know this because our fence is chain-link and I look at it until it goes away.
With my other downstairs neighbor to the right, it’s a little easier because her English is limited to Hello, Nice to See You. I know exactly what to do with that. I’m comfortable with that. There is no threat or promise of ongoing small talk. God Bless her, really. None of this, of course, is something to really complain about because I have outdoor space, for crying out loud. But still, I have a feeling they’d sometimes love to have me out of their immediate sight line too.
Anyway, my neighbor’s gone back into his house. He took out the trash, sprayed his plants and listened to his news. I was five feet away from it all, for a whole half hour, and we never acknowledged one another’s presence.
We’ll see how things go tomorrow. It’s always just a day away.