I read a NYT City Room blog post about anonymous NYC neighbors just after texting my neighbor to make sure I was on the way to buy the right flavor of jelly beans for her man.
I think Anna Sanders, the author of the post, would agree with my ex-husband about neighbors. Even though he was on the board in our limited-equity co-op in the EastVillage, he thought it best to keep neighbors at arm’s length. We didn’t invite them over. We didn’t do impromptu craft projects with their children. He was against my inclination to listen to their stories, bake them bread, and revel in their delightful eccentricities. My Midwestern, Latina, Jewish soul alternates between screaming in protest and weeping over lost opportunities for the both of them.
I’ve heard, but never experienced, that New York City can be a lonely place. When I went two weeks without getting my morning coffee at my habitual deli during my divorce, the man at the counter scolded me on my return with a, “do you have any idea how worried we were?” Throughout my life here, the city has offered me delicious solitude when I want it. More importantly, though, it puts tantalizing stories in my path.
I live now in a quiet neighborhood about 30 minutes from Manhattan. It’s far enough to feature reasonable-ish rent, and close enough to run to Manhattan on the spur of the moment. The neighbor to the right of me was a friend before she moved into the building. She and her husband are dear friends, and we often indulge in board game nights and pottery-painting expeditions. When couchsurfers arrive and I’m not available, this couple lets them in and makes them comfortable. The neighbor to the right even came with me to Michigan to settle my mother’s affairs when she passed on.
The neighbor on the right teams up with me to cook for and look after the 83-year-old to the left. This curmudgeonly fellow will chat with me for hours about Depression-era economics, Benny Goodman, and the state’s flora and fauna. He occasionally butts heads with the Marxist neighbor upstairs, whose wife I taught to crochet, and whose daughter is a complete delight at the bowling alley.
Down the hall from this family live a couple of punk musicians (with day jobs) in their fifties. They have nine cats, and used to feed the stray cats behind the building. Another neighbor on the same floor has taken over that responsibility, and together they look after another handful of octogenarians and nonagenarians in the building… except for the lovely Irish matron who greets me with a pleasant brogue on the way to church and confuses me with her multiple piercings. She remains in firm control of her own care.
A pair of religious grandparents raises their deceased daughter’s young children on my floor, and above them a whitesy-lightsey, New Age couple home schools their young children. Directly above me, one can find a family of elephants who practice the art of Dutch clogging (or is it Riverdance?). Across the air shaft an apartment full of musical theater buffs sing at full voice past midnight, apparently unaware of musical dynamics more subtlethan fff.
This is a partial cast of characters before I leave my building, to say nothing of the diner across the street, the Laundromat, and the Lebanese restaurants. I can’t fathom living in the city without being open and joyous about the array of personalities and experiences around me. I hope Anna Sanders discovers how wonderful the city can be when neighbors are part of it.