At this time of year it gets dark about 4:45 p.m., so when I take my dog for his evening stroll, I get the added benefit of checking out what the neighbors are up to. The warm glow coming from brownstone windows attracts me like a moth to a flame. Whose kids are throwing tantrums, whose Christmas decorations are still up (!), who is eating take-out from La Taqueria while watching Project Runway.
It satisfies the voyeur in me.
I don’t know these people personally, but I feel like I do. They are part of my vast extended family, my community in the truest sense of the word. A barrier is removed that’s more than just physical when there’s nothing between you but a window, rather than, as in the suburbs, a fence, a driveway and a half-acre of grass. Those that live in gated, manicured subdivisions, I think, are missing out on the meaning of community despite the lovely clubhouse, heated pool and tennis courts that sold them in the first place with the hope of “getting to know their neighbors”
I like that my neighbors leave magazines and old books on their stoops. Pick them up as you please then pass them on. Did your kid lose a glove? Go back to where you last saw it and you’ll likely find it waving back at you from the finial of a wrought iron handrail. If your dog is thirsty, walk him by the brownstone where the owner leaves a large bowl of water and hose for refills.
Statesman of Ancient Rome Cicero said, “We were born to unite with our fellow men, and to join in community with the human race.” (And, while I’m at it, the idea of community can even connect us to past generations. Poet and fellow Brooklynite Walt Whitman reminds us, “What is it then between us? / What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us? / Whatever it is, it avails not – distance avails not, and place avails not, I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine.”)There are many neighborhoods like mine around the country fulfilling those aspirations, but nowhere is that truer than on the subway.
During Friday morning’s ride, the conductor is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. At the Nevins Street stop, “Five train pulling in across the platform. Step lively and make your transfer, Brooklyn.”
At Hoyt Street, as if he’s working the crowd at Yankee Stadium, he says, “Hoooyyytt! Hoooyyytt, here!”
Then at Borough Hall, “Hey Brooklyn, wake up! How you doin’ this morning?” It’s not like we can answer him, but regardless, I think to myself. “I’m okay.”
The guy next to me is not okay, apparently. He’s reading the results from his employer’s random drug screening. I know this because, master of deduction that I am, I see the paper he’s holding says in bright red letters across the top of the page, “Substance Toxicology Report.” I can also see that he has failed.
You may be thinking to yourself, why would he be reading such a personal document in public? He doesn’t feel he’s in public, not in a general anonymous sense. He’s in his community – a personal, comfortable space. It’s the same reason the lady across the street from me will walk to the corner coffee shop in her slippers on Sunday morning. These areas are an extension of their private spaces.
So people read a lot of things on the train that would otherwise be classified as personal – bank statements, retribution summaries from lawyers, 401K reports, etc. It’s like an informal state of the union – getting up to date on your community. He looks wealthy, but just got evicted; She received a sizeable inheritance; He is failing every class, except gym. I just got a jury summons. (Note to NYC residents: you’ll regret filling out that benign-looking questionnaire.) People out in the ‘burbs buy People Magazine or watch Entertainment Tonight to catch up on the goings-on (most of which has dubious information at best); I just get on the subway and get the real scoop.