My husband, Judah, and I have lived in our house in Queens, New York, for ten years.
We bought the house from a couple who had recently gotten a divorce. The story, as we understood it, was that the husband’s parents had owned the house. He grew up in it. At some point along his journey, he got married and purchased the house from his parents. He, his wife, and their two daughters lived here for ten years or so until they got divorced, she and the kids moved out, and he was forced to sell the house.
Somewhere in this narrative, I decided that if this man’s family had lived in this house for decades, everyone in the neighborhood must know them. So people would be aware of what was going on and that new people were moving in. They would likely want to come welcome us.
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. I’ve mentioned before how the first person I met was our next-door neighbor who appeared outside my living room window, aggressively asking me to “cut the noise” because he was trying to put his daughter to bed. It was 7 pm, and I was sanding our windowsill in order to adorn it with a fresh coat of white paint. We had lived here less than a week.
Welcome to the neighborhood.
The longer I’ve lived here, the more I am aware that I have no clue when one person or family moves out and another one moves in. How naive I had been to expect, hope, or even think someone else might be remotely aware that we were new to the neighborhood.
In the ten years we’ve lived here, we have only known the names of, and had friendly conversations with, one family, and that was because they rented our garage.
That is, until this past year.
Judah and I have spent more time walking the streets of our neighborhood in the past eighteen months than we had in the first nine years combined. Getting out of the house, breathing fresh air, and soaking up some sun have been essential to keeping our sanity.
We aren’t the only people in the neighborhood who have been out more. Whether it’s sitting on the front stoop or wearing holes in their sneakers, several neighbors had the same idea. We’ve seen friendly faces without crossing over to exchanging names. In most of these encounters, neither party has stepped over the line of politeness to engage further. However, there are two people who have pushed past the pleasantries. But only with me.
James and Bobby.
I’ve written about James before. I have no clue where he lives, but he’s always around. Walking or biking through the neighborhood. He engages with me by telling me how beautiful I am, even after having met my husband. His attention is unwanted, but he doesn’t seem to get the hint. Now, when I see him, I cross the street to avoid him if at all possible. When I have to meet him head-on, I politely smile and keep walking.
Unlike James who flits around the neighborhood like a gnat, Bobby is usually in one spot - seated on a folding chair on his front stoop. I’d guess Bobby is in his late fifties. I can see, within a block or two, if he’s out or not. I pass Bobby’s house while walking back and forth to the grocery store. Over the past year, I have also passed his house walking back and forth from the bus stop to go to the chiropractor. In the beginning, I went three times a week. That’s six times a week of walking past his house for the chiropractor alone. If I went to the grocery store, more passes.
I started off smiling. Then a friendly “hello”. He was cordial back.
Three months ago, I was walking to the subway when I saw Bobby on the sidewalk near my house. This was the first time I’d seen him not on his front porch. He was walking toward me. I smiled and said, “hi”. He stopped and said, “hello” with a warmth that implied relationship. I mean, we had been “seeing each other” for several months now.
Bobby stopped walking. I was still walking toward him.
“How are you?” he asked.
“Who are you?”
Fair question. We had been politely saying hi for months but never exchanged names or other pleasantries.
I told him my name and where I lived. I thought it was only fair since I clearly knew where he lived.
“I’m Bobby,” he said.
Maybe this would be the moment where we’d step over the line of politeness and start a neighborly friendship.
“Can you take off your sunglasses so I can see your face?”
I stopped breathing.
It was so hard to know how to take this request. On one hand, every time he’d ever seen me, I had sunglasses on. On the other hand, it felt creepy as hell across the seconds that lingered after his request where I found myself holding my breath.
Maybe he just wanted to see my face. In a normal way. But who says that? Is that an okay question to ask of someone? Is it creepy? Is it both?
I took my sunglasses off but felt like I was taking my clothes off.
“What’s your story?” he asked, leaning in.
“Sorry. I’m headed to the train. I can’t stay and chat. Good to see you.”
I walked away feeling disappointed and ashamed. I had enjoyed our friendly “hello” exchange as I passed his house. Now I felt like he wanted to see down my shirt.
Was I just being sensitive?
A couple of weeks later, I was walking with Judah and a male friend of ours. Bobby passed us on the sidewalk.
“Hi, Jill,” he said, stopping walking and turning his body toward mine in a way that seemed to communicate deeper relationship as if expecting I would stop and do the same.
“Hey, how’s it going?”
We kept walking. My body felt tight.
Moments later, I wished I had stopped for a chat. With two other men with me, I should feel safe, right? Maybe it would have given me the chance to feel out the interaction and see if I should be creeped out or if I have a safe and friendly neighbor in Bobby.
But in the moment, even with two men with me, I just wanted to be anywhere but there.
Since that time, I find myself considering if it’s worth it to walk past Bobby’s house when I need to go to the grocery store and then pass by on the other side of the street if I see he’s on his stoop.
I now have two men who live in and/or patrol my neighborhood who make me feel so uncomfortable, I alter my route to avoid them.
Just today, I needed to go to the grocery store. In an effort to avoid the possibility of seeing Bobby, I decided I would go to a different grocery store that is in the opposite direction of Bobby’s house.
As I locked the front door and turned to walk away from my house, I saw James crossing the street in front of my house, headed in the same direction I had planned to go.
My house is at the intersection of two streets. I made a bee-line for the other street, taking the least efficient path toward the grocery store. Then, I realized he and I were still heading in the same direction, and he was on the side of the street I eventually needed to be on.
Last-minute decision: I turned around and walked toward the grocery store past Bobby’s house. At least I was on the opposite side of the street from Bobby’s house. And the way his chair is positioned, I’d be behind him. He wouldn’t see me coming.
This is ridiculous.
I got close enough to see Bobby’s porch. It was empty.
My body relaxed, and I made my way casually to the grocery store.
On the way home, I remained on the opposite side of the street from Bobby’s house. The porch was still empty, so I didn’t feel like I had to pretend to be super interested in something on my phone as I passed, even while passing on the opposite side of the street.
About a block from my house, there was James again. He was about five houses past my house on the same side of the street as my house and Bobby’s house.
For the love! If I had walked home from the grocery store the way I’ve walked home for the past ten years, I would have ended up face-to-face with James after having chosen that grocery store with the express purpose of avoiding him!
This is ridiculous.
I reached my house, put the key in the lock, heard it click, and opened the door.
This is ridiculous. I feel like I can’t even leave my own house. It’s like I’m trapped.
My desire for relationships with our neighbors, relationships that would make me want to be outside to say hello to people, has left me anxious to leave the house for fear of running into these men who make me feel uncomfortable.
As it stands, I don’t stay trapped in my house for fear of running into them at this point. But, more often than I’d like to admit, they are on my radar when I leave the house by myself. They are taking up more mental and emotional real estate than they deserve.
I hate that they seem to have the power in this dynamic. And they are likely totally unaware of how I feel. What is my recourse?
What would you do?