Won’t You Be My Neighbor
I grew up in suburbia. Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. Middle America. Joe lived on one side. The Castellanos lived on the other. Across the street, the Majors. Next to them, the Rogers. For several years when I was in elementary school, JR lived a few houses down one way and the Ivers lived a few houses down the other way. The Shumachers further down. The Ortweins further down past JR’s house. Melissa lived in the cul-de-sac between the Majors and the Ortweins.
To say we knew our neighbors is an understatement.
Growing up, I got the impression this was what living in a neighborhood looked like for everyone. Why wouldn’t you know the people who lived next door to you? They’re always around. A friendly hello as you get your mail from the mailbox at the end of your driveway. A wave-and-a-smile across the fence while you grill in the backyard. Perhaps an offer for them to come over and have some BBQ.
We were living life in close proximity. How could we not be acquaintances at the very least? That’s the way I saw it then.
Most of my adult life, I have lived in New York City. My first three apartments were within one year. I lived with friends from college. One was a six-month sublet when I first arrived in the city. One I lived in for two months until my roommate got married. One was the basement of a house owned by a Greek woman and her adult son who lived upstairs.
I didn’t know anyone who lived in the building or on the street of any of these apartments.
Then I moved back to Georgia for one year to get married. We lived in a one-hundred-year-old house that was divided into three units. We literally lived in the same house with other people and still didn’t know them. To be fair, we did enter the friendly hello phase with the people whose door was directly across a small entryway from ours. But in the eight months we lived there, we never became more than friendly hello acquaintances.
When I moved back to New York City, this time with my husband, Judah, in tow, we lived in an apartment above a travel agency. Four apartment units. Two per floor. This was the closest we came to knowing our neighbors. Two single men lived in the two apartments on the second floor. One we rarely saw. The other we only ever saw parts of. He was … shy. One time when a package was delivered, I started down the stairs (I lived on the third floor) and saw Shy Guy peeking around the corner up the stairs. By the time I got to his floor, he had disappeared. I never saw his full face. A couple of other times, I saw some bit of his body around the corner. Never all of him.
We lived in this apartment for six years. When we first moved in, an elderly Greek couple lived across the hall. Their front door was maybe six feet from ours. We saw them coming and going and would smile and wave. They didn’t speak English. We didn’t speak Greek. Honesty, when we first moved in, we didn’t even know what language they did speak because we couldn’t understand them at all.
One afternoon, we saw them in the hallway, and the husband started talking to us. He was making circular gestures that made us guess perhaps he was talking about an airplane. Had they just flown back from somewhere? Or were they leaving to go on a trip? Unfortunately, he couldn’t understand us as we guessed what he was trying to communicate, so he could neither confirm nor deny if our attempts to identify his charades were correct or not.
A month or so later, there was a knock on our door. The husband was waving for us to come over.
Once inside their apartment, they motioned for us to sit on the couch. The wife brought a tray of finger foods. The husband handed us a photo album. As we paged through the album, he pointed at people and identified them, “Nikko y Nikko y Chris.” His family.
We saw photos of a house with grape vines intertwined in a trellis.
“Is this your home? Did you live here?”
But he couldn’t understand our questions.
We turned the page and saw a pile of rubble.
He turned the album back and pointed to the house. Then he turned the album page forward, made the sound and motion of an explosion, and pointed to the rubble.
“Did someone bomb your house? Was it a war?”
Still, he could neither confirm nor deny our questions. Regardless of understanding the specifics, we knew something tragic had occurred.
When we finished looking through a couple of albums, his wife brought out small shot glasses and a bottle of something.
Judah and I don’t drink alcohol and weren’t sure what we were being served.
“Ouiski!” the husband declared with pride as he took in our questioning faces. From what we could tell, we were being served a homemade brew of whatever it was.
I gestured “no thank you” as Judah took the small glass with a kind smile.
He smelled the liquid. It was definitely alcohol.
He took a breath, put the glass to his lips, and threw his head back, downing the drink.
“No, no, no, no, no!” Both husband and wife were waving their hands in an effort to stop time in its tracks, but it was too late.
Judah started coughing. And pounding on his chest.
They modeled sipping from their small glasses. Turns out “ouiski” is exactly what it sounds like in English: whisky. A quick internet search confirmed that whisky is meant to be sipped, enjoyed slowly, savored. Not thrown down the hatch.
If I had even remotely been considering taking a drink, watching Judah’s reaction settled the fact I would not be partaking. Our hosts seemed to understand perfectly.
Before we left their apartment, they snapped a photo with us. Well, the wife took a photo of her husband with us. Judah still had on a suit coat from work. The husband rushed to his closet, grabbed his suit coat, and wore it for the photo. I wish we’d gotten a copy of that photo. Two years later, we came back from a vacation and were told the husband had died, and the wife had moved out. We never knew their names.
Olivia replaced the Greek couple. She was young and had two cats. We were young and had two cats. They became our point of connection. We would watch each other’s cats if the other was out of town. We shared a few meals with her and her boyfriend, and then we bought a house and moved from Astoria to Woodside.
We bought a house. In New York. Never in my wildest imaginings did I see us owning a house. In New York.
We bought the house September 6, 2011. We wanted to paint everything before settling in, so we kept all but the bare necessities in boxes until the painting was complete. The house was built in 1940. The windowsills had sixty years of various paint colors caked on them. We decided to sand them down in order to apply a fresh coat of satin white.
Day three of living in our new home, I was sanding the windowsill in the living room. It was around seven in the evening, and I had a mask covering my nose and mouth and safety glasses shielding my eyes. My hair was covered in paint dust. I was a sight to behold.
Suddenly, there was a figure standing outside the window.
I turned off the sander, lifted my glasses, and smiled through the window.
“Can you cut the noise?”
My breath caught. Not quite the welcome I was expecting.
“What?” seemed my only option for a response.
“It’s 7 pm. We’re trying to get our daughter to bed. Can you cut the noise?”
With shame stuck in my throat, I hurried upstairs to tell Judah to cut his noise too.
While I had technically met our next-door neighbor, I wouldn’t say it set me up to smile-and-wave whenever I saw him. I spent the next five years avoiding eye contact on the few occasions I saw him out-and-about. He never spoke to me again. I remained frightened of him.
I still have the desire to know my neighbors. To walk down the street and say hi to “Helen”. To ask “Jimmy” how his daughter likes first grade. To see if “Roger’s” oldest son could feed our cat while we’re out of town. To pick up groceries for “Francis” who is in her nineties and isn’t feeling well.
When I look back at my childhood, there were many chances to see neighbors outside their homes as a first point of contact. In NYC, I’m either in my home or I’m not. I don’t hang out on the sidewalk. I don't have a yard. My mailbox isn’t at the end of my driveway. It’s in my front door. I don’t even have to leave my house to get my mail.
Cut the Noise guy moved out, and I don’t even know who my next-door neighbors are or when they moved in. Or if there have been several people in and out over the years. I never see them.
This pandemic has kept Judah and me closer to home. We go for daily morning walks on the weekdays. We see the same three older women who live on our street. Occasionally we see the husband of one of these women. He stands in the doorway and watches her for a few paces. If it times out just right and we catch his eye, we smile and wave.
We don’t know their names or their stories. Sadly, because germs are the enemy right now, it’s hard to know if doing much more than smiling and waving would feel kind and thoughtful or threatening.
We did come across a raccoon perched right outside a neighbor’s front door a few nights ago. It scared the crap out of me. I have never seen a raccoon in the city. One of the smile-and-wave older ladies was sitting on her front steps as we walked by. I used the raccoon as a talking point. Turns out, she’s heard them scratching around her back door. She said they come from the cemetery down the road.
Since then, we’ve seen her a time or two. We’re back to smiling and waving.
Maybe neighbors aren’t meant to be close friends. Maybe neighbors are simply friendly acquaintances. A familiar face you see on your way to your front door but not someone you know well enough to stop you in your tracks and engage with you in personal conversations.